On September 2, 1980, Burke Shiffler walked into the Central Library to start his new job in the reference department.
His boss, Shirley Shisler, met him and showed him an entire room of reference books.
“She gave me some slips of paper and said, ‘Go around the room and learn what’s in these books.’”
Shiffler learned what was in those books and a lot more. For exactly 40 years, he provided answers to homework questions and settled bar bets. He read through the Des Moines Register, scanned for obituary records, and dug into the history of Des Moines. This past Wednesday, he came to the Central Library for the last time as an employee, fulfilling a long career of service at the Des Moines Public Library.
Shiffler is perhaps best known as the person that maintains the library’s Des Moines Register index. He has been indexing since 1986, when the Des Moines Public Library began its transition to digital indexes and card catalogs.
The index contains dates, headlines, authors, and subjects of each obituary, article, and column in the Des Moines Register. Shiffler combs through each section of each Register column and story, recording the date, title, author, subject, section, and page. The index allows people to identify and locate stories for use in potential research.
A lot has changed in libraries since 1980. When Shiffler started, people called the library’s reference desk at all hours to get information. Shiffler says they settled a lot of bar bets and answered a lot of spelling and homework questions. “Every other day we were telling someone who was currently on the Supreme Court.”
These days, people are more likely to find that info via a quick search on the internet, but Shiffler still sees a pervasive need for information in the community. “We are much more a social service. Information is one of our most important jobs still, but it’s gone from ‘What are the names of the Supreme Court justices?’ to relaying information about social resources in the community.”
Shiffler says he’ll miss the patrons he worked with, many of whom he’s had fun conversations with over the years. “But the number one thing I’ll miss is the staff,” he says. “There are a lot of friendly faces here; I’ve made a lot of friends over the years.”
Over his forty years at the library, Burke has also been known as a great colleague and friend. His co-workers say they’ll miss him, both for the work he does and for moments most people don’t see. Below is a sample of some of the kind words his co-workers have for him:
Susan A. Woody, Director
Burke Shiffler personifies all that is great about libraries. His wealth of knowledge and his ability to communicate information is astounding. His calm and open demeanor are reassuring to both staff and customers alike. Burke is an example of librarianship at its best and we’ll miss his humor and vast knowledge of Des Moines and its residents.
Alicia, reference librarian
I have long admired Burke for his excellent librarian skills, intelligence, and sense of humor. His ability to transition from a reference librarian using books and journals to websites and databases has been seamless and exemplary. As a reference librarian, Burke is special. He embraces the concept of being a lifelong learner with modesty and dedication, while encouraging others to incorporate their individuality and interests into their own style of librarianship. And although Burke will claim to be just a librarian with old-fashioned inclinations, he has never been afraid to challenge library standards and pursue new ventures. Burke is truly a “librarian’s librarian."
Mary, children's librarian
This term might be outdated but Burke is a true gentleman. He always opens doors, comes to your aid at the first hint of trouble, and conducts himself with a high level of professionalism. That is not to say that he doesn’t have an ornery side, but that makes him all that more loveable. One of my favorite memories is working on Monday nights where there were three of us over a certain age who would walk to the parking garage singing oldies at the top of our lungs. "Born to be Wild” comes to mind. He will leave a huge hole at work but will forever remain a legend.
Luann, library clerk
Burke has been a beacon of light in the library for many years. I have so enjoyed the stories we have shared about both American history and US Presidential history, as well as Iowa and Des Moines stories from "back in the day." We have similar stories about our childhood and teen years which were very much alike! He is my co-worker, yes, but a friend who has been a comfort, given me much support at the library, a jokester, lunch pal, and all around "Iowa Nice Guy" - that IS Burke! I was fortunate to have learned a lot about our library system from him through the years; much of it was explaining how our process of indexing and digitizing The Des Moines Register works. He can find any article, photo, or obituary and is "spot on" in doing so. I shall miss him.
Lois, reference librarian
Burke is such a phenomenal and genuine person!! Even though I haven't worked with him very long, I will always treasure his sense of humor, extensive knowledge of ALL things Iowa related, and his never ceasing compassion for our library patrons. When I first started working here, I asked Burke to tell me what he felt was the most important thing I should know about staffing the information desk. He said something like, "Just pretend that you're the person on the other side of that desk and think about how you would like to be treated if you were asking for similar assistance."
Shari, cataloging clerk
I know Burke not only from the Library but also the YMCA! He is definitely a “creature of habit” – he only worked out on one machine – and never changed it up! Every day Burke pokes his head into the technical services and I say “Hey, how are you?” He always responds with "SUPERTY DUPER!” It's only something he would dream up! If ever the candy machine was out of milk chocolate Milky Ways, he would remind me know because his treat for the week was always one of those on Fridays!
Meredith, administrative assistant
I basically consider Burke to be my work dad. He’s known me for most of my adult years, and has always cared about what’s happening in my life. 😊
Last Modified January 20, 2021