A tale of two bookworms

Married couple eye retirement after a lifetime working Chico’s libraries

Joe and Brenda Crotts don’t look like your stereotypical librarians. They also love the outdoors (in addition to books).

Joe and Brenda Crotts don’t look like your stereotypical librarians. They also love the outdoors (in addition to books).

Photo by Robert Speer

Brenda Crotts will be recognized by the Butte County Board of Supervisors for her 40-plus years of service during the panel’s Feb. 13 meeting.

Every now and then after a long day at work, Joe Crotts will turn to his wife, Brenda, and say, “No ‘L’ word today, OK?” Otherwise, as he explained with a chuckle during a recent interview in their charming home near Bidwell Park, they will talk about libraries till the cows come home.

If there’s such a thing as a power couple among librarians, Joe and Brenda Crotts fit the bill. Both have been in library leadership roles for more than 40 years, she at the Butte County Library, he at Chico State’s Meriam Library. Between them, they probably know more about running libraries than anyone in the North State.

She’s now the manager of the Chico branch library, and he’s head of Meriam’s Access Services (which includes circulation, interlibrary loans, government documents and bibliography in several areas of science and mathematics).

They’ve also been married during those 40-plus years, having met at Louisiana State University when they were students. Joe grew up in North Carolina and still has a honey-flavored drawl. Brenda is originally from New York state, but her family moved to the South when she was 10. They came to Chico in early November 1974, when Joe accepted a job at Chico State as its maps librarian. Brenda came with him and shortly afterward got a job with the Butte County Library as a part-time reference librarian. Her career took off from there and eventually included being manager of both the Oroville and Paradise branches (simultaneously!) before taking the helm in Chico in 2015.

Now they are about to retire—on the same day, Jan. 31. “We both turned 70 recently,” Joe said, “and it seemed like a good time to go.”

They will be taking with them vast amounts of institutional knowledge. Computers and other technologies have changed library science in myriad ways, and Joe and Brenda have been instrumental in implementing those changes in Chico’s libraries.

Remember card catalogues? Those massive wooden filing cabinets filled with 3-by-5 cards? When the Crottses began their careers, Brenda said, 60 percent of library staffs’ work was typing up the cards for newly arrived books. “It was terribly tedious,” she said.

Beginning in the late 1980s, librarians began using computers to catalogue materials, and with the advent of search capabilities the process became infinitely easier for librarians and patrons alike.

The most recent innovation at the Chico library is a new system for checking books out and in. All the materials in the library are now equipped with radio frequency identification codes, a feature that allows patrons to check them out simply by placing them on an electronic wireless reader.

Returning them is just as easy: The patron places them one by one on a conveyor belt in one of two receiving windows (one inside the library, the other outside). After they are checked in, they are automatically diverted into one of five bins organized by type of book (adult fiction, adult nonfiction, kids, etc.) for ease of reshelving.

The new system saves even more of the staffs’ time, Brenda said, time that is now available for managing the library’s many programs—the list is now up to about 30, including classes in computer coding and video recording, after-school tutoring in the STEM subjects, and of course the many popular children’s programs such as Storytime.

If your mental image of a librarian is of a stodgy, sun-deprived geek, you haven’t met the Crottses. Not only are they lovers of the outdoors who often can be found hiking in Upper Park, they are colorful, even eccentric style mavens. Joe is known for his humorous outfits and, especially, his large collection of goofy and/or dramatic eyeglasses. The day of our interview, he was wearing a pair that resembled tiny portholes. Not to be outdone, Brenda wore a pair of cat-eye glasses.

So far they have made no specific plans for retirement. “We’ve got to get ourselves retired first,” Joe explained.

They’ll have more time to tend to their backyard, which is huge—“like a park,” Brenda said—and travel to Sacramento to visit the Crocker Art Museum, where they are members. They also hope to see more theater, to hear more speakers, and generally to enjoy lives that aren’t constrained by work demands.

Brenda has run 31 marathons and is contemplating running one more, “to make it an even number,” she said.

It seems unlikely, however, that they will avoid libraries entirely. One suspects that now and then they will field questions from their former colleagues—not enough to trigger a “no ‘L’ word” day, perhaps, but, well, they just know so much about Chico’s libraries.