When the North Riverside Public Library District board voted to hire Bob Lifka as the library’s new director in February of 2001, it made a leap of faith.
Lifka’s only experience with libraries at that time was as a patron. For most of his adult life, he was a newspaper man.
But in the 13 years since he was hired, the board’s faith has been rewarded. Lifka provided the library board with the stability it craved, and he led the organization as it grew into its new building, which opened in 1999.
At the end of June, the 62-year-old Lifka will retire as library director, though he said he’s not necessarily done working.
“I’m calling it retirement only in the sense that I don’t have anything lined up,” said Lifka with his characteristic low-key sense of humor.
Lifka worked for 15 years as managing editor of the Cicero-Berwyn Life before a change in ownership around the turn of the century resulted in uncertainty about his future there. Many longtime Life staffers were casualties in the change.
As Lifka pondered his future with the Life, the North Riverside Library District board was searching for someone who could come in and manage the organization. With a sparkling new facility funded through a tax referendum, the board was having trouble finding the right person to lead it.
When they decided to hire Lifka, he became the library’s third director in less than a year.
“We wanted someone to manage the group,” said Kay Subaitis, who was vice president of the board at the time and retains that post today. “Several board members were acquainted with him. He had to learn a lot but not the management part of it.”
Longtime library board President Annette Corgiat said the board’s message to Lifka was to manage the organization and leave the library science to the staff.
“It was a growing spurt for all of us,” said Corgiat. “It was all so new, but I think we worked well together.”
When Lifka, a longtime Brookfield resident, slipped into the director’s chair in 1999, the technological developments that would change the way patrons used libraries to access information were already beginning to happen.
One of the first things to go was the old card catalog, replaced by computer terminals.
“I sold the old card catalogs on eBay shortly after I got here,” said Lifka. “I anticipated that there would be more resistance than we actually had.”
The big thing at the North Riverside Library in 2001, Lifka said, was movies.
“Libraries started lending out VHS tapes and were learning about a thing called DVDs coming down the road,” Lifka said. “Now we’re talking about e-books and streaming video.”
Lifka said after 13 years on the job, it’s time for someone else to step into his shoes.
“The job has evolved through the years, and I’m slowing down,” he said. “I can’t handle the 12-hour days like I used to. It’s time for someone with different ideas, someone who can move the library to the next level.”
The library board is just beginning to plan a search process to replace Lifka. Last week they met with Alice Calabrese, a library consultant who is also president of the River Forest Public Library, to brainstorm strategies.
“We need to refresh everyone’s knowledge of how to do this,” said Corgiat.
But the goal is to have someone hired in order to provide a smooth transition as Lifka eases out.