One for the books: Told she'd never walk, library dean is avid runner

December 15 2008

Rising at 4 a.m., Alberta Comer runs.

With every mile she strides, she proves doctors wrong. With every step around the Indiana State University campus, she proves that children raised in rural, poverty-stricken areas can succeed.

Indiana State University officials recently tapped Comer to serve as dean of ISU's Cunningham Memorial Library.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be dean," she said, referring to when she started working in libraries years ago.

Libraries weren't part of the world she grew up in eastern Oklahoma, the daughter of Cherokee and Choctaw farmers.

"It's very rural and extremely poor, I mean extremely poor," she said. "There were no local libraries."

Instead, a mobile library rolled into a nearby community once a month.

"My father, it was a great sacrifice on his part, would that take me to the book mobile to check out books," she said.

They would make the six-mile,30-minute drive across the reddish dirt roads where Comer would enter a new world with each visit.

"I can remember going into that book mobile, smelling those books, you know that smell you get in libraries, the feel of books, the look of the books, and just being overwhelmed every time I walked into it," she said. "Every time I walked into it, it was a new experience. I would think, 'I just can't believe how lucky I am to do this.' Then I would check out my books and go home and that was it."

For the only child, not only were books companions, they provided entertainment and education.

"We had no TV. We had no telephone. We had no indoor bathroom," she said. "Growing up in a very, very poor area and my parents being farmers, my only way out was through books."

Comer became involved with her first library in high school when her English teacher decided to establish one for the school.

"She asked me to set it up. We're talking maybe 100 books, maybe if that many," she said. "I got to catalog the books; my cataloging was who was the author and what was the title. I got to tell all the other students how to put them on the shelf. I just found it fascinating. The world of books and that organization of knowledge fascinated me since I was a child going into the bookmobile."

Since then Comer has worked in public, academic and special libraries, including her daughters' Lisa and Ami's school libraries. She's worked in almost every department within a library from checking out books to answering reference questions. She's earned degrees in general studies and library science.

"Libraries are just very special to me," she said. "The ability to read a book and go some place else like when I was child I went to places I didn't even know existed until I read that book."

Now after six years at Indiana State, she oversees not only the research materials for the academic institution, but also the literature and media that provide relaxation and enjoyment.

"I just feel absolutely so honored to be part of the ISU community and family and to be a part of this library," she said. "Better than being dean is just to be a part of this library. This is the best group of people. They will go so far out of their way to make sure the patrons get the help that they need."

In getting that help, Comer said library officials are considering obtaining new technology at the library, including a self-service checkout and a microfilm reader that would allow printing of numerous pages at one time.

"Many libraries are technology driven. The technology drives what they offer," she said. "We want to be the other way around. We want to have things we offer and have technology help us do that. We don't want technology telling us how to serve our customers or our patrons. We want our patrons to tell us what they need and us finding technology or the people power to provide that."

The library recently responded to the request of students for additional hours by staying open until 2 a.m. Sunday through Tuesday. Also, during finals week, the library served a hot breakfast to studying students.

"We have a large number of people come in and use the library," she said. "That's a trend you don't see at other libraries. A lot of people tend to use them at a distance. We've tried to make the library like our motto says -- the campus living room."

Creating a relaxing atmosphere included adding a coffee shop near the entrance and overstuffed chairs throughout the building. The first floor also features an activity area where groups from all over campus hold programs.

"I personally think it's good for students to be with each other, not to be alone in their rooms but to get out and socialize and do their academic research," Comer said. "Students often grow up having the TV on in the background and brothers or sisters talking and that's what they feel comfortable with. Then those who want it very quiet have other floors."

As dedicated as Comer is to books, a new passion has also become part of her life. Four days a week, Comer steps on the treadmill to run between 10 to 13 miles. Her focus and dedication are evident in her running and training for mini-marathons, regardless of outside conditions or physical health.

While on vacation in Alaska two years ago, Comer ran mile after mile as her husband, John, drove slowly alongside her as she ran, a necessary precaution because of bears in the area.

"My husband's driving really slowly along the road so just in case there are any bears I can jump in the car. It started sleeting so I'm running in the sleet and rain going uphill," she said with a laugh about her hardest run.

Comer also had a broken rib as she kept her stride on the road. In the warm car, her husband shook his head.

With the date looming for Bloomington's second mini-marathon, Comer still had the broken rib and had caught pneumonia.

"I had trained for a year," she said. "I asked my doctor ?Am I going to hurt myself or am I going to cause further damage'' He said no."

She ran and beat her previous year's time by a mile a minute.

Comer took up running five years ago to strengthen her bones. In the beginning, she could barely run a block. Then three years ago, she decided to challenge herself and began training for the half marathons.

"I'm not a runner. It's not like I say woo, woo, woo, let me run," she said.

Yet, when she laces up her running shoes and falls into a steady rhythm there is a sense of triumph.

"When I was born I had a lot of problems with my legs. My parents were told I would never walk," she said.

Doctors wanted to try experimental treatment, but her parents said no. Instead, she wore braces on her legs.

"I take great joy in the fact that I can walk and run especially since my parents were told that I couldn't," she said.

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Contact: Alberta Comer, Indiana State University, dean of the Cunningham Memorial Library, at 812-237-2649 or acomer@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or jsicking@indstate.edu

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/434068972_Mj6fN-D.jpg

Cutline: Alberta Comer, new dean of the Cunningham Memorial Library. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/434070168_cLk23-D.jpg

Cutline: Albert Comer runs on the Indiana State University campus. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell

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Indiana State University officials recently tapped Comer to serve as dean of ISU's Cunningham Memorial Library.

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