It has been a long year checked out of public libraries.
When the pandemic shut down the country, it took away our ability to browse the aisles of our favorite libraries or the ability to visit our favorite librarian. These centers in our communities always have been a significant resource for development and advancement. Many story times and physically figuring out how many books you can hold in your hand, remain on pause as officers of public libraries creatively and innovatively find ways to offer services during uncertain times.
There always is the opportunity to learn, thrive and get ahead by using local libraries. It is the first place many turn to do research, to study, to participate in a book club, or print out a resume. It is a place where one always feels welcome, a safe place to come as you are, to gain knowledge and new skills.
As we focus on the consistent value of public libraries, Salena Sullivan, Christiansburg librarian and branch manager shares her thoughts on her job, her role in the community, mentorship and shifts during the pandemic.
Q: Tell me about your first library experience.
A: Honestly, I don’t remember my first library experience. The library has always been a part of my life. There are photos of me as a baby in a car seat on the counter of the Gainsboro Library. One of my mother’s first jobs was as a library page there when she was a teenager. It was there that she met Carla Lewis who irreversibly changed both of our lives. My first memories are from that library, wandering the shelves and getting as many books as I could carry.
Q: What are some of your favorite books or authors?
A: This is always the hardest question. I run the nonfiction book club at the Christiansburg library and I love history books, especially in audiobook form. Roxanne Gay and Bill Bryson are two of my favorite nonfiction authors to listen to. I also love reading diverse romance novels. Helen Hoang, Talia Hibbert, Jasmine Guillory and Chloe Liese, are just a few that are doing great things and showing disabled, neurodiverse, queer and BIPOC characters falling in love.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a librarian? What is your favorite thing about it?
A: I always knew I wanted to be around books. First, I wanted to be a writer, then I wanted to go into publishing. It wasn’t until middle school and high school when I started working at the Gainsboro Library as a page that I knew that was what I wanted to do forever. I love working with the public. In my view, the main mission of libraries is to break down barriers, whether that is to facilitate access to community services by providing free computers and WIFI or to make sure the library has the newest bestsellers. Whenever I can ease that friction of access, I am elated. I also love doing outreach to public events. It’s great to connect with the public outside of the library and reach people that may not be regular library patrons.
Q: What is the significance of mentorship? Do you mentor or have a mentor?
A: It’s vital to have good mentors in every aspect of life. They can show you possibilities, help you through challenging times, and celebrate your successes. I have had many mentors in my career, Carla Lewis being unequivocally the most impactful one. She showed me how important libraries are to their communities, how to respect everyone who walks in the door no matter their circumstance, and the responsibility we all have to better the places where we live and work. She is strong, empathetic and so understanding which adds up to be a wonderful resource for me as I advance in my field and a great person to have cheering for me.
I have been lucky enough to have had a diverse group of supervisors over the years who have all shown me different ways working with communities and advancing the library. I became the branch manager of the Christiansburg Library a little over four years ago and it was a necessary, but a terrifying step in progressing my career. I knew how to do all the library things, but there were so many aspects of the administrative and supervisory side that I wasn’t familiar with. The support and confidence of Paula Alston, the former director of MFRL, and Karim Khan, the current director of MFRL, really made it possible for me to grow in this position and to have that sureness in myself.
As I have benefited greatly from wonderful mentors in my past, I try and act in that role staff that work for me and for anyone who is interested in the library field. I am a black woman in a leadership position in a field and a geographic region where that is rare and I would like to help that not be the case.
Q: What role does libraries and librarians play in the community?
A: Libraries and librarians can have many different roles in the community depending on their purpose and how people use them. In many cases, public libraries are one of the last places that you don’t have to spend money to justify your presence there, and that is very important. After a year of quarantining at home or working from home, I think that many people are appreciating the benefit of having a “third space” that’s not work or home but is just as important. For many people, the library is their first or second space. For our patrons experiencing homelessness, for people who may not feel safe or comfortable in their home, this may be a place of safety and peace that comes without strings. Libraries and library staff are a trusted community resource and that trust is something I do not take for granted. We are often who people call when they are not sure where to begin to solve a problem or reach to whom they should reach out.
Libraries are also there for people who may be or feel left behind because of lack of financial, geographic, or other limitations. There is a huge digital divide problem nationally and locally, which the pandemic has shed a glaring light on. Many members of our community can’t afford broadband, and if they can afford it, it may not be available at all at their home through infrastructure limitations. If they have access, they may not have the skills to take advantage of all that is available for them. This is just one hole that the library fills. We provide free wireless access in all of our buildings and parking lots and circulate wireless hotspots for patrons who need access while not in our buildings. Food insecurity is another major problem in our communities and libraries are stepping up to fill that need by providing free meals to children along with literacy resources and programming. At our core, people who work in the library want to help people and wherever we see a need, we want to help fill that need. We also are here to remind people to have fun and to provide resources for people to enjoy leisure time whenever they can. There is joy in reading and that is something to always remember.
Q: How has the library adapted to changes during the pandemic?
A: This August marks my 20th anniversary of working in libraries in some capacity, and I am constantly awed by how creative, resilient and compassionate my fellow library workers are. In less than two months, the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Libraries implemented curbside services from scratch, began online card registration, implemented remote printing software, rolled out circulating hotspots, invested heavily in our e-resources and enhanced our cleaning and safety procedures. We were open for a few months last summer, but then had to close back down because of a surge in numbers. In the intervening seven months, we’ve attempted to offer as many of our services as possible at a distance, from providing take home craft kits to keep families entertained to offering curbside notary services. We’ve also moved as many of our programs to a virtual setting as possible, including all of our book clubs, story time, even our teen dungeons and dragons’ group. It has been exhausting and exhilarating to just try and communicate to our patrons that we are here for them in any way that we can be, even when we have had to limit access to the building.
Q: How can the community continue to support the library during this time?
A: Honestly, just by using the services that we are able to provide. Our patrons in Christiansburg, and all over our service area, have been so grateful for curbside services and the programming that we have been able to provide and that has meant so much. A thank you goes a long way, and we are lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a lot of them.
Q: What program, activity, or aspect of the library can you not wait to resume once the library fully reopens safely?
A: Anything that has to do with seeing people in person. I miss my book club members, casual interactions with patrons and I miss going to outreach. My extroverted heart may just explode with excitement when I can go back to a festival and promote the library.
As we continue to find ways to stay entertained, active and learning, remember the library is here for you. They are still working very hard to be virtually present and curbside accessible in most locations.
Ashley Rhame is a native of Roanoke, Virginia. She has self-published two books, Soul Cry and God’s Eye. She is currently writing her third book of poetry, Chasing Sun. Her work has been featured in the Artemis Journal alongside poets like Nikki Giovanni, Natasha Trethewey, and others in the Appalachian area. Ashley has also lead workshops at Hollins University, Girls Rock Roanoke, church youth departments, and other local organizations. She currently leads a regular youth writing workshop, TeenSpeak with Roanoke Public Libraries. You can find her every other Wednesday night at Soul Sessions using her voice to create a space that is loving, reflective, and healthy. When Ashley is not writing, she enjoys photography, reading, sipping tea, wandering around art galleries, and indulging in sweets.