Highlighting Inspiring Women: She shares her knowledge

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McGregor Public Library Director Michelle Pettit

Throughout March, which is Women’s History Month, the North Iowa Times will publish a series of articles highlighting local women. Whether it's through their careers, hobbies, volunteer efforts or unique personalities, these women have become an inspiration to others. Here is our third article, featuring McGregor Public Library Director Michelle Pettit.


By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

“This was my childhood library. I loved reading as a kid. I remember some of the first books I read. Some are still in the library. C.W. Anderson—they were horse books, with gorgeous drawings. I would check them out over and over again.”

As a child, Michelle Pettit never envisioned her love of reading would one day lead her back to the McGregor Public Library, not to check out a classic book, but to serve as the library’s director.

At one point, she dreamt of becoming a veterinarian, then a writer. Her grandfather thought she would be a good teacher. 

“In college, I took a lot of English classes and art and theater classes,” Michelle said. “It was sort of a liberal arts education. It was open in a way, not pinpointed to a certain profession.”

After graduating from Luther with an English degree, Michelle held several different jobs, including working in the office at the high school in Prairie du Chien, as well as writing, typesetting and performing other tasks at the North Iowa Times.

“I still didn’t have this in mind, but I was still writing and reading a lot,” she said.

Then, in November 1999, the job at the library became available. Combining her love of the community and love of reading, “it just fit,” Michelle noted. “I love the community aspect, seeing people of all ages and seeing what they’re interested in.”

In her nearly 20 years at the library, despite dire warnings that people were turning away from paper and books, toward more digital options, Michelle has found that physical, print books still remain an integral part of the reading experience.

“They’re still here,” she remarked. “There’s just something appealing about holding something in your hands, especially when it’s visual.”

Michelle said she’s enjoyed learning about and reading a variety of books through the library’s patrons. Her tastes range from novelist Iris Murdoch, whose books Michelle deemed more philosophical, to the more psychological work of Carl Jung.

“I like some fantasy, like magic realism, where there are little elements, but it’s not way out there,” she said. “Young adult books have so many stories that are thoughtful; different things are being explored.” 

Michelle also relishes gaining knowledge through others’ questions. 

“Through interaction with the community, I learn whatever it is they’re looking for,” she said. “But, oftentimes, that’s just the start. When you answer one question, sometimes you find you have 10 more.”

That’s particularly true in history, another of Michelle’s loves. The daughter of two history buffs, she grew up watching her parents dig through old newspapers. In a way, she does much the same thing at the library, scouring old editions of the North Iowa Times for information about people, places and events. The town’s historians, like Lena D. Myers, also contributed valuable files over the years. Living sources—people who grew up in the area—are helpful, too.

“I’m glad when I get asked a history question,” Michelle said. “I like the search. It’s sort of like being a history detective. I use all of these ways to find the answer. I’m pleased when I can help someone.”

Michelle also compiles the weekly “Times Past” column in the North Iowa Times, providing readers with a look back at life in McGregor, Marquette and the surrounding area. The history column, she noted, has a history in itself.

“Years ago, there was a ‘Times Past,’” she shared. “It’s like a baton that gets passed to various people through the years.”

Most of the history Michelle includes dates back 25 or 50 years ago, to events living people still remember. She also tries to relate past occurrences to current news. Sometimes that happens without trying.

“Sometimes history has a way of repeating itself,” Michelle quipped. “There’s something about a specific place that has its own character. There are things that recur.”

Fascinated by its more melodramatic writing style and quirky details, Michelle personally prefers older history, from 100 years ago or more. That love doesn’t center on dates or battles, but rather people. And local people at that—Lucy Hobbs Taylor, the first woman to graduate from dental school; trailblazing historian Lucy Salmon; sand artist Andrew Clemens; the Ringling Brothers of circus fame.

“I get excited thinking about these people who did amazing things, and they lived here,” Michelle said. “I like imagining another time.”

Clemens, in particular, stands out. Michelle recalls visiting the McGregor Historical Museum when she was younger, and being so impressed with his sand bottles. Over the years, she’s researched Clemens, even aiding Roy Sucholeiki, the author of “The Sand Art Bottles of Andrew Clemens.” But whereas Sucholeiki focused more on the bottles, she’d like to see more written about Clemens’ life.

“What’s so hard is there’s so little known. There are only two letters: one he wrote about doing the Huntting Mansion bottle and one to his brother on how to sell a bottle,” Michelle explained. “But sometimes mysteries can’t be answered.” 

Salmon, the historian, is another of Michelle’s favorites. Perhaps because the two share a kindred bond over sharing the stories of so-called “ordinary people.” 

“Before her, people’s focus on history was on kings and rulers—‘important people.’ She said, ‘let’s look at grocery receipts, let’s look at ordinary people’s lives,’” Michelle detailed. “She thought outside the box. People didn’t think about history that way.”

Sharing that perspective, especially with younger generations, is important to Michelle.

“These are such great figures. I want [kids] to know about them too,” she said. “History isn’t something that only happened somewhere else. History happened here, too.”

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