Shelly Mathis remembers one of her library science professors sharing the adage that “the library is the heart of the community.” He then amended it to say that “the community needs to be the heart of the library.”

For Mathis, they’re one and the same. Library science brings together two of her passions: lifelong learning and service to her community.

Mathis graduated in May with her Master of Science in library science in May 2023. She previously earned a Bachelor of Science in Integrated Studies: library science from PennWest Clarion. Both programs are fully online.

The path to her degrees took 10 years, but Mathis takes joy in knowing that she earned them in the way that worked best for her family. As a homeschooling mom, Mathis worked part time at her local library in Grand County, Colorado, while taking classes. It was important to Mathis to be available for her children, so she steadily chipped away at her schooling, the online classes making that possible.

In fact, it was having children that brought her back to the library in the first place. As a youngster, Mathis remembers having a fondness for the library, but being a mom and seeing firsthand the impact libraries have on the community made her want to work at one.

So, she does, while she completes her degree. She said working at a library at the same time she is acquiring knowledge is beneficial, as she is able to apply her education right away.

By the time she graduates, Mathis will have taken 20 library science-specific classes. “I use all of it,” she said.

“I just found it was a perfect fit. I get to teach, and I get to serve,” Mathis said.

She does both, guided by her professor’s lesson about making the community the heart of the library.

In December, she led a snowshoeing class. She said it’s not the type of program you’d expect from a library, but a variety of free programming is offered at all libraries – especially rural libraries – where the library and schools are the center of community life.

Her education has exposed her to other aspects of library science that she may not have considered prior to her education.

PennWest Library Science professor Xiaofeng Li, Ph.D., was so impressed with a paper Mathis had written on an imagined program that she proposed collaborating with Mathis to create a study based on the idea.

“Shelly and I worked together on a paper which got a research competition award at the national (Association for Library and Information Science Education) conference. It is a prestigious award,” Li said.

Mathis is humbled by the recognition and delighted that it opened her eyes to the possibility of research in her field.

“I’m just a lifelong learner,” she said.

While at the conference, other library professionals encouraged her to pursue her Ph.D., but she isn’t certain about her next steps.

In addition to research, Mathis has been investigating library consulting; she could work remotely, and she wouldn’t have to leave the community she so deeply loves.

“I am rooted in this community,” Mathis said.