For Mike Wirt, the time has arrived to start a new chapter.
Wirt began work at the Spokane County Library District in 1972 as a librarian, then was named assistant director in 1976. From 1979 to present, he has served as executive director, guiding the district through a myriad of changes, from technological transitions to the growth in a branch network that spans from Cheney to Otis Orchards.
Wirt’s retirement will be official on Feb. 24 of next year.
“We’re going to lose a lot when Mike retires,” said Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard. “He’s extremely respected in the community and is acknowledged as someone with a great deal of integrity.”
The search for Wirt’s replacement has already begun with the SCLD Board of Trustees narrowing the field of candidates to three. The interview process will continue with on-site visits in early December. An announcement on the new director is anticipated at the Dec. 20 board meeting.
Wirt, 64, announced last fall that retirement was on the horizon. He moved to Spokane in 1972 with his wife, Barb, after taking a job with SCLD as an institutional services librarian. Born and raised in Michigan, Wirt had never visited the Northwest until arriving here from his home state.
“I was 25 years old and thought it would be cool to move to Washington,” Wirt said. “It was the Northwest.”
Wirt recalls being “a little bit of a nerd” in high school, working as the editor of the campus newspaper and school yearbook. He read a lot and maintained stellar grades, moving on to Michigan State University after graduation.
“I was still in Michigan, but it was 350 miles from my hometown,” Wirt said.
Wirt earned his undergraduate degree in psychology at MSU and later enrolled at his alma mater’s cross-state rival, the University of Michigan, where he studied library science. He worked at the Michigan graduate school and eventually left Ann Arbor with a master’s in the field where he would spend his entire career.
At grad school, Wirt took a class in computer programming that he recalls representing “the height of technology” at the time. Students utilized a key punch machine to map out a rudimentary pattern on cards that were fed into a computer. The computer would then produce a printout based on the program.
“Back then computers took up an entire room,” Wirt said.
Things have changed a bit on the library front since those days, beginning with SCLD’s conversion to an automated system for materials circulation in 1981. Prior to the innovation, library patrons used paper slips, not library cards, to check out books. When the book was due, the slip would be checked against a transaction card in the district office. If an item was overdue, a notice would be generated on a manual typewriter and mailed out to the resident.
The automated system meant distributing library cards to patrons throughout the district and adding bar codes to thousands of items at each branch. Wirt remembers the change making the inventory easier to manage and creating a shuffle in district staffing – while some employees were let go because of the switch from a manual system, others were brought on to help with maintaining the new technology.
“We were one of the first districts in the state to have an automated system,” Wirt said.
These days, Kindles and similar devices have transformed the modern library into an arena that goes beyond the printed page. SCLD has adjusted to the change, providing more books for e-readers each year.
During his tenure, Wirt has led a number of successful ballot initiatives, including a levy lid lift in 1983 that funded a major renovation of the Spokane Valley Library. A capital facilities bond in 1988 earned the required supermajority and financed construction of the Argonne and Otis Orchards branches as well as an expansion of the North Spokane site.
As for the transition, Wirt said there are no plans for an overlapping phase. The new director will start on March 1, a week after Wirt has left for Hawaii.
“I intend to kind of stay away,” Wirt said.
Wirt did say he may consider returning in a reduced role as a volunteer to help with the district’s next building campaign. In 2010, the board introduced a 20-year capital facilities plan that included a $50.8 million construction bond. No ballot date has been set for the initiative which includes a new Valley Library as a top priority.
Wirt said retirement will consist of time with family and friends as well as hobbies like geneology and yardwork. He would also like to help build houses as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.
“I’m going to chill,” Wirt said. “I’m also going to be able to read more.”