April 19, 2018

Karen Bersche | Movers & Shakers 2005

Partners in a Great Adventure

As early as junior high school, after she had gone to see The Music Man and came out idolizing Marian, Karen Bersche knew she was destined for librarianship. But she didn’t get around to it until after she got a degree in counseling, started her family, and opened her own daycare center. She has more than made up for lost time since, first as director of the Savanna Public Library, IL, and now as director of communications and Marketing for the Alliance Library System (ALS).

A highly cost-effective director, who brought in more grant funds than she earned over the 13 years she worked there, she also served as executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. There, she learned three great lessons: how to build partnerships that benefit all parties, how to plan a really splashy community event, and how to explain the benefits of libraries in economic terms. She puts all those skills to work at ALS, where her job is "to send out media releases about system initiatives and secure corporate sponsors."

Those bland words disguise the ingenuity and spirit of fun involved in her campaigns. The one that garnered 3000 column inches in 45 newspapers and national library magazines – and the reason Bersche became known as the "pig lady of Illinois" – was "P.I.G.S.: Partners in a Great Library System." When a survey of 2,776 library customers within the 30 counties of ALS revealed that they didn’t know the system already provided the service they most valued, interlibrary loan, Bersche formed a partnership with the Illinois Pork Producers, found a manufacturer to make hundreds of four-foot fiberglass pigs, and talked 18 unsuspecting people into driving around central Illinois to distribute them to member libraries.

Librarians decorated their P.I.G.S. with reading-related slogans (John Swine-beck, PigLit, Pigmalion…) and used Bersche’s PR campaign to explain the benefits of the library system. Afterward, the pigs were sold at auctions and fundraisers. Believe Bersche when she says, "I do like party planning."

In another successful project, "The Great Librarian Adventure" (www.alliancelibrarysystem.com/gla), Bersche used a $102,200 Library Services and Technology Act grant to train Alliance’s librarians to tell people about librarianship as a career. Kitty Pope, ALS executive director, says Bersche "designed the recruitment program, developed an award-winning manual, and talked hundreds of librarians into attending summer camps" where they learned how to present the program. Librarians made 100,000 recruitment contacts during the project. Its success led to an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant of $435,456 for MLS training for 31 students from the Alliance system.

Bersche’s greatest talent may be in building partnerships. She thinks it’s important for librarians because it allows them to compound their impact by pooling different strengths. "I felt so in control in my own library," she says, "but I learned that ‘letting go’ often produces the greatest gain. Here, success means working with groups of talented librarians to create the kernel of an idea and then letting it go into the hands of the member librarians to blossom fully."

She gets her ideas for external partnerships from her contacts outside of libraries, such as the State Board of Rural Partners, of which she is a member, and her ongoing relationships with the business community. Indeed, one of Bersche’s latest ideas, the "Libraries Matter" bracelet, immediately took off (see Front Desk, LJ 3/1/05, p. 15).

Bersche’s work has brought her a legion of fans. Lori Bell, of the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center, says, "There is no one who can market a program, event, or idea better or more creatively than Karen Bersche."


Current Position Director of Communications and Marketing, Alliance Library System, East Peoria, IL

Degree MLS, Northern Illinois University, 1989

Pet Peeve People using "library" when they mean "librarian," as in "That’s a really effective library"