CHAMPAIGN — Not many people can say they’ve stayed at the same job for 50 years.
It’s a level of commitment that you don’t see everywhere, but it’s certainly something that defines Essie Harris, manager of the Champaign Public Library's Douglass Branch.
For decades, Harris has been a helping hand for researchers and students, a mentor for young people and as much the face of the Douglass Branch as anybody.
Given her lifelong dedication to the library and her community, the Champaign City Council will vote Tuesday on designating the portion of Fifth Street between Tremont and Grove streets that runs alongside the library as Honorary Essie Harris Way.
“She’s such an asset to the community,” said nominating council member Greg Stock. “Generations of kids have come and gone while she’s been there. We don’t have a lot of 50-year employees. I think we’re good at recognizing people when they’re gone, but we don’t do a good enough job of doing that while they’re here. That’s why I nominated her.”
Harris said a lot has changed since she first started at the main Champaign library, though she’s always kept helping people at the heart of her mission.
“I’m a people person,” Harris said. “I love seeing the children grow and become their own people, and it’s just such a good feeling to see them advance to the next stage in their life.”
Getting a street named after her isn’t the only honor Harris has had over the past several years. Library Director Donna Pittman said she nominated Harris for the Illinois Library Association’s 2018 Hugh C. Atkinson Memorial Award in large part because of the dedication she has shown the library.
“She’s pretty much worked at every department,” Pittman said. “It’s the combination of her long service in the library and the branch and the fact she’s been a member of that neighborhood her whole life that makes this nomination easy for me.”
Harris said what’s most important for her and the library is to foster a safe environment for the many children who frequent it in the Douglass Park neighborhood.
“You always wonder where they are and what they’re doing,” Harris said. “You ask them about going back to school or what they’re doing these days. It’s good to see the ones that come back to see me. The branch is much more than a library; it’s a community. This is the kids’ safe haven. This is somewhere they can go and see a familiar face and know they can get the help they need.”