It was junior Chai Bolte’s first shift at the Mills library reference desk. Michael Beller, reference and access services librarian, said to her, “You’re going to be great. If you need anything, I’m in that office.” She remembered that he pointed and then gave her a high-five, low-five, and a fist-bump.
“When he leaves for the day, he gives all the student workers secret handshakes that we don’t know,” said senior Shelby Phillips, laughing. “He makes working really fun.”
If you’ve ever been into the library, you’ve noticed Michael Beller. He is unimposing, slim, in a bright patterned shirt, close-cropped brown hair and a face that’s all eyes. He moves his arms all the time, helping to emphasize his speech. The man has style, but also an eagerness to grin at you.
“He’s a really great dresser,” said Daina Dickman, reference librarian. “When I met him at my interview, I knew we would get along.”
Beller was born in October 1967 – “The hangover of love,” said Belle – to parents working through their graduate studies. He grew up moving from Boston to Oregon to California to New York. He followed his parents to a lot of libraries. It was early exposure to what would eventually become his career and his passion.
According to Beller, much of his formal education went not so smoothly. He was a high school dropout and made several attempts at community college before enrolling at the University of Oregon.
“They couldn’t keep me out,” Beller said. “But you could tell they wanted to.”
He took the History of England at U of O and found a passion for John Stowe’s Survey of London. Beller gets almost flustered when he talks about the book, excited by his edition with extra indexes and cross-references. A friend of Beller’s father and curator of rare books sent him the 1603
edition and Beller was amazed that he was holding something created before the country he lived in had been created.
He went to the special collections librarian at U of O and asked about the Survey, and was convinced to become a volunteer in the department.
“He could tell immediately that I didn’t know what I was doing,” Beller said. “And I worked there with no pay for two years. Two years! But that was what made it clear that I was going to be a librarian.”
After he graduated from U of O, he worked at Stanford University’s library and worked for his degree in Information and Library Sciences from San Jose State University.
After eight years at Stanford, he came to Mills in 2002.
Mills attracted him because he spent much of his youth in Berkeley and had many friends who had graduated from here. He knew the type of student Mills attracted and admired them.
“Students at Stanford are fantastic,” he said, “but Mills students are activists. They want to change the world and Mills makes them able to change the world. I think most of the teachers here would agree that they’re here instead of somewhere else because of the kind of students they get to be around.”
Beller’s goal is to help each student make their research produce the most well-rounded and extensive final products as possible.
“I might not know their subject very well,” Michael said, “but I know the processes of research and my job is to show you how to put your subject through the processes.
There are so many avenues of information that the general population becomes numb to it. It’s the librarian’s job to stay totally open and aware of all the ways of being informed.”
“He has complete availability,” said Michele Buchman, library circulation supervisor. “No matter what he’s doing, if someone wants his help, he’s totally focused on them.”
As a child, Beller’s favorite book was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. To this day, he says it’s the greatest book in the world.
“The main character gets to appreciate learning through these adventures,” he said. “The idea that learning opens up your life, allows you to appreciate more of what’s around you, means so much to me.”
Michael has clearly made a home for himself at the Mills library. His office is packed with stuff: bookcases filled with journals, CDs, records, vintage toys, an “information” sign. Christmas lights surround his window. On the desk are piles of papers and books and funny pencils. Early 80s power pop band 20/20 plays quietly from his computer speakers, on one of his many Pandora playlists.
He’s openly proud of his place here, too. Because Mills is so close to UC Berkeley and Stanford, F.W. Olin Library frequently gets compared to these research institutions with multi-million dollar budgets just for maintaining their collections.
Unfortunately, Mills doesn’t have those resources but Beller said, “For a college its size, Mills has an extraordinarily large collection and amazing resources for research.”
As the advisor for the yearbook, professor of an English class focused in research, guide to the library for all the English 1 classes, and holding fairly constant office hours, Beller helps students have access to the best research possible.
“Michael is incredibly intelligent,” agreed Carol Jarvis, associate library director. “But what makes him a really great reference librarian is his patience. He’ll never make someone feel like he’s on a different level than they are, he’ll just help you get to that level.”
More than his job, however, Beller is someone you’d want to be friends with.
He loves pets. As a child he had a cat named Towel – “Because he was soft,” he said – and, although he doesn’t have any of his own, he borrows his friend’s dogs and children.
Beller estimated that he has 4,000 to 5,000 records at home.
“I really like music,” he said. “I’m a record junkie.”
On most Fridays, Beller DJs in a bar in San Francisco and he said it’s just an excuse to play whatever music he wants to for six hours on a regular basis. Dickman said she and a friend went to see him play last semester and she found him just as dedicated in this job as he is at Mills.
“He got up on the bar and danced with the audience members. It was so great!” She said.
Dickman also praised Beller as a great friend to have. “He’s picked me up at the San Francisco airport at midnight,” she said. “Not many coworkers would do that.”
He clearly cares a lot about people, but also about the college and it’s students.
Everyone that works in the library said, “Mills is so lucky to have him,” but Beller holds firm that he is the lucky one to be at Mills.
“I would want to come to my job every day anyway,” he said, “but because of the students, I don’t want to go home.”
“I have never met a librarian who is so dedicated,” said Dickman. “I watch him work and I think, that’s what I want to be.”