A Transformative Presence

By John Halverson

The view from her office is stunning. Two massive floor-to-ceiling windows look out on Geneva Lake. From there she can watch seasons change and people strolling the Shore Path awash in lake views and daydreams.

Anyone else would be so entranced by the view to the point of distraction. Not Emily Kornak, director of the Lake Geneva Public Library.

“I’m so busy I don’t even have a chance to enjoy it,” Kornak says with a smile. She speaks with a quick, upbeat lilt. The speed of her cadence is in line with the pace at which she works.

Yes, Kornak has heard people say she has the best office in Lake Geneva because of its view. But she would rather give up that view and give it to library patrons.

Her vision, and that of the library board, is to expand the library’s already expansive lake views that make it so attractive. The board is currently contemplating a number of upgrades which include repurposing the director’s office into a place where others can admire the view.

Those changes would be in line with what James Dresser had in mind when he designed the library in 1954. Dresser was a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Prairie style architecture emphasized bringing the outside in as the library’s panoramic windows do. The hope is to incorporate that philosophy with today’s needs — which is actually akin to the form-follows-function mantra Wright and his disciples championed.

But it’s a far cry from 1894 when Mary Sturges deeded her small cottage and the land around it to the city to be used as a library and park in perpetuity.

Today, people surf the internet for information and order books via websites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble — conveniences Mary Sturges couldn’t begin to imagine. And reference desks, once staples of libraries, are nearly as useless as card catalogs.


Adapting to new times, however, is the key to the future, explains Kornak. “My vision for the future of libraries keeps changing as I see more and more innovation from libraries around the country and around the world,” she says.

Since Kornak took over as director three years ago, the library has increased programming and expanded its network with other libraries to provide access to more than a million items, which can be delivered nearly as quickly as they can by Amazon.

People can also check out items from the library that have nothing to do with books: Wi-Fi hotspots, cake pans, portable CD and DVD players, a metal detector, cassette converter, iPad with preloaded movies, Playaway audiobooks (and audio cables to connect them in your car), thumb pianos, a mini steel drum, ukuleles, bocce ball sets, American Girl dolls and birdwatching kits.

“It’s not just about technology,” Kornak says, “it’s also about community, connections, and working and learning and the space where all of this can take place.”

The library was one of the first to eliminate fines for most overdue materials and has added Sunday hours in the winter and spring. The vision is for the library to evolve into a community gathering place.

Making the library more popular is especially important as its funding comes from the county and is based on the number of items checked out. The city’s lack of free parking puts it at a disadvantage with other libraries in the county.

“I think libraries are still in their era of transformation where what we do is shaped both by staff anticipating community needs and the community telling us what they want,” Kornak says.

The people who work in libraries have changed, too, from the days when the stereotype of the librarian was someone who “shushed” patrons. Now, at the Lake Geneva Public Library, you’re likely to be greeted with an inviting smile and a “How can I help you?”

“Over the past couple of years, we have made a concerted effort to focus on customer service, library programs and events, and our service offerings to patrons in general,” Kornak explains.

She’s been pleased with the reaction from patrons who have appreciated the changes, but she wishes more people would visit. Free library cards and a seamless checkout process make the library one of today’s best bargains.

“This is such a valued community resource, and the love of reading and learning that we see every day in our regular visitors makes my librarian heart very happy,” she says. “But I also think there are a lot of people who either have forgotten or don’t realize the value of using the library, and there is a challenge for us in reaching those people to let them know that this is their library, and that we’re here for everyone.”


Kornak’s life journey could be a book in itself. She was born in South Korea and was adopted by an American family before her first birthday. She grew up outside of West Bend where she frequented the West Bend Public Library and got her first taste of the library experience.

“I remember story times there and my favorite children’s librarian,” she says. “She was quite a storyteller.”

Her favorite books from childhood? The “Anne of Green Gables” books, the “Black Stallion” series, “Where the Red Fern Grows,” “The Wind in the Willows” and “Charlotte’s Web.”

“My parents are readers. I used to borrow my mom’s library books when I wanted something new to read, and my dad is a collector of books.”

She had an early connection to Lake Geneva because she had extended family that lived in the area. “I have some early memories of visiting Lake Geneva over holidays and other occasions to see my grandparents,” she says. “The lake is stunning, the downtown is charming, the people are warm and friendly — what’s not to love?”

Kornak didn’t start out to become a librarian. She studied international relations at UW-Madison in hopes of working for the United Nations. “I found political science fascinating, and the added international aspect even more so. I still do, but working for the UN is no longer on my list of career goals.”

Her first job after college was with the American Chamber of Commerce in Frankfurt, Germany. Later, she worked in marketing for a manufacturer of ultrasonic welding machinery, at Walgreens headquarters and for a stainless-steel manufacturer. “The companies I worked for tended to have fast-paced, demanding environments. I liked that aspect,” she says. “I don’t mind pressure and deadlines, and there’s a lot of both [in the library].”

She started wanting to do something where she could actually help people directly. “Libraries had never occurred to me,” she says, “but when I started considering moving back into non- profits, suddenly public libraries popped up on my radar and I thought, yes — this! This is what I’d like to try. I’ve never looked back.”

Her first library job was at the Barrington Area Library in Barrington, Illinois, where she started part time as a library assistant. She worked there while she got her master’s degree in library and information science from UW-Milwaukee. As soon as she finished graduate school, a full-time position as a librarian opened up at Barrington and she became their first Business Liaison Librarian. After that she worked at the Waukesha Public Library and then became director at the Sharon library.

“My favorite thing about libraries is that the staff is encouraged to try new things and not be afraid to fail, because it shows that we’re always learning and adapting,” she says. “And instead of profit or shareholder value as the bottom line, it’s our value to the community that we need to constantly assess and strive to improve.”

Kornak lives with her husband, Pierre, and three rescue dogs in the Town of Sugar Creek.

Her hobbies? Reading, kayaking, walking with her dogs, and she and her husband recently discovered foraging for wild mushrooms. “I have a lot to learn still, but I find it enormously satisfying to be able to pick my dinner from the backyard,” she says. “I made puffball mushroom pizza the other evening for the first time.”

“I play piano, but I’m very rusty because I don’t practice enough, so I usually don’t tell anyone that,” she says.


Of course, she’s carried her childhood passion for reading into adulthood. Her favorites: “The Complete Sherlock Holmes,” “All Creatures Great and Small,” and “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë.

Recent books she’s liked well enough to recommend to friends: “This Is How It Always Is” by Laurie Frankel, anything by Julia Keller, and the “Three Pines” mystery series by Louise Penny.

“I love mysteries, because I like how the questions drive the plot forward and keep me reading, and if the book is good, reading way too late at night,” she says.

It’s no mystery where you’ll find those books — right outside Kornak’s office, the one she wants to give up so more people can enjoy the view.


Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, the author is a member of the Lake Geneva City Council and the council’s representative to the library board.

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