Finding a home in libraries

April 25, 2023

Portrait of Mary Bernsen outside in fall leaves.

Mary Boone Bernsen (’66, MSLS ’73) traveled the world as a librarian. Now she is giving back to the library that launched her career.

There is no place like home. And for Mary Boone Bernsen (’66, MSLS ’73), there is no home like libraries. Her work as a librarian—which has taken Bernsen around the world—began in her hometown of Chapel Hill.

As a teenager, Bernsen lived across the street from the director of the Chapel Hill Public Library and around the corner from a librarian at Wilson Library, which was then Carolina’s main library.

Those connections led to her first jobs the summer after her Chapel Hill High School graduation. She spent her mornings as an assistant in the public library and her afternoons in Wilson Library as a student worker in the reference division. “I have a very clear memory of being a 17-year-old girl, working in the public library, looking down the hallway into the librarian’s office, thinking I’d like to have a job like that someday,” says Bernsen. “Sixteen years later, I had that job.”

While a Carolina undergraduate, Bernsen spent much of her time at Wilson Library, which she describes as her “home base” on campus. “That’s where I loved to work, study and meet my friends,” she says. “It just seemed natural for me to go to the library.” As a student library worker, she learned how to use the library and to do complex research. Bernsen gained so much knowledge that by the time she began graduate studies at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science, she says laughingly that she could have taught some of the reference classes.

That knowledge was useful in a career in which she traveled the globe. After receiving her MSLS, Bernsen spent four years working for the U.S. Army Library program in Germany, including a year as deputy director of the European-wide program. She returned home to direct the Chapel Hill Public Library for seven years, then spent 20 years in the Foreign Service as a library and information resource officer with the U.S. Information Agency and the Department of State.

Bernsen’s work included overseeing the 175 libraries and information centers in embassies and consulates around the world, as well as the State Department Library, which is the oldest federal government library. Thomas Jefferson, as the nation’s first Secretary of State, established it in 1789. Bernsen says that one of her career highlights was briefing then-Secretary of State Colin Powell on the library program. When Bernsen was promoted into the Senior Foreign Service, she became one of the highest-ranking librarians in the executive branch of the federal government.

Serving as the state librarian of North Carolina was the final feather in her career cap. During her tenure, she partnered with the University Libraries to establish the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.

Proud of this legacy, Bernsen has created a library endowment to support UNC-Chapel Hill graduate assistants who work at the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center. She says her motivation stems from her desire to give back and look forward. “I fully know and understand how valuable my work at the library was to me,” she says. “I’m naturally a librarian.” She continues to give back to the University Libraries by serving on the board of directors of the Friends of the Library at Carolina because, she says, “It’s my home on campus.”

Bernsen cherishes her student worker days as well as the University Libraries itself. “Not everyone is going to make a career out of librarianship by being a student assistant, but everyone can benefit from working in the library,” she says. “I recognize the value that the University Libraries has in the lives of not just students, but also faculty and everyone in the academic community.”