Librarian Confidential: Stephanie Chase
On the Joy of Giving a Child Their First Library Card
Stephanie Chase is Director of the Hillsboro (OR) Public Library. Prior to Hillsboro, Stephanie coordinated service strategies to libraries for BiblioCommons and was the Director of Library Programs and Services for The Seattle Public Library. Stephanie is the founder of the Green Mountain (VT) Library Consortium, a statewide library consortium providing digital collections and partnership opportunities to 150 member libraries, a 2010 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, and a founding member and current chair of the LibraryReads Steering Committee.
What’s your earliest library memory?
I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, and the thing I remember most about the library of my early youth was that it had a spiral staircase. I am not sure I ever took it anywhere, but spiral staircases are kind of magic when you are a kid, yeah? As I remember it, the staircase was right by the non-fiction section of books about animals, because I remember getting a book about sharks. I wasn’t really interested in sharks, but JAWS had recently been on TV and after seeing snippets of it, my younger brother refused to go swimming. I would bet I was being a typical older sister with that book check out.
When did you decide to become a librarian? What was the process?
I have been a lifelong reader, but I don’t remember any of my librarians with fondness. I don’t remember most of them, as a matter of fact—I think I was pretty self-sufficient as a library user. I originally thought I would teach English in high school, but as I got started down that path, and met my husband, who was student teaching mathematics at the time, I realized there was absolutely no way I could go to work every day and try to share something I loved with people who couldn’t care less. Plus, I am not tall, and high school boys seemed really much taller and more intimidating than when I was a high school student. So I was looking around for what I could do with an English degree, one in which I focused on Modern and Post-Modern British Literature, when I stumbled on a program no longer offered by the New York Public Library, where I worked as a librarian (for peanuts, mind you) while I was in school. I thought, huh, that doesn’t seem too bad—let’s give it a try. As soon as I started in libraries, I knew it was for me. It has all the best parts of teaching, in that every day you make connections with people, sometimes for things you have a mutual love for, and sometimes because people need your help, and your understanding. Every day is full of tiny teachable moments, and full of the opportunity to help the members of your community be more aware, or more educated, or more interested, or more confident.
Who’s your favorite fictional librarian?
Well… I did just read a romance (Victoria Dahl’s Taking the Heat) where the male lead character was a librarian. It’s pretty steamy.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a librarian?
It’s hard for me to imagine what I could possibly enjoy doing that wasn’t connected to libraries. I have always, in my library jobs, been part of municipal government, and I have to admit, I love being part of the divisions providing community services. I love connecting people in our community, and I love helping people see their strengths and take advantage of their interests. I have been a library director for the majority of my career in libraries, and I think I am pretty good at it; lately, I have begun to see the benefits that could come from moving up in local government, and working to strengthen our creative communities and in empowering residents through all the community services departments. So it’s not very romantic, but I’d probably be even more of a bureaucrat than I already am, but in the best sense of the word. Though, if money were no object I would totally have a bookshop in a cool place with a cat that served really fantastic food, kind of like the bookshop in The Storied Life of AJ Fikry. Or Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore.
What’s your favorite section in the library (aside from your own)?
The whole library is my responsibility, so there is absolutely no way I could pick a favorite. People would be cross. That being said, I have always loved telephone reference department. I managed it for a time at Multnomah, and did shifts. I would still do shifts, if I could. People call with the most wonderful and unusual of questions, and they call just to chat. So often in telephone reference, you might be the only person that caller speaks to that day. What an amazing thing, to have the opportunity to brighten someone’s life and learn a little something you never knew you wanted to know.
If you had infinite space (and budget) what would you add to your library?
More space for people! I was just visiting the Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, Kansas (their Polli Kenn was profiled here recently), and I would love to have the wonderful little reading nooks they have for children, which were cleverly built into the former superstructure of their old library—the library expanded out around the outside shell of the old building, and they turned what could have been a real challenge into the most charming features. I always want more meeting rooms, more study rooms, more outdoor reading spaces for people, more little nooks, more interesting seats, more artwork, more display space—basically to make the space continue to be more and more welcoming and more and more vibrant. I am lucky that we are starting a series of projects to do this kind of work in Hillsboro, and I am looking forward to it.
What do you love about your library?
I love my staff. They are our greatest asset. We are fortunate to have a mix of staff from different backgrounds, who live in different areas of our greater metro area, and who bring a wide variety of experiences to serving our community. I love when I see our staff talking with patrons, and reaching out into the community. I love when our staff develop new or better ways to help our patrons, and to make the experience of using the library better for patrons.
I am also really fortunate that both of our libraries are surrounded by beautiful outdoor spaces, with beautiful mature trees, a playground, and walking paths. Our main library has a set of lovely ponds behind it, which bring birds of all kinds. We’re so lucky to have big open windows at both libraries to let the light and the beautiful surroundings in.
What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened in your library?
Oh man, weird things happen in libraries every day. I have some really salty stories to tell from working in several urban libraries—several locations in Manhattan, downtown Portland, Oregon, and at Seattle’s Central Library. Perhaps one of the funniest weirdest things that happened recently is on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when the company that controls the locking of our doors forgot to keep them locked, as we were closed. At 10am, just like every Monday, the doors opened and let people in. At our branch, people came right on in and didn’t seem the least bit worried that there wasn’t a staff person in sight. They sat down in chairs and started reading, or using the computers. Our colleagues in Facilities got notice of the alarm going off and were certainly surprised when they showed up! I’ve always said people will come into a library no matter what time it is—if the door is open, they’ll come on in. Libraries could be open 24 hours a day and it wouldn’t be enough. I felt as though this sure proved it. For the record, absolutely nothing untoward happened, too. That’s how much people love libraries.
Who’s your favorite regular, and why?
I don’t have the opportunity to do much face-to-face service any more. I do try, throughout the day, to walk around the library and see what’s happening and talk to people in the stacks. I love when I can help a patron use the checkout machine for the first time, or discover a workaround in the catalog, or any number of little tricks to make using the library better. When I worked in smaller, more rural libraries, I truly treasured the relationships I made with some of our youngest patrons, who I hope will remember me fondly. There’s nothing like giving a child their first library card.
What are people without current library cards missing out on?
EVERYTHING. Most people literally have no idea what libraries can do these days! Sure, we have books. We have lots of books; we probably have the book you are looking for. But we also can help you find the book you never knew you wanted . I have a friend on Twitter who recently learned librarians will make lists of reading suggestions for people and she was so excited! We have DVDs, including all the weird things Netflix doesn’t have. We can basically get any book you want through the glorious system of Inter-Library Loan. You can chat with us at 2am as you are working on a paper or a presentation and you have a question. We’re probably louder than you remember—librarians don’t shush people—but we will try to find you a quiet space to work or read, if we can. Are we the wonderful space of your childhood, full of magic and delight? You betcha. We are active, vibrant spaces full of treasures just waiting for people to discover them.