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Mason City library board to consider proposal after dozens plead to keep North Iowa's genealogy gem

MASON CITY | At around 4 p.m. Tuesday, the second-floor boardroom was overflowing with people for the Mason City Public Library Board of Trustees meeting.

That's because dozens of people were there to support the North Central Iowa Genealogical Society (NICIGS) and its collection, which has been housed in the library since 1979.

The room was so crowded before Tuesday's 4:15 p.m. library board meeting that city council members Paul Adams and John Lee, along with several others, had to watch from the doorway. City Administrator Aaron Burnett also attended the meeting, sitting alongside library board members.

In a news release Monday, Library Director Mary Markwalter stated NCIGS could stay in the library if the group forfeited ownership of its collection to the library and moved it into the Mason City Public Library Integrated Library System.

At Tuesday's meeting, President Mark Suby offered a counter proposal with several conditions. One included a name change of the genealogy library to the "Genealogy and History Center." Another included a $1,200 yearly payment to the library for the room, since library officials feel the space could be rented out for a fee. Suby also wanted the collection to remain under control of the NCIGS, and to replace the shelving removed from the room.

The majority of people at Tuesday's meeting supported Suby and the NCIGS. One attendee stated she believed the library's proposal was reasonable, which drew a negative response from many in the crowd.

Many others, however, spoke in support of the genealogy library, citing its importance in helping them research family history. They also said the room was one of the best genealogical libraries in the state.

That included Rod Hungerford, vice president of NCIGS. Hungerford volunteers much of his time in the genealogy room, helping people research family history and other topics.

"If you're gonna sell the city in a positive light, you don't get rid of the things people wanna see," he told the library board, later adding: "If you get rid of gems, pretty soon, all you're gonna have is plastic."

Several NCIGS members, along with other library groups, criticized the board for how they've handled discussions about the library's future. That included Coni Samsel, president of the Friends of the Library, a nonprofit advocacy group for the library.

"I've been to a couple of these meetings, and I've never heard the word 'compromise,'" Samsel said.

Only four library board members were present at Tuesday's meeting. Board President John Henry, along with members Dave Moore and Mark Dodd, did not attend.

Board members Dennis Reidel and Carrie Berg declined to comment on the proposal Suby and the NCIGS submitted Tuesday, adding they and other board members needed time to review it. The library board's next meeting is 4:15 p.m. Sept. 18.

Berg did elaborate on comments she made during the meeting, when she said she personally believed NCIGS should be self-sustaining and continue to try to find a new location.

"I just believe clubs and societies need to be independent," Berg told the Globe Gazette after the meeting. "There are a lot of clubs in this town that don't require public support for housing, internet, maintenance and housekeeping, and so I just feel they should be independent."

Board members did unanimously pass an extension Tuesday, allowing NCIGS and its collection to remain in place through Sept. 30.

Emotions ran high for some at Tuesday's meeting. One man started to cry when telling the board how Hungerford helped him find unknown ancestors with Civil War ties. Another did the same when describing the power of actually being able to hold original records and letters from family members.

Along with Tuesday's support, more than half a dozen letters to the editor have been sent to the Globe Gazette in support of the genealogy library staying in place. Markwalter, the library director, also received a number of similar emails in support of the society. 

Multiple NCIGS members attended the city council meeting later that night, and a few urged council members to help keep the genealogy library in its current spot. 

Pam Little of Mason City argued Tuesday that the collection was too important to move or concede to the library.

"Mason City, Iowa, and North Iowa has an amazing history," Little said. "This collection communicates with you in a very real, tangible, get-in-your-gut sort of way."

Letters to the editor on North Central Iowa Genealogical Society

Contact Steve at 641-421-0527 or on Twitter @Steve_Bohnel.

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