A bad reaction to a medical procedure robbed Anoka County Library director Marlene Moulton Janssen of her hearing. That didn't stop her from crusading on behalf of the printed page, and now a new procedure has brought back music to her ears.
The public library that Marlene Moulton Janssen frequented while growing up in the tiny central Minnesota community of Rush City was a converted jail. With prison bars lining the windows, the library was no larger than a standard office room.
Yet Moulton Janssen never considered the library that some might have found claustrophobic library to be confining. She found it liberating.
"I took out 'The Poky Little Puppy,' one of the original Golden Books, from that library," Moulton Janssen recalled. "I'm a farm girl and the library opened worlds I didn't know existed."
As director of the Anoka County Library system, Moulton Janssen is still seeking worlds for others to discover. But in today's fast-changing media world, where the printed page is fading and a pocket book has become something you read on your cell phone, there are no textbook answers for the challenges facing her.
Still, Moulton Janssen is used to challenges.
This is a woman who was forced to reinvent her life after becoming deaf as an adult. After that experience, dealing with new reading formats, budget constraints and library board members sounds easy.
"I think when you've experienced challenges as Marlene has, you realize what's really important in life," said Anoka County Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah.
Moulton Janssen, 58, learned about making adjustments early in life. Her father, educated at Macalester College, owned a modest dairy farm in Rush City. But after injuring his back, he switched to hog and beef farming, thinking he wouldn't have to use his back as much for lifting.
"It was hard work," said Moulton Janssen, who has three younger brothers. "Rush City does not have the wonderful, black soil that you find in other areas of Minnesota.
"But we're Scandinavians through and through. The work was there and you did it. It wasn't easy, but you did it."
Her mother was a teacher and both parents emphasized the virtues of reading. Young Marlene was an easy sell.
"I was a voracious reader," she said. "By the time I finished grade school, I'd read every book in the school library. By the sixth grade, I'd read many of the children's classics. I was reading my father's Zane Grey westerns. Then science fiction, fantasies and mysteries.
"I've always had eclectic tastes. Books were so much a part of my life."
A shattering experience
So were ear infections. She also had tonsillitis as child. By the time she was in high school, her hearing loss was noticeable.
She graduated from St. Cloud State and earned a master's degree in library science at the University of Minnesota, and she started her career as a school librarian.
She got married. She and her husband, Jerry, a now-retired investigator with the Chisago County Sheriff's Office, had a son, David. Everything was falling into place.
Then one day Moulton Janssen fell. She tumbled head-first down a flight of stairs, shattering an arm. She would feel the effect of that fall long after her arm had healed.
While being given an anesthetic before surgery, Moulton Janssen suffered an adverse reaction. She suffered from vertigo. And she lost her hearing.
"You lose your hearing and it changes the lives of everyone around you," she said.
Moulton Janssen learned to read lips, and her family worked diligently to adapt. But she no longer felt she could work at a school if she couldn't hear the students.
Eventually, she became director of the seven-county Metropolitan Library Service Agency (MELSA). She got the director's job for the Anoka County Library system in 2005, in part, through a strong recommendation from Jim Kordiak, who is president of MELSA's board and is a longtime Anoka County commissioner.
"In the years that Marlene was at MELSA, she really cleaned up the operation," Kordiak said. "She was amazing.
"Marlene might ask if she could stand in front of you to read your lips. Or she might ask you to clarify something," Kordiak said. "But I don't think anybody who has gotten to know her has seen her as impaired."
Kordiak says he excused himself from having anything to do with Moulton Janssen's selection by Anoka County; her credentials spoke for themselves, he said.
It was another county commissioner who helped change Moulton Janssen's life in a different way.
Sivarajah's son, Sonjay, was born deaf. Sonjay was fitted with hearing aids, but they offered little benefit. At age 3, the boy had cochlear implant surgery. Cochlear implants are small electronic devices. The external portion sits behind the ear. A second portion is surgically placed beneath the skin.
After the operation, Sonjay heard sound for the first time. Now a high school junior in the Centennial School District, he recently became a member of the National Honor Society and plays goalie on the school soccer team, his mother reports.
"After one of Marlene's grandchildren was born, she asked me if I would be willing to sit down and meet with her," Sivarajah recalled. "She said it had nothing to do with work." She wanted to talk about cochlear implants.
"She was literally in tears. She said, 'I want to be able to share in everything with my grandchild.'
"She wanted to be able to hear her grandchild."
No instant miracles
Sivarajah called the cochlear implants "a miracle for us" but warned Moulton Janssen not to expect miracles right away. In Sonjay's case, he was hearing sounds for the first time, and it terrified him. It took six weeks before he would wear the implants for any length of time and then, one day, he left the implants on.
Moulton Janssen had grown up hearing sounds -- but not the sounds she heard after receiving her cochlear implant at the University of Minnesota in 2008.
She loved classical music and wanted to hear violins and flutes again. But after waiting a month to heal and using her implants for the first time, "I didn't enjoy what I heard," she said.
"Be patient," Sivarajah told her. "It will get better."
The cochlear implants send sound vibrations to the brain, which the brain then interprets. Moulton Janssen would have to train her brain to function in a new way -- and it was going to take time.
Today, Moulton Janssen hears virtually everything. She prefers being able to see the person speaking to her, but she doesn't think twice about handing out her phone numbers.
In her job, she oversees a system that includes eight county libraries and 123 employees. That system is changing as quickly as an Internet page can be restored.
"The nostalgic view of libraries is important," Moulton Janssen said. And she still expects libraries to deal primarily with books for the next five or 10 years, at least.
"Growing up, I wanted my library to give me an insight into how our literature can speak to our daily lives," she said. "But I always liked computers, too."
She grew up with library cards that showed who had reserved a book and when. She once checked out a book and was startled to see a library card that showed that her father had once reserved the same volume.
Those days are gone. But the purpose of the library remains the same.
"As we identify with communities, libraries are one of the glues that hold those communities together," she said.
She sees independent bookstores going the way of the dinosaur and reads how the big chains are also struggling, if not disappearing or merging.
But "people love to read," Moulton Janssen said. "That hasn't changed."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419