Reached by phone last week, Ellen Mark was walking along the beach in Santa Monica with the black labrador she adopted a few months ago.
Such is the life of a retired librarian — for now, at least.
Mark plans to pursue other interests, but she recently left her position as elementary library coordinator at Franklin Elementary School. She worked in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district for more than seven years, a stint that included highlights and challenges as she worked to provide children with knowledge and a love of reading that she believes will help them the rest of their lives.
“It was a pretty demanding job,” she said. “It was time to move on from that.”
Weekly library visits from classrooms in all grades at Franklin made for a significant workload, and it was hard to cram into short sessions research instruction as well as time to check materials in and out.
Mark was working in SMMUSD as it attempted to modernize its facilities and technological equipment with hundreds of millions of dollars in bond money. She said it’s likely that her successor will put additional emphasis on technology, but she doesn’t want physical books to fall by the wayside.
“I had one mother say, ‘I got rid of all my books [at home]; we just have Kindle,’” Mark said. “I know her heart is in the right place, and she understands the value of reading. … But the tactile interaction — it’s a different process of seeing words on a page versus on a screen.”
Mark tried to weigh in on which books were appropriate for specific children based on their reading levels and maturity.
“Teachers in different grades had different approaches for what was OK for a child,” she said. “Some would say, ‘This child can read anything.’ But ‘Harry Potter’ for a 6-year-old? No. But I couldn’t always speak up.”
What made the job more difficult at times, Mark said, was the lack of alignment between the elementary library coordinators and district leadership. Mark said an overall coordinator position was eliminated, and she was not typically invited to staff meetings or included on teacher email chains.
“We kind of all got tired of the disconnect and lack of communication between all of us and the district,” she said. “But we got their attention and got more help. We really did achieve more of a coordinated feeling between us and the district.”
Originally from Massachusetts, Mark studied English and journalism at Boston University and worked as a magazine writer and photographer. Later, she started her own business preparing films for subtitling and foreign distribution.
But her loves of books and children never faded. After getting married, she studied early childhood, started a family day care and worked with infants, toddlers and preschoolers. She also got involved in libraries, working at several different sites over the years, including Santa Monica Public Library.
Mark returned to graduate school through San Jose State and earned her master’s degree in library science 2008, completing some coursework online and some at a site in Fullerton. She felt she was finally heading in the right professional direction, but there was one problem: her timing, at least as far as the economy was concerned.
“There was this hiring freeze everywhere,” she said. “They were laying off librarians. It was not a good time to be starting out.”
Mark then saw a posting for a librarian position at Franklin, with which she was familiar because her daughter had gone there. And while getting up to speed was difficult in the new job, she found satisfaction in her duties.
Mark said she believes assisting elementary school children is essential because reading support fades as they move on to secondary education.
“I’m grateful to the district and the board for valuing libraries the way they do,” she said. “I felt I was valued in my position by parents and students. When I left, every student in the school wrote me a letter. We really help contribute to higher reading scores and get them learning to value books and reading.”
Mark said she still wants to work or volunteer as a librarian and keep up her skills in the field. She is currently taking a writing class through Coursera and is also planning to travel next month with her husband, a film editor who recently took on a project in Prague.