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f/8 and Be There
Fred Lynch

Mary Kempe, longtime librarian

Posted Wednesday, October 26, 2016, at 12:00 AM

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Oct. 28, 1960 Southeast Missourian

A new book in the Public Library stock, with others on the counter before her, is examined by Miss Mary Kempe, new Cape Girardeau librarian. She succeeds Miss Ross L. Crigler, who resigned and plans a rest for a time. Miss Kempe, reference librarian, said she had consented to take the position at least for the time being depending on how the work load develops without a staff replacement. R.E.L. Lamkin Jr., president of the Cape Girardeau Public Library Board, said the board had asked Miss Kempe to take the position on a temporary basis, but likely permanently if the appointment is satisfactory from the viewpoint of both. (G.D. Fronabarger photo)

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Feb. 19, 1984 Southeast Missourian

Miss Mary Kempe recently was honored for 40 years of service to the Cape Girardeau Public Library. Miss Kempe still spends an hour a day at her home, indexing the Southeast Missourian for the reference department. (Fred Lynch photo)

A lifetime in the library

By Mary L. Spell, Family Living Editor

"Silence please" signs are about all gone from libraries and Miss Mary Kempe is glad. She's also glad that librarians now are expected to have happy faces.

Miss Kempe, who has served the Cape Girardeau Public Library for 40 years, talked this week about some positive changes she has seen come about in libraries since she traveled the 750 miles by train from Cape Girardeau to Bristol, Virginia to start her first library job in 1935 at Sullins College.

"I always did hate to have to tiptoe around in the library, but back then it was required," Kempe said. "I think it's wonderful that children can go to libraries today and feel comfortable and relaxed and attend films and workshops. The library is a friendly place now, and it's an atmosphere that is fun to be in.

"Used to, you just tiptoed in, whispered to the person at the desk that you wanted a book, checked it out and left. It was about like a tomb," Miss Kempe said with smiling eyes.

This past week, Miss Kempe was honored, along with other members of the library staff, for her 40 years of "continuous and devoted public service." She functioned as the reference librarian until her official retirement in 1971. She still spends time each day indexing the Southeast Missourian for the library. She began the index in 1968 at the request of the director of the library, Martha Maxwell. Her indexing has caught the attention of many statewide, and the annual bound copy has been used as an example for a number of other institutions. The index has been termed "invaluable" by many who use it daily to look up information printed in the paper daily.

Each day the paper arrives, Miss Kempe starts with the front page and marks the local articles of interest, going through to the end, indexing by subject for the year-by-year bound index. Sometimes she works in the living room or the dining room, wherever the light is better. Her work tools are the paper, index cards and her typewriter which was presented to her at her retirement.

"I've tried to give this indexing to someone else, but Martha (Maxwell) says no one else wants it. Of course, if a regular staff person did it, they'd have to have two working on it. You can't miss a day or you get behind. Most people like to take a day off or go on vacations, but I never do, so I can work on it year around."

Miss Kempe was born in 1906 in the same house on North Ellis that she still shares with her twin sister, Miss Paula Kempe. When Miss Mary Kempe received the news from Miss Sadie Kent, Southeast Missouri State College librarian, that she could go to Library School at Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, on a scholarship, her career choice seemed a good one. Today, after almost 50 years in the library profession, she still agrees that she chose wisely.

"I've been very happy to see the development of our library here," Miss Kempe said. "The new building is so bright and lovely and the circulation is growing at a fast pace. So many more people use the library now than in the past."

Miss Kempe always enjoyed working in the reference department of the library. She has, according to Miss Maxwell, knowledge and patience that are required for such a position. Miss Kempe also was responsible for getting the exhibits ready for the display box at the library for many years.

"The reference area was a safe place to be," Miss Kempe said. "When you help people find information they need, they're happy and pleased with you. In reference, you can work looking up things and filing and it's calm.

"I wouldn't want to be on the circulation desk where you have to listen to complaints on fines, etc. It's better to be back in the stacks."

Since Miss Kempe's official retirement, many of the young people working at the library now have never seen her. To them, she is "the ghost employee." They know she is still a staff member and they see the work she does. It comes in regularly. However, for those who visited the library on a regular basis in the 1940's, 50's, 60's and early 70's, Miss Kempe is very real--a part of the Cape Girardeau Public Library.

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