CHAMPAIGN — Growing up on the north side of Champaign in the 1950s and '60s, Essie Harris rarely got a chance to visit the library.
While she fit the profile of a library-goer as the daughter of a mother who made sure her kids read and kept up on their studies, the downtown library was miles away, and that made it difficult to access.
"We didn't have a car, so you had to walk or catch a bus," she said.
During her 49 years as a librarian, starting in the circulation department and then on the Bookmobile, Harris has worked to make the Champaign Public Library's resources more accessible to all. For the last 15 years, she's managed the library's Douglass Branch, which opened in 1997 in the middle of the neighborhood where she's spent her entire life.
She jump-started a book club that centers around literature about African-Americans, mentors young librarians and leads a 100-hour practicum for University of Illinois students. She empowers her employees to take bold steps, like Amanda Raklovits' idea to bring in games to bring in more kids.
"She lets you try things," Raklovits said.
As she approaches her 50th year on the job, Harris has recently become the recipient of the Illinois Library Association's 2018 Hugh C. Atkinson Memorial Award, which honors "sustained activity and contributions having a lasting impact on librarianship."
"She made it home for a lot of people," said Jordan Neal, a librarian at the main branch who nominated Harris for the award. "You come into the library for resources. It's not just about books; it's not just about learning. Sometimes, you can come to the library for a DVD; you can come for programs.
"She made it more open and accessible. She's the personification of access to your library. She's kind of the liaison that says, 'Come on in, we're not going to bite you.'"
Harris' entry into the library world was a happy accident. In 1969, she was a student at Parkland College in need of a job.
After several rejections — many of which came before she even filled out an application — she returned to the unemployment office in frustration.
"I said, 'Don't send me out to any more places where they see this black face and they tell me that the job is filled,'" Harris said. "We were laughing about it and he said, 'Oh, I've got this great opening for you,' and he sent me to the library."
Half a century later, Harris is what Neal called a "pillar of the community," although Harris said she enjoys blending into the background at the library.
Regular visitors, many of whom call her "Miss Essie," would likely disagree. Raklovits said that Harris will regularly build relationships with kids that last into their adulthood, guiding and mentoring them along the way.
"People come in and they know her, they trust, and they see her," Raklovits said. "They know it's a place where they're going to get help, and I think a lot of that is her. She makes it a place where people know they can come."
During her first several years at the Douglass Branch, Harris saw a need in the community for increased access to computers. In 2010, under her guidance, the library received grants that outfitted the Douglass Branch with 25 of them, which fill a large section of the small building.
"A lot of the kids here in the community don't have access to computers at home, so this is a good way for kids when they need to do homework or just to help them stay in the game with kids who do have access to computers and all of these things that they don't have access to," she said. "You want everybody to kind of be on a level playing field so they have the same opportunities as other kids."
In her 49 years on the job, Harris has seen plenty of changes. But one aspect of the job hasn't changed, and it's the one that drives her above all else.
"Helping people get to where they need to be is my thing," Harris said. "I like to see kids aspire to do well, because I encourage them all the time and tell them, 'There is a big world outside Champaign-Urbana, and you can do anything you set your mind to.'"