Students entering the library often receive one of Michael Beller’s signature gestures: a big thumbs-up and a wide smile. This familiar sight will soon be missed by Mills students.
After 15 years at Mills, Head of Reference & Access Services Librarian Beller will be leaving Mills on April 14 to be the next community library manager for the Ygnacio Valley Library.
Beller completed his bachelor’s in history at the University of Oregon, and he obtained a master’s in library and information science at San Jose State. He was hired at an auction house right after he graduated from U of O where he gained experience handling rare books. There, he met Janice Braun, Mills’ current library director & Special Collections Librarian Milhaud Archivist, and director of the Center for the Book. She moved to Mills soon after he began at the auction house, and in 2002 he ended up at Mills as well.
Beller’s love for books started in his childhood, following his mother around the Berkeley Library, playing games with his sister in the stacks. It was years later that one book put him on his path to librarianship.
In college, Beller’s favorite professor assigned the book “John Stow’s Survey of London” to the class. Beller wanted to buy the 1911 edition, same as the one the class used. A week after he started school again, he received a package from Peter Howard, the former owner of Serendipity Books, who knew Beller’s dad. Beller opened it to reveal the 1603 edition.
The professor suggested that Beller talk to one of the librarians about how to work with books. He spent the next two years volunteering at the University of Oregon’s special collections.
“Working for the library at that moment, I knew I also wanted to become a librarian and I wanted to work in that environment,” Beller said. “At the time, I was more interested in rare books, or cataloguing. I hadn’t come around to public service, and seeing what good public service does.”
Now that Beller has years of experience, community has become central to his approach to his job. As a reference librarian, his job is to assist students in searching for information they need.
“That’s part of what the reference desk here at Mills has taught me,” Beller said. “That as much as I love all aspects of librarianship, working with the public and supporting the community, that’s really what my true love is.”
This sense of community is one of the most important reasons why Beller has loved working at Mills.
“It took coming here and working for Mills to really see how much in the world needs to be changed, and come up with the solid belief that it’s going to be Mills people who are going to do those changes,” Beller said.
Carol Jarvis, a former associate library director, was on the hiring committee when Michael interviewed.
“Meeting him was a positive experience at first, but it certainly grows,” Jarvis said. “He’s not the retiring, quiet librarian. He’s so friendly and he makes students feel like the library is a place where they’re welcome and should and must be.”
Current and former student library employees Eve Gottwald and Viv Gregan agree.
“He makes it a point to make everyone feel like they need to be in the library,” Gottwald said. “It’ll be weird [not having him at Mills]. He’s such a library fixture. Alums come in and ask ‘Is Michael here?'”
Gregan notes Beller’s thoughtful attention to his job, whether he was giving an impromptu tour of the library to prospective students, training student workers or listening to stories of how he has impacted others’ lives.
“There are many Mills spaces [where] if you just bring up ‘Michael Beller,’ the room explodes,” Gregan said. “I’ll miss that presence. I’ll miss that positive force that I know is working at Mills and for Mills.”
For Beller, his enthusiasm is one of the ways he supports students, alongside his extensive knowledge, but he hasn’t always been so outgoing. When he first arrived at Mills, Beller said he had stage fright and was scared of public speaking. As a reference librarian, he had to give presentations on how to best utilize the resources that the library offers. After his first couple of presentations, he had an experience of trying to answer a student’s question while he tripped on a chair and fell.
“Everyone laughed,” Beller said. “After that I didn’t have much stage fright, because I’d already had everything happen that could go wrong and I was still able to get out everything that I wanted to get out and people were still going to remember it, so at that point I suddenly realized, I found my voice.”
Through the years Beller has risen from one position to another position,and now is head of the reference librarians. Even as his commute increased slowly as he moved farther and farther away from Mills, Beller’s dedication continued.
“I would wake up in the mornings wanting to go to work because that gave meaning to me,” Beller said.
On occasion, he visits the weekend monitors, and checks in with the student circulation workers with his unique handshake.
Beller’s well-known fashion sense, Bowtie Tuesdays, his high fives, his enthusiastic thumbs up when he checks student ID’s, are all part of his welcoming persona.
Beller said he thought he would retire here, and joked that he thought he would eventually die in his office, buried under a stack of papers and end up haunting Mills. So although his decision to leave came as a shock to many people on campus, it was much deliberated on before he accepted the Contra Costa position. He said he came to the decision by evaluating his role.
“I’d always looked at where I could have the most impact,” Beller said. “It’s broader, the impact a public library has. I’m surprised that it’s now, but it’s too interesting and too good to turn down.”
Karen Paulsen, Beller’s wife, sees him looking for new challenges.
“He’s looking for things he hasn’t done before, or done in a long time,” Paulsen said. However, “he’s going to miss Mills terribly.”
Beller hopes that his legacy will be that students who were formerly uncomfortable in a library now feel safe and comfortable using the library and the librarians.
“I have loved working at Mills, and I hope I’ve made a positive impact while I’ve been here,” Beller said.
A farewell reception will be held in Beller’s honor on Thursday, April 13 from 4-5:30 p.m. in the Heller Rare Book Room.