Once about the future, Kirby now heads into past with spirit

Sarah Kirby, librarian in the Huntington City-Township Public Library’s Indiana Room, has a career that began in rocket science and has evolved into library science.
Sarah Kirby, librarian in the Huntington City-Township Public Library’s Indiana Room, has a career that began in rocket science and has evolved into library science. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published April 27, 2017.

Sarah Kirby’s trajectory has taken her from the future to the past.

Once part of a team that sought to explore the outer reaches of space, Kirby now heads a team whose mission is firmly planted on (or in) the ground.

Her new job as librarian in the Huntington City-Township Public Library’s genealogy collection is, she says, the answer to her question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

As a child, she says, the answer was space.

“I was a space cadet when I was 3,” Kirby says. “I named my dog ‘Star.’”

She grew up watching NASA send humans into space, and eventually to the moon, as part of the Apollo program. She watched the fictional space explorations of “Star Trek;” she watched the stars in the skies above her Michigan back yard. She spent her summers at what she calls “geek camps.”

“I can’t remember not being fascinated by space,” she says.

That fascination led her to the University of Michigan, a couple of summer internships at NASA facilities and, after earning a degree in aerospace engineering, a job with NASA in Houston, TX, that lasted 17 years.

“I am a rocket scientist,” she explains.

She wanted to work in propulsion, and she did, spending her first six years working on the orbital maneuvering system for the space shuttle. She was involved in U.S. visits to the Russian space station Mir as the United States and Russia learned to work together in space; she later worked on construction of the International Space Station and helped design the new mission control center.

Then she decided it was time to leave.

“It’s a very stressful job,” she says. “I was in mission control for the Challenger accident.”

Seven crew members died when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart shortly after its 1986 launch.

“It’s a very flat organization. There’s not much up; there’s a lot of out,” she says of NASA. “It was just time to leave.”

Her family was still back in the Midwest and that, too, pulled her away from Houston.

She worked in the Chicago area for a while, first as an e-commerce manager and then as a corporate librarian.

“By that time, I had developed an interest in genealogy,” she says, and had done some work as a professional genealogist.

When she was laid off mid-recession, she started looking for a position working with adults in a public or academic setting. That’s when she came across the job in the Huntington library’s Indiana Room.

It fit both her interest in genealogy and her requirement that her next job be within a reasonable drive of southwest Michigan, where she grew up and where her parents still live. And her background and training in genealogy fit the local library’s needs.

She started her new job on Dec. 5 and took stock of what was there.

The Indiana Room staff has “built a wonderful collection,” she says.

“For the size of the community, it’s huge,” Kirby says. “Huntington needs to realize what a treasure this room is — a diamond beyond pricing.”

It’s also the kind of place Kirby has frequented when researching her own history, which she’s traced back to about the 1670s. From there, she’s been able to connect with some reputable published genealogies to go back even farther.

She’s found some good in her past. She’s third cousin to two of the white soldiers depicted in “Glory,” a movie documenting a unit of African-Americans that fought on the Union side in the Civil War. And that makes her proud.

But then there was the brother of her great-great-grandfather, who was arrested for getting the neighbor lady pregnant — a scandal that some might want to gloss over, but not Kirby.

“I jumped for joy, because most of my family are fine, upstanding, boring people,” she says.

Finding a less-than-upstanding relative can be a bonanza, uncovering a paper trail that might contain names of other relatives, she says. And an unsavory episode in the past can’t be made to go away.

“People are people and you can’t change the past,” she says. “People don’t always behave … Sometimes it’s fun to have a scoundrel.”

Other times — if a relative was involved in an unpleasant historical episode, or if the incident is too recent — the discovery can be disconcerting, she says.

“You have to go in prepared to find things like that,” she says. A white person with Southern roots, she notes, is likely to learn that some ancestors were slave owners.

“We can’t condone their activities, but we have to seek to understand them,” she says.

Kirby wants to give the Indiana Room a greater focus on teaching people how to do genealogy. She plans to add computers for public use and integrate other technology.

“Digitization is happening slowly,” she says.

The photo record for businesses during the 20th Century “could use some beefing up,” she says, and contributions in that area are welcome.

Actually, she’s interested in hearing about any documents relating to Huntington County history that might be a good fit for the Indiana Room collection.

The emphasis at the library is on documents, not things — things are the specialty of the Huntington County Historical Museum.

“Museums like to display things,” she says. “If it has three dimensions and a Huntington connection, it might belong there. If it has two dimensions, it might belong here.”