Know Your Librarians: Jean's Beads of Inspiration

Librarians have always connected people to stories that inform and shape their lives. But for one Central Reference Associate, books aren’t the only tools of the trade. Jean DuFresne’s mastery of beadmaking has grown alongside her career at the Kansas City Public Library. And now she’s also using her craft to benefit the lives of children with serious illnesses.

A swirling oval surrounded by a ring of silver, a string of autumn-colored beads on a bracelet, a green-glowing leaf, an acorn that looks like it just fell from a tree – DuFresne’s beads could be (and in some cases are) stand-alone works of art.

After a full day of helping customers in Central Reference, where she has worked part-time since 1997 (she also worked at the Library in the ‘80s while attending college), DuFresne turns up the heat in her home workshop. She wields a Barracuda propane torch (which she affectionately calls “Barry”) to melt, shape, and decorate the glass into beads and anneals them in a kiln that can reach upwards of 2,350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Made from either borosilicate (“hard”) or soda lime (“soft”) glass, each bead takes anywhere from two minutes to two hours to produce.

“In beadmaking,” she says, “the things you can do are limited only by your skills and imagination.”

DuFresne's creations light up any old library table.

DuFresne began experimenting with the craft in the mid ‘90s as a way to augment her homemade jewelry. Before long, she was selling her work out of a gallery in Parkville. Now, she sells her beads and custom jewelry through her online store at (click the link to view some of her latest work).

DuFresne’s beadmaking recently took on a new significance when she began participating in the Beads of Courage program.

Founded in 2004 by Jean Baruch, a pediatric oncology nurse in Arizona, the program awards beads to children who are undergoing treatment for serious diseases. Each bead represents a milestone in a child’s life, such as a round of chemotherapy, a radiation treatment, or an overnight stay in the hospital. The beads help to articulate experiences that are often painful.

“Telling your story is an important part of the human experience, and these beads are helping these children do that,” she says.

DuFresne estimates that she’s donated nearly 100 beads to the program. Though she’ll probably never meet the kids who receive her beads, she derives immense value from the project.

“As an artist, it’s not often you see your work being used in such a direct, immediate way,” she says.

Last month, CBS News featured Beads of Courage. Watch the video below to learn more about a project DuFresne finds inspiring.

DuFresne notes that beads have always been used to tell stories, whether, for example, in ancient Egyptians’ use of the very first glass beads as decorative objects, or in the centuries-old Catholic practice of praying the rosary. In other cultures, including Native Americans’, beads were also used in bartering and as currency.

Clearly, DuFresne is as much an expert on the history of beadmaking as she is a craftsperson. Throughout her tenure at Central Reference, the Library has provided her with a rich resource for researching her trade as well as learning new skills, such as precious metal clay and silversmithing.

“If I’m sitting here in Central Reference, and I think of something, I can run to the shelf on break and look it up,” she says. “We have books on beads through history, and working at the Library has encouraged my ability to utilize a lot of different techniques.”

Also, when it came time to monetize her craft, DuFresne says that she used the ReferenceUSA database to find local galleries, and she’s used the Library’s resources to develop marketing and business plans.

She’s derived creative inspiration from the stacks, too.

“I did a series of glass hearts a couple of years ago, and I used the Reference section to research heart quotes,” she says.

She even crafted a series based on a physics book about string theory.

“I’m definitely inspired by what I read,” she says.

And when it comes to her contributions to Beads of Courage, she hopes that her work can inspire children to share their stories, too.

-- Jason Harper