As you may know if you read my blog regularly, I work for a systems office in a federated library system with 14 member libraries, 3 branches, and a bookmobile. Since traveling to the libraries is not a regular part of my job as a cataloger, I decided to make it a regular part of my job as a blogger and as an interested resident of Lancaster County. So, on Monday, I used my lunch hour (plus an hour of personal time) to travel to The Adamstown Area Library to interview Kathy Thren, Director. I started with Adamstown for three reasons–the alphabet, geography, and for the simple reason that I had never been there before.
Ninety-five percent of the work I do on this blog is done in the evenings or on the weekends (my husband can attest to that). Occasionally, I will write a post on my lunch hour or reply to comments or post a draft written the night before. Rather than use my lunch hour to write, I decided to use it to listen and learn and connect. While conducting these interviews is not part of my job, and I’m not really acting in my capacity as a system employee, building these relationships and taking the time to learn about our customers can only help me do my job better, too.
I plan to reach out to each of the directors, so while I’m calling this a series that is really only my hope at this point. Look for the brown bag and the title above to designate future posts, which I expect to be forthcoming, although not consecutively, with other, unrelated posts popping up in between. Each post will follow the same format using the same, ten interview questions.
Libraries are about learning, and libraries can learn from each other as well. What follows is the view from one director’s desk.
The Adamstown Area Library was founded 64 years ago and has moved among several locations, finally settling at its current location on North Reading Road where it has been for the past 13 years. It is a small space–2,500 square feet–with a big heart. The library serves over 30,000 patrons and has four full-time staff, 6 part-time staff, a whopping 40 volunteers, and a friends group with some of the most “financially savvy and creative” people. Please check out the Web site I linked to above–they have a really well-done video on the front page that will introduce you to the library.
Before Kathy and I sat down to talk, she gave me a tour; however, she had to look for a missing receipt and was interrupted twice to help with an interlibrary loan and take a call from her board president, yet she still had the presence of mind to stop to admire a little girl’s shoes along the way (they were pink TOMs–what’s not to admire?). It was clear that Kathy loves her job and takes enormous pride in the library.
Not only are directors busy people and jacks of all trades, but they make good use of their often limited space. I wish I had taken my camera, because my favorite part of the tour was the “Book Bunker” housed in the basement of the building, which is also shared with the Borough Office. Approximately 25,000 books slotted for the annual book sale have taken cover in the book bunker. When you enter the bunker, you have to lower your head or it will smack a beam. It is truly a bunker. Kathy showed me how the volunteers, when they are sorting the books, have to position themselves between beams in such a way so that they can stand erect. It was awesome, as is the library itself. As I said, please visit the Web site for more information.
Then it was time to ask my ten questions and listen to the answers. I am a novice interviewer–I was taking notes and recording (but I forgot to ask permission!), so in presenting Kathy’s responses, I have not used any quotation marks, but I have requested her approval before publishing this post. I sincerely hope that if I didn’t get the words exactly right in every case, I got the gist of her message-
How long have you been the director here and how did you come by the job?
I became the director in 2006, so I’ve been here for 7 years. I saw the job posted on a library listserv. Here’s the interesting thing–I saw the job at a time when I was completely free. I had just gone through a divorce, and I could have moved anywhere in the world. I seriously considered jobs in New Mexico and Dubai (for almost $200,000 per year!), but then I saw the post for Adamstown, which is five minutes from my house. I knew it had a wonderful reputation as a customer-friendly library. I thought I would take the interview just for practice, but I ended up taking the job. I’ve never been disappointed that I took this position.
How long have you worked in libraries?
Before I took this job, I was in health care for 18 years, and then I started my own information business. I conducted research as an independent contractor for 7 years without any library experience. Having library experience, particularly having my master’s degree, would have helped me greatly. During that time, I went to Kutztown University and got my BA in education and my graduate degree in library science from Clarion right after that. Once I got hooked on the databases I was gone!
I stopped working in my own business mostly because I was on my own, couldn’t hire anybody to help me, and I had no contact with other people except over the phone and via email. It got to be tiring. Contracted jobs started going away, I was almost done with my library science degree, so I changed direction. I worked in two libraries in Berk’s County before I took this job.
If you could say only one thing about your library, what is it that you would most want people to know?
We are patron-friendly with a wide variety of services for everyone.
If money were not an obstacle, what is the first thing you would change about your library and why?
Space. Absolutely. I would build a brand new, beautiful library something along the lines of the Fredricksen Library in Camp Hill or similar to the Manheim Township Library. If the need warrants it. At this point, we would take 10,000 square feet. Anything is better than the 2500 we have now. That’s the dream. (I asked if she thought it would happen, and she said, “No”–not unless the whole economic landscape changes or they merge with another library, which is always a possibility).
How have funding cuts in recent years affected your library?
Technology. It took us a long time just to save up enough money to get an update on the Windows XP computers, and you know how many years ago that was. Computers before that time–they were so old and they wouldn’t update properly and patrons really grew tired of that and they stopped coming. But we just didn’t have the money to update them. And the sad part about grants is that unless you’re doing something wildly innovative it’s really difficult to get money for grants for technology. We don’t have a wild and innovative space–I think we’ve innovated to the max here. One of our community businesses–Stout’s Black Angus–held a fundraiser for us. We raised $9,000 and that paid for everything–all our laptops and all our desktops. That made a big difference in our usage. Half of our library’s use is computer-related, so that made a big difference.
Another thing, if we could afford it, is more staff. Do more things.There’s always more you can do out in the community. We hired a PR person, but he only has so many hours and he’s doing constant contact in the newsletter and getting the word out about our programs, which is helping, but you can always do more.
What do you believe are the greatest challenges facing your library today?
Space, again. Current trends–what people think about libraries, perception. The economy. If we weren’t faced with this looming pension situation at the state level, I think more money could go to libraries.
What do you say to someone who believes that the library is not essential to your community and no longer relevant in society?
In 2008, we saved our community over $2 million dollars. For people without means– even though libraries are for people in every socioeconomic situation–for those families with 5 children who come in here and they take out hundreds and hundreds of books per month. That saved our community at least $2 million, which doesn’t even include the cost of internet connection and our computers. Just in resources. We want our patrons to live a healthy and productive life, and I think libraries serve that purpose well. We certainly impact people’s lives. We’re like a community center of information and technology. People can’t get everything online. Much of that information can be inaccurate. If you’re going to be searching for medical information at a .com, other than something like Web MD or Mayo Clinic, well, you might be in trouble. We are uniquely positioned to teach everyone all the literacies (Kathy referenced the PA FORWARD initiative). Health is just one of those literacies. It’s vital that you get the proper information. You wouldn’t want to read the effects of a drug in an online chat room when you have a resource like a Physician’s Desk Reference in front of you that by law has to state the effects of a drug.
What aspect of your job do you find most rewarding, and what are you most proud of having accomplished here and why?
Helping people. That is number one. It is probably the most awesome thing I get to do all day long. From the most simple problem with a computer to reference questions to reader’s advisory. Or a teenager comes in and says, “What book has changed your life? Could you tell me?”And you give them some examples. It’s so much fun.
I most proud of developing a solid fiction and nonfiction collection–improving the collection. Not enough money was being devoted to it. And utilizing the space we have.
If you had to weigh against each other the following facets of the library: physical space, collection, services and programs, which element would you say will be the most essential for libraries to maintain or grow in the future and why?
I think going forward, this is how I think a library will look: You’ll walk into a library, and the collection will be against the wall. Everywhere. It will outline the space. In the center there will be groups–chairs, sofas, teen section, bean bags, meeting places–and of course your big meeting rooms. I see it as becoming more of a huge information, knowledge center/community center all in one.
If we sit down again in ten years, what do you hope you will be able to say to me about the library?
The library has improved. It is in line with the trends. I really think there will be print books. I don’t see them going away. I think there’s a place for everything. Everything will have it’s proper place. You want to go on a plane and don’t want to carry ten books, you check out a Kindle. It just makes sense.
Anything else you want to add?
That we just love our patrons. Customer service is paramount to almost everything, anything we do.