By Alan R. Madeleine
Who she is: Tamara Sochacka is the Director of the Hamtramck Public Library. Since she was so wonderfully thorough in her responses, in spite of not having much time to get them back to us, why don’t we let her fill you in on the rest?
How about if we get some all-important background on you first? Would I be correct in guessing that, like many of us who love to read, you perhaps have fond memories of libraries as a child? Where did you grow up, and what libraries did you frequent? Where did you go to high school and college, and what was your undergraduate background?
Sochacka: I was born in Poznan, Poland, where both of my parents worked in a performing arts theater. I was 2 years old when we moved to Zielona Gora where my father (then) worked as a theater director. When I was 6, we moved again – this time to Gdansk, the most beautiful city in the world, situated on the coast of Baltic Sea. There, I attended elementary school, high school and college (University of Gdansk).
At first, I decided to major in Polish Literature, but after three years of study I switched to Education and Psychology. I was working on my Masters Degree (in Psychology) when Martial Law was declared by Poland’s communist regime, and all schools were closed.
At that time I was already very much involved in the Polish opposition movement. As a student, I was a member of the Independent Student Association (an organization that worked closely with the Solidarity Labor Union), and I was also an active member of a political party (which was illegal under the communist “law”), the Confederacy for an Independent Poland (KPN).
When Martial Law was declared on December 13, 1981, all eyes were on Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyard, the place where – in the summer of 1980 – the Solidarity Movement was born. So, while thousands of Solidarity leaders and activists had been arrested and interned by the communists, the shipyard workers had organized a protest – an occupation strike — against Jaruzelski’s regime. I joined that strike as a student representative.
On December 16 the Shipyard was attacked by the military militia (ZOMO). We were instructed that, in such a case, we should remain hidden on the unfinished ships, and we did hide — for a day. But it was a harsh, very cold and snowy winter; we had neither electricity, nor water in our hiding place, and ZOMO were already everywhere within the shipyard and (also circling) above it, in helicopters. They broadcast messages, promising that those who would surrender would be free to go home. After a night on (that) ship, we gave in.
I remember being led, under the (watch of men with) machine guns, to the same building where the August Agreements were signed 16 months earlier, and where Solidarity was born. There, we were kept for hours, standing, facing the walls, and waiting for interrogations.
A few days later, in prison, I heard a fragment of the speech by the President of the United States, who appealed to the world for support for, and solidarity with, the Polish people. This was the first time I thought about one day going to America. Just for a visit — I never planned, nor wished, to leave Poland for good.
After I was released from prison, I wanted to continue my studies at the University of Gdansk. I already had a Bachelors Degree in Education, and was working on my Masters in Psychology. But since I was now listed as an enemy of the regime, I was deprived of my student status — unless I would agree to sign a so-called “declaration of loyalty” to the rulers of communist Poland. Of course I did not agree, and therefore lost my student rights.
For over a year I tried to find some meaningful work in Poland, but that proved impossible too. So, in October 1982, I decided to leave Poland – just for a while, I thought.
I went to France first and, after a year in Paris, then moved to West Berlin. I believed that communism, in Poland, would not last much longer, and that as soon as it crashed, I would go back.
In the meantime, however, I had to decide on my status in Germany. Even though I loved Berlin, I still did not want to ask for political asylum there. In truth, I was still hoping I’d be able to return to Poland. Maybe not as soon as I would wish, but certainly within a few years.
I applied for refugee status in the United States. I did receive an invitation for an interview, and by the end of 1985 I had arrived – as a political refugee – in North Carolina. There, in a small village called Saluda, and later in Hendersonville, I stayed for about half a year altogether, working in a bakery while learning English. In 1986, I moved to Michigan,and, in 1987, to Hamtramck specifically, and I have lived here ever since.
Now, as to my childhood: Despite the fact that life was never easy in a communist country, I had a very happy childhood. My father taught me how to read when I was about 5, and as far back as I can remember, we have always had a huge home library, with all kinds of books – those published in communist Poland (there, they were all censored) as well as those coming from elsewhere abroad, particularly France, where the most prestigious Polish language publishing house (Instytut Literacki) was located in Maison Laffitte, near Paris.
Both my father and my mother loved books, and we all loved to read together when my sister and I were young, or to all read the same book at the same time, and then share our thoughts, feelings, and comments. The last book that I had so shared with my father, before he passed away in January 2007, was “Memory and Identity” by John Paul II.
When I was a student at the University of Gdansk, I traveled quite a few times to Germany and France, and then I smuggled those illegal publications back into Poland! During the late 1970s, and then especially in 1980 and 1981 (before Martial Law), our communist leaders wanted, as a sign of “peaceful co-existence”, to show their “openness” to the West — in order to get more loans from the West—so it was easier for the Poles to travel abroad than before.
In our home library, we also have a great variety of books, magazines and brochures that had been published in Poland, but “underground.” Some of those samizdat volumes are very precious to me.
Among my favorite libraries (there are many) are the Biblioteque Nationale and Biblioteque Ste. Genevieve in Paris, and the Freie Universitat Bibliothek in Berlin. In communist Poland, my favorite library was located in the house of Professor Alfred Rachalski, who organized the first underground public library in Gdansk!
I love books, cats, and trees — we have a beautiful, huge, tulip tree in our backyard in Hamtramck. I decided to buy this house because of that tree. We’ve also planted five more trees in our backyard since then.
I have loved books and trees since I was a kid, but my admiration of cats is quite new. I realized how much I love those fluffy, intelligent, most-beautiful creatures when I turned 50. Regretfully, I have lost half a century, not even knowing what a great thing I was missing out on
Many people aren’t aware of this, but to be hired in most libraries in Michigan, except maybe for those in very small rural communities, one must obtain a masters degree in Library Science. There are only two universities in Michigan that offer the program, U. of M. and Wayne State (Western Michigan’s program was phased out in, I believe, the 1980s). Did your degree come from in-state, or did you get it elsewhere?
Yes, my MLIS degree is from WSU. In the late 90s it was a great program, and even though I have worked full-time while studying at WSU’s LIS (Library and Information Science) Department, I enjoyed it a lot – and learned a lot too.
Did you always plan to be a librarian, or (like many of us who ended up with the degree – I have one too) did you start down other paths first, and then decide on this one later?
No, I never planned to be a professional librarian (though I did work and volunteer in several libraries while still in Europe) and, as with many librarians, I have quite an eclectic background: Psychology, Education, Political Science (my first degree from WSU is a Political Science degree; I graduated, Summa Cum Laude, in 1989 and continued my postgraduate studies there), Anthropology and Journalism.
As with many other important events in my life, this adventure with librarianship was, sort of, an accident. I had been working at the time as a lecturer of Polish Language, History, and Culture at – among other places – Macomb Community College, and also as a teacher in the Henryk Sienkiewicz Polish Language School, when I read the announcement in The Citizen: the local library was looking for a children’s librarian. I decided to give it a try!
What are some of the challenges of the Director’s position, and also of serving this demographic? We’re all aware of Hamtramck’s cultural diversity – do you have any particulars in your mission statement regarding these issues?
Yes, diversity is a fact here, and I love it. Our mission statement, our goals and objectives, as well as our short- and long-term planning, all reflect services to diverse cultures.
Ever since I started working here, I always wanted to bring Hamtramck’s people together — people of different national origins, religions, professional backgrounds, personal experiences, and so on. And an American public library is such a clever, ingenious institution, that it makes such a “mixing” much easier than, for instance, it would’ve been at any of the libraries I remember from Europe.
And by the way, I don’t believe the library must always be quiet; people must interact sometimes.
Latchkey kids, in other words those who have nowhere else to go after school while their parents are at work, can pose serious challenges. Do you have specific policies about that situation?
The library has 300 to 500 visitors each day, on average. Many of them are kids that come right after school. To make this a productive and entertaining time for them, we have initiated tutoring programs, games (like chess, checkers, and others), the screening of select movies, arts and craft programs, readings, and other activities that might make the library experience a pleasant one for these kids. At times, there are children who interfere with those activities. We do our best to control them, but if nothing works, then we have no choice but call the parents and send them home.
On a related note, having used the library myself, I know that sometimes there can be some rowdy teens who like to push the boundaries by playing their music loud enough to hear through their headphones, or talking, or using bad language, or the like. What can you do to protect the rights of everyone in these situations? I assume the police, being as responsive as they usually are in this town, are always willing to come and help if the situation gets a bit too extreme?
Most of the children comply with the policies. Kids who break the rules lose some, or most, of their library privileges. Certainly, if on the rare occasion violent or abusive situations do arise, we absolutely will call the Police, to restore order and make sure that rights and safety of rest of the children are protected.
On a more positive note, you’ve become known for booking a lot of interesting programming over the years. Talk a bit about that – how you decide who to pursue, what criteria you use in choosing who to try to book, what steps you have to generally go through to get people here successfully, how it’s budgeted for, and so on.
We try, within our means, to provide a variety of programs for our patrons. Many programs are ongoing, like the English as a Second Language classes, tutoring classes, the Math Kangaroo International Competition, story time for children, arts and crafts for children, Summer Reading programs (which are linked with entertainers, magic shows, singers, naturalists who bring various animals to the library, etc.), travelogues, authors, illustrators, art exhibits, movie screenings, celebrations of national events or local happenings, poetry readings, piano concerts; celebrations of Black History Month, Polish Heritage Month, and Women’s Month; dancing groups, financial seminars, health seminars and various city functions – to mention a few.
Most of the programs are financed with funds we budget for the programs, some are financed by the Friends of the Hamtramck Library and some are sponsored by private individuals or businesses.
Speaking of budget, it must certainly be a major challenge, in a district like this one, to maintain a high level of services. Does Hamtramck have a library board? Who decides the budget? Who does your collection development? How many professional librarians do you have on staff?
When I became Library Director, I was the only librarian, along with one full-time staff member and two part-time library aides. For many years, I was the only full-time librarian, with one of the Board Members, Jerzy Dabrowski (who is also a degreed librarian) helping out part-time. I had to recruit many volunteers to provide a full spectrum of library services to Hamtramck residents.
With the help of Mr. Woody (from Woody Pontiac) and People’s State Bank, we established a computer lab in the library. Currently, Konrad Maziarz is in the process of getting his librarian’s license, and is working in that capacity.
Collection development has been mainly my responsibility. Over the years, I have been able to increase the library staff to 14 employees, plus ESL teachers and tutors.
The Library Budget is proposed by me, then discussed and adopted by the Library Board. Under the new charter, the Library is governed by five members of the Library Board. With the cooperation, and under the direction, of the dedicated members of the Board, we have been able to modernize the library with high-tech equipment, including 35 computers (25 for public use); we have also maintained a fully-computerized catalog system, which gives us access to books from all libraries within the TLN library network.
We’ve secured audio-visual equipment, provided our patrons with access to electronic books, audio books, and foreign language books; maintained a historical collection of digitized photos, and even produced some documentary films!
The library operates on a budget of approximately $400,000.00. Since all of the funds come from city property taxes (per the library millage), as well as from state aid, county penal fines, grants and private donations, it is up to the Library Board to manage this budget wisely, providing, too, for wages, and all the other expected and unexpected expenditures.
The installation of new lights, a new furnace, new windows, and new doors in the library was covered by a grant. Installation of a new roof and the purchase of the adjacent lot west of the library were paid for by funds set aside from the library budget each year for capital expenditures.
Anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t covered? Any special events coming up that you’d like to tout?
Our next large project is to build a Library West Wing on the land we purchased two years ago. This project would also include upgrades to the code of the current library building.
The reason for the need to expand is a lack of space. We have no more room to install additional computers (after six more will be installed in the next few weeks); likewise, we need more room for our secured archives, meeting rooms for classes and tutoring sessions, and meetings of the community groups; we have no more storage room, nor space in the main hall, to accommodate special events.
Thanks so much for taking the time out of what I know must certainly be a very busy schedule.
I would like to take this opportunity and thank the Review Newspaper, for providing space each week for the listing of library events!
April 17, 2011 at 12:13 pm
I enjoyed reading this fascinating story. I am Polish born and am always looking for news about Polish people, women stories in particular. Thank you for sharing your story. You are incredible.
Detroit, Mi. 48212