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Friday, 26 February 2016 09:59

Retired librarian keeps the pages turning with Milton mystery group

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Ethel Himmel cultivated her love of mystery books when she spent time in airports and hotel rooms in her trips as a library consultant. Himmel and her husband co-own the consulting firm and Himmel, a retired librarian, is known as Milton’s mystery buff for her longtime leadership of a mystery book club. She looks for variety and award-winners in the books that the group discusses each month. Ethel Himmel cultivated her love of mystery books when she spent time in airports and hotel rooms in her trips as a library consultant. Himmel and her husband co-own the consulting firm and Himmel, a retired librarian, is known as Milton’s mystery buff for her longtime leadership of a mystery book club. She looks for variety and award-winners in the books that the group discusses each month. Terry Mayer

MESSENGER -- A lifelong reader, Ethel Himmel now shares her love of books with fellow mystery buffs through monthly meetings of the Mystery Book Club she began at the Milton Public Library.

Since 2002, participants have pored over more than 145 mysteries ranging from popular favorites like Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” to classics like Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile,” and authors that have included Michael Crichton, Dan Brown and Tony Hillerman.

The former deputy director of the La Crosse Public Library, Himmel is a semiretired library consultant at Himmel and Wilson, a firm she founded more than 20 years ago with her husband, Bill Wilson, who is a former Wisconsin state librarian.

The couple live in a historic Milton house filled with period Arts and Crafts style furnishings.

Turn the page on this slice of life with Himmel:

Why mysteries?

When I was at the public library in La Crosse, I had a friend who read mysteries pretty much exclusively. She liked them because they were a morality play kind of thing -- the bad guy always gets caught in the end. That’s not the way mysteries are anymore, of course, but there are lots of different things to like -- the characters, the setting, the puzzle of who really did it.

With consulting work, you spend a lot of time in hotels and airports. So I really started reading mysteries a lot, and I got to the point where whenever we were in a new state, I would march up to the reference desk at the local library and say, “Tell me about your mystery writers in Louisiana” or wherever. And generally the reference librarian could come up with a name that often I’d never heard of. So that was kind of fodder for what I was reading.

Member of the club

Normally we have between eight and 12 people most of the time. I think the smallest group we had one time was six, and I think the largest was 15. Now that was kind of funny -- it was Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” There were people who normally didn’t come, but were taken by the book and wanted to hear what others had to say about it.

There are two people who have been participating since 2002. One of them drives up from Janesville. It’s predominantly a group of women, but there’s often one or two men.

We do a book discussion 11 months of the year and in December, we party.

Picking a good read

The process is I identify 12 to 15 books each year, and the library staff checks to see if there are plenty of copies available in the state that she could get in for participants.

There’s a tremendous variety of crime fiction, and I don’t particularly like some types as much as I like others, so I go for prize winners. Most of the time, I look at the Edgars, the Shamus, the Anthonys, the Macavitys and the Agathas. I look at those award winners each year, and then I try to find the first book in the series. It’s not just what I stumbled across. I do try to give the participants a good variety of different kinds of crime fiction.

General consensus

Many years ago I knew someone who was active in the American Library Association and who fought for intellectual freedom. Her mindset was if you don’t have something in your library that offends everybody, then you’re not doing your job. There has to be this wide variety.

So I’m always surprised when every once in a while, we get something everybody likes. One of the authors that they liked is Bruce Alexander, whose books are set in Victorian England. So there’s the dark setting, there are the personal relationships, the history -- it’s the beginning period for developing the London bobbies. So it’s not as though everybody likes it for the same reason.

Personal favorite

That changes. Right now I like Louise Penny, a Canadian author. Her protagonist is Inspector Gamache, and he’s a very interesting character. She (Penny) has this place called Three Pines, which is in Quebec, just over the Vermont line. It doesn’t really exist, but Three Pines is one of those places I’d like to go to.

Mystery writing

I wrote a mystery when I was a 12- or 13-year-old. I remember including so much detail, like the carving in the doors. I don’t think I’ve got the filter as a writer. I’m much more interested in reading what others have written.

He reads, she reads

Bill reads more biographies. He’s talked once or twice about doing a biography book group, but he’s a library board president and he’s up to here in fundraising for the expansion of the library.

I can’t tell you what he’s reading now because it’s on his iPhone. He likes to read electronically. I don’t like to do that, but he does. Sorry, I just don’t get it.

Consultation work

We’ve worked in 45 states plus the District of Columbia. We worked with libraries doing planning, developing new programs, meeting needs of changing populations, figuring out where their priorities are. 

The federal government has a program that gives libraries financial support through their state library agencies. Of course, if the federal government gives you money, they require an evaluation. Every five years, there’s this nationwide evaluation of how state library agencies spend their money. So in that framework, we would contract with the state library agency to do an evaluation of how their grant money was spent. We’d end up going to libraries and doing focus groups with local folks, asking about things.

Library life support

I remember a couple of libraries out in the middle of nowhere in Nevada that I drove in to do my focus group and I couldn’t find the library. All of the pickup trucks were parked outside of this one little building. So I went in and asked where the library was, and a waitress person said, “Oh, she’s sitting right over there. They’ll be along.” And (the librarian) was sitting there chatting. The town was dying and the library was the one institution that was left, so people were very supportive in terms of using it, but there wasn’t any money there, financial support for the library.

The ones that are sad like that, pretty much their collections are donations. A lot of their workers are not paid, they’re volunteers.

More than books

The world is changing a lot in terms of the impact of technology and how libraries have changed to meet the needs of their communities. For a while, there were county board people we’d run into who’d say, “Why do we need libraries? The Internet is going to do all this.” That was a real challenge for a while in some places. I think we’ve gotten beyond that in terms of people realizing the Internet is not everything. Some places don’t have good Internet reception in the area and maybe that’s the only place local people can go to get Internet access. Beyond the technology, though, libraries are again becoming community gathering places, meeting places for a variety of programs.

A place to call home

When we decided to do full-time consulting for a living, we were living in Madison, flying out of O’Hare. Being sure you were back at O’Hare to catch the last flight to Madison was just tedious sometimes.

We came down to Milton to look at another house and saw this one. It was designed by an architect contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was built for the granddaughter of the founder of the community, so it’s historic Milton. We walked through the place and thought, “It’s way too big, but isn’t it lovely?” One thing led to another, and we moved in in September of 1998. And we’ve reached the point now where we can’t buy any more furniture unless something goes.

The thought of the mailbox out front with Himmel and Wilson, library consultants on it -- I could just see all the overdue books coming back in our mailbox. So we have a post office box we use for the mail surveys and other business kinds of things.

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