Friends & Fiction
Friends & Fiction

Episode 19 · 1 month ago

WB S1E19: Ron Block with Sari Feldman

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

WRITERS' BLOCK: Ron Block is joined by Library Rockstar, Sari Feldman, former president of the American Library Association on her historic career and the changing role of libraries.

I think they were challenged to findsomebody who would go there who was excited to go there and I was thrilledand so off I went and I had a great team there. You know, the other peopleon the staff were willing to try absolutely anything and we did programslike farm animals come to the city and we would draw huge crowds for pigs in aplaypen on the library lawn. Welcome to the Friends and fictionWriter's Block podcast for new york times, bestselling authors, one rockstar librarian and endless stories joined mary Kay andrews, Kristen,Harmel, Christie Woodson, harvey and paddy, Callaghan Henry Along with RonBlock as novelists, we are four longtime friends with 70 books betweenus and I am Ron block. Please join us for fascinating author interviews andinsider talk about publishing and writing. If you love books and arecurious about the writing world, you are in the right place. Welcome to theFriends and Fiction Writer's Block podcast. I am Ron block in today. Weare continuing our periodic feature library rock stars. Today, I'm so happyto welcome someone who has been vitally important to libraries, librarians andreaders for decades. Seri Feldman, full disclosure sarah and I have been closefriends for a very long time and it's been my joy and honor to witness hertrajectory in the profession and the impact she has made on so many. I'mthrilled to be able to shine a light on her wonderful accomplishments. WelcomeSeri Hi, thanks so much for having me. I will say that I have been in awe ofyour trajectory and I'm going to take a lot of credit for pushing you into theprofession as you will hear. It is a lot to to you. So it's all your fault.Let me tell you about seri. She grew up in South Fallsburg new york. She is agraduate of Sunni Binghamton and received her master's degree in LibraryScience Madison Wisconsin. From there, she began her advocacy focus on helpingthe under served as her career progress. She took on more responsible rules andhaving worked with her early on, I joined the chorus of others who knewthat she was destined for great things. She became an agent for innovation,both on the local and national levels recently, she's retired from formerleadership, but she's still active in libraries and in the american LibraryAssociation, but she's also enjoying more time with her family and friends.I can't wait for you all to learn more about her as we have a conversationabout her life and about this amazing human and her importance andcontributions to readers everywhere. How about that? That's a lot. That's alot. But Sarah, let's start at the beginning. So I want to talk about yourgrowing up. I love this story about how your passion for reading grew and whenlibraries became your focus for your life, I grew up in a very small town inthe western cat scans and we did not have a library, but my parents werereaders, particularly my mother and my sister was my older sister was told toread to me every night but she would grow bored so I had to learn to readmyself because she would start a mystery and wouldn't finish it. So Ilearned to read very early on and then I was insatiable, fortunately abookmobile came to town and I began to use that bookmobile on a regular basis.But I like to say that also my father...

...would satisfy our reading for thesummer. He would negotiate with the school librarian at the local highschool and he would take out a carton of books. The librarian and my fatherwould select them. It wouldn't necessarily have been the teen romancesI was dreaming of for summer reading but we would read through that cartonof books over the summer and that was you know, also part of my readingevolution. So you were already reading way outside your normal comfort zone.That's great. Yes. So give everybody, we did a little bit about youreducational background. But I love to hear you tell the story of your careerpath. So do you mind just giving everybody a brush stroke of of how youstarted in libraries and where it leads you. So I tell the same joke every timeI tell this story and you've heard it a million times. I was living in MadisonWisconsin. I was working the kind of job that lets you know, it's time to goback to school, had my undergraduate degree, but I really had no skills orability. I started to do some volunteer work at a one of the first rape crisiscenters in America and I soon discovered that I really didn't likecounseling people. But I love the information and referral part of therape crisis center process. And a woman named Jane Perlmutter was in libraryschool, which is what it was called at that time. And she said to me, youreally should think about becoming a librarian. Mhm. So I went to theUniversity of Wisconsin, Helen, see white hall and presented myself toMargaret Munro who was the professor. I was just enthralled with when I didsome research that she was doing teaching around reader services in thepublic library. This idea that people connected with books and they hadinformal but also formal learning from the reading that they did at libraries.And she looked at me and she said, well, I really don't know if I'm going totake you on as a student, take a summer school course and we'll see how it goes.And I, you know, I jumped through every hoop. So that Margaret would take me asa student and she was so important to me that she's one of the reasons myoldest daughter is named Margaret. Oh, okay. I wonder if I ever heard thatbefore. And actually they met once. Like I was very scared of MargaretMonroe. And anyone who ever met you would say the same thing. She was ascary iron librarian who actually started her career at new york public.But one time I said meg and Margaret have to meet and she actually huggedmeg was shocking. So I know you actually began working there in Madisonbut then you moved on from there to other opportunities. What were some ofthose? So my first job, I worked in the jail librarian in Madison, Wisconsin atthe dane county correctional facility and that was kind of life changingbecause I realized that the advantages of education and access to books andeven more access to information could really change your life could make thebiggest difference. And and I actually loved my experience there and I learneda lot and it matured me in some ways but not every way. And then I went offto Illinois where I became a teen librarian and I wasn't much out of myteens myself and I was always getting...

...in trouble for doing things likeplaying frisbee on the lawn of the library with the teens that would youknow, come for my programs or having these dance parties in the library thatwere very noisy and other customers were object. But the library directorwas pretty open minded, I became homesick for new york state. And I cameto Syracuse and we met when I was the director of the Onondaga free library,a very tiny town library that I was totally ill equipped to be the directorthere and I was definitely proving my immaturity at the time. And Rod MillerTuttle, who was the head of Fiction and humanities, said that she had somegrant funding at the main library of Onondaga County Public Library. It wasthe old main library with the big windows and glass stat glass flooredstacks and that I could come and work as a teen librarian there. And so Imade that leap where I proceeded to once again kind of raised the ire of adirector because of some of my programming and this time he had greatrecourse bob kitchen who was the director then said that the grandfunding ran out and so I would have to go and I decided to use that as a timeto start doing a little professional writing and to also think about goingback to school and I work part time and then I worked part time in the filmlibrary where I got to work with you on an almost daily basis, which was somuch fun and then we could just get into trouble together. We certainly did,those are the old days, those are fun, we used to get to judge short films andbut then this is a very interesting twist all of a sudden people must haverealized that some of the programming I was doing was actually catching theinterests of the under served in libraries, that programming andcorrectional facilities and programming that really used film and nontraditional media could have a great appeal to people. And so when theopening at beacon branch as the branch manager came available, okay. Theyactually offered me the job to come back full time. And this, I just wantto say this was in uh, the most at that time, the most economicallydisadvantaged Syracuse community neighborhood. And it, it waspredominantly black and I think they were challenged to find somebody whowould go there who was excited to go there and I was thrilled and so off Iwent and I had a great team there of, you know, the other people on the staffwere willing to try absolutely anything. And we did programs like farm animalscome to the city and we would draw huge crowds for pigs in a playpen on thelibrary lawn and then we would read pig stories or programs discussing why doour Children take drugs and having a panel of experts or programs on thehistory of the civil rights movement with people who had actuallyparticipated. I mean we would fill the...

...meeting room to the rafters, I learnedto play the negro national anthem and taught all the kids coming into thelibrary how to sing it. I mean we were just having the best time. And so I wasthere for about five years and I think that experience also, you know had abig impact on me because when I got there people weren't borrowing books,but that wasn't a primary role for the library. But by the time I made thetransition to the main library, it was a great little circulator. It had anengine of borrowers because people were getting the reader's advisory theyneeded and the collection was reflecting the books people wanted. SoI've talked a lot about things way in the past, which is a sign of aging. No,it's foundational and I think what it does, it gives everybody an overview ofsome of the early things that drove you and kind of like put in and as those ofus who knew you knew you weren't going to stay put for long. Right. So then Iwas married, I had my Children and I decided that I needed to, I needed tobe home on the weekend, so I needed to work a more monday through friday job.But what I discovered about myself was even if I wasn't required to work onthe weekends, I was always coming up with some crazy idea that took me tothe library on Saturdays and Sundays. But in the meantime I went to the, whatwas then the new main library in Syracuse and I went and I started onthis path to do every job you could ever do in a public library. I want youto experience everything. And so that every two years I moved around, I meanI did things like headed technical services, something you know reallyabove my knowledge base. And I became the head of the system, Children'sservices. Again, no background really in Children's work. So I became thehead of local history at one point and eventually the head of the main library.But during all of this we worked together on some great projects, Weworked on projects to really boost circulation in the main library and wewere just driving traffic, we were doing these great best seller displaysand people were coming in and drove to get those best sellers and then we werepushing all kinds of other materials in their direction. During that time, Ialso worked with the friends of the Central library and I was privilegedMore than 25 years ago to start one of the first library literary lectureseries and to bring authors that I loved or that my friends loved and getsome face time with them. So I started the series with Calvin trilling andwhen I started a series in the future, I started again with Calvin Trillinbecause he was so important to launching that series. But one greatexperience that we had together was lunching with Pat Conroy and you wentwith me to pick him up at the airport. We were both shaking because he wasalready a literary lion and he was, we went to lunch and I always say he wasthe kind of person who took his fork and dug right into your plate to tastewhat you were eating. And I didn't mind...

...one bit. He had no culinary boundariesand he was just the most wonderful person. And again, when I moved on toother literary series in Cleveland, Pat Conroy came again and pretended he hadbeen my friend over The 10 years we have met since we have met the firsttime. Oh no, he remembers it well. And I after you left that day I got tospend the whole rest of the day with him and it's just, it's just beenamazing to have been his friend and to know him on a personal basis, but alsohis writing, which you know is my absolute all time favorite. So fastforward to moving to Cleveland. So you started out with the Cleveland publiclibrary right. So I went to Cleveland Marilyn Mason was the director and shebrought me in to have the branches, the library for the blind and physicallyhandicapped. And then eventually we emerged youth services into thatmixture. And again, it was, I was taking on a challenge because thebranches were in underserved neighborhoods, almost all of them andthey were also struggling to, they weren't struggling under like any kindof pressure from homelessness or crime, but they were struggling with not beingutilized to their fullest. So lots of kids came in after school, but theyweren't circulating materials and we needed to find ways to really turn thataround. And again, it was programming was programming that made all thedifference to introducing these underserved communities to books. Anduh, the french librarians were just really outstanding and ready to do whatit took. And we changed the whole kind of model to doing much more outreachand saying we're not going to sit in these buildings waiting for people tocome, we're going to meet them where they are. And then of course they cameand um, making the library feel much more welcoming to people when they camethrough the door and that everyone was invited to what is the party of books.That was really great after I was there only a year Maryland decided to retireand over the course of the next year Andrew Venable was then appointed asExecutive Director and he had been the deputy and he made me his deputy. And um, he gave me a kind ofinteresting set of responsibilities. Hey, it's uh kind of flipped my skillset and gave me facilities and security and technical services and umcollections and still some programming. And it tookme a while to find my place in all of that. But once I did, I realized that I couldmake even more impact because I could renovate those facilities now. Um itdidn't have a big budget but there were branches that still had bars on thewindows from periods of riots in the 1960s and they had to go and there werechildren's areas that were child unfriendly and um and then in terms ofsecurity, you know security was eating...

...up a bigger and bigger part of thebudget so getting stay off much more involved in managing behavior in thelibrary. So it didn't need that much security every day. And then um youknow in the collections again now I was over over collection development and Icould do really big projects and really big outreach around collection and sotwo things I'll mention one is that like pulver who is now the director ofthe Saratoga Springs Library was um at the main library and we cooked up thisscheme to take the center of the book away from the Ohio State Library andbring it to the Cleveland public library. And we were successful, Ireally lead on that but because I was the deputy, I could really push forthat to happen. Okay. And then when Cindy or who was um the collectiondevelopment librarian met steve potash who was starting overdrive and she wasgiving him some tips, she could bring steve to me and I could convince AndyVenable the director to make that first investment In 2002 in an overdrive umsubscription and so we became the first public library in America to launch ebooks on the overdrive platform. And I The best way to convince Andy to dosomething was to stay really late after everybody else had gone home and totake in the paper for him to sign off and let him that he rest in peace. Hewas a wonderful person. Let him shout at me for 20 minutes about about why itwas a waste of time and money. And then when he was all spent, I could just say,Andy just sign this. Nobody wants this now. But there will be a reader in thevery near future. And the Kindle was coming soon and then everybody will oneand you'll be first and you'll be happy you were first. Right, right. He shouldhave known better than to, you know, I can trust you, I would wear, you would.And I just have to say here that like that first contract in libraries for ebooks and how it's expanded since then it has changed millions, literallymillions of lives. And I I think that's one of the, one of your greataccomplishments of so many. But that really, really had a big effect onpeople and, you know, steve potash, I'm a big fan of his and now a colleague,but I often say that if we didn't have steve and overdrive libraries wouldreally have nothing because he was passionate about libraries. It wasn'tjust a sale for him. He really wanted people to have that equity of accessthat comes from e books being in libraries. He continues that too, hasbeen such an advocate for years of libraries and he's really done a lot ofthings to help move it forward. So from there you then went to cayuga CountyPublic Library, which was your well Or your big shining moment. I think that'skind of where everything in your career...

...really came to be in all of the skillsthat you have built up in the experiences and relationships really,you were able to utilize in amazing ways because you brought up thatlibrary system to become the number one library system in the country now for11 running years. So I mean that's, that's a big thing. So can you talkabout how your transition to there and what you saw and how, how you kind ofbuilt it up to what it is today? Well, you know, it doesn't happen in a vacuum.It's thanks to amazing people that I worked with side by side with everysingle day. But I really wanted to be a director and my family said absolutelyno more moves go without us. They were very happy where they were. So cuyahogaCounty came open and I was fortunate enough to become the director and therewere two things that I saw one was that cuyahoga County public library wasactually pretty far behind in technology. They weren't used utilizinglibrary technology or personal technologies offering through librariesto its fullest. So I knew when I was looking for a deputy director that Ineeded somebody with that understanding of public services, that passion forwhat public libraries deliver, but who really new technology. So I was verylucky that although Tracy struggle, didn't believe me when I said I wasbringing her over to be the deputy of CUyahoga County Public Library becauseshe was the web supervisor at Cleveland public. She was the perfect pick andI'm you know, so delighted and she's done an amazing job throughout covidespecially in steering that library forward. Okay. But I also felt that fora library that had the kind of reach of cuyahoga County Public library. Um andmany, many very well educated suburbs that they just weren't circulatingenough. And I know circulation isn't the measure of everything, butcirculation is the measure of book borrowing and people were using e books,but the physical book needed to be flying off those shelves. So umtogether with you know, really, you know, the system leadership with thesystem readers, we went about revolutionizing this whole idea of whatlibraries do with books and around the same time I had become kind of friendcolleagues with nancy pearl and in a joke, I said nancy, the library ownsthis little house, would you come live with us and change us. And she said,well joe that's her husband doesn't want to come to Cleveland for thewinter from Seattle. But I'll come a lot and I'll train your staff and I'lldo things for your public and together we'll make a difference. And so nancycame once a month for 10 months for multiple days I think three or fourdays every time and just change the culture because nancy is interested ineverybody and is interested in everybody finding the book. They wantto read. So many entrenched silly rules that the library had went out thewindow. Many entrenched policies and practices went out the window. But moreimportantly, nancy was able to get everyone talking about books and umsure just did incredible work and she...

...kept coming back and refreshing uswhenever we got a little stale. But this whole idea of reconnect withreading, our circulation began to soar and you know, just climbed. It wasastronomical. And there were years where per capita our circulation wasnumber one in the country. And you know, we're talking about per capita. Thatmight not seem like a big deal to people. But when you compare theeducation levels of, of the all of cuyahoga county, not just the greaterCleveland area with places like Seattle or Portland. It's much less educatedand education makes a difference in reading. So we were reaching theunderserved, you know, and then we built libraries to further invitepeople into the experience around books and learning. So it was just thegreatest time and the luckiest time and the impact of that focus. It still feltevery day I hear from people that just hearken back to that time when NancyPearl was there and they just they really absorbed at all. And so that wasa great opportunity that you gave everybody. So I'm going to house willnow highlights some of your national, you know, there's more, there's moreyour national involvement. You you became both the president of the PublicLibrary Association and then subsequently the american LibraryAssociation, a lot of our listeners may or may not know exactly what thoseorganizations are. So you could tell us a little bit about that and about theirimportance to libraries and to readers in general. So the public LibraryAssociation is a division of the american Library Association and theAmerican Library Association is the largest and longest existing libraryassociation of librarians in the world. So um the American Library Associationhas between 50 and 60,000 members. And um you know, I would say the PublicLibrary Association probably has between 15,000 20,000 members of anygiven time. And it's, you know, our professional associations, it's ourpeople. But where does one get the audacity to run for these leadership?So I was on the public library board when I was asked to stand for presidentand that was perhaps not that surprising. I'm passionate about publiclibraries are taught about public library. I've written, I've spoken youknow, I ran against the most admirable and talented person and squeakedthrough to become president between that presidency and the L. A.Presidency, I became the chair of the digital content in the digital contentin libraries working group with I was the co chair with bob evolve in and wewere trying to build a bridge between libraries of all types and thepublishing industry to make sure that libraries continue to have access todigital content. Because the question at that time was not just how much thebloody things cost when libraries by them and now when libraries leased thembecause we're not really buying them anymore. But it was will you even letus have them? And there were two published, two of the big fivepublishers weren't even given libraries access at the time. So I becameprobably well known because I was speaking at every conference I waswriting an american libraries and the Washington office and bob Waldon likeone of the nicest people in the world were making me look good and smart allthe time. And I was asked to run for L.

A. President and I said no but I was insan Francisco having dinner with a bunch of my library pals including luisHerrera who was then the director of the san Francisco public library and mydaughter Bridget was failed with me and everybody said why don't you run? You'dbe so good and we need public library and hasn't done it in such a long time.And Bridget looked at me and said mom that would be so cool and I am not coolto my kids so I said I'm gonna run because she'll think I'm cool and thenI and then my other daughter, meg Margaret got really involved in mycampaign as did you Roz as did all my pals and I kept saying to people I amnot gonna win, there is no way I can win. The odds are against me but likein most things in life I was all in so I didn't think I was going to win but Igave it my all and I want so yeah it was just the most amazing thing and thelibraries were all the better for it. So I will say that both being P. L. A.President and being a L. A president was super fun. I can't keep thinkingabout Julius jefferson and patty juan and how they were presidents during atime of Covid and didn't get to do the kind of fun things, not just travel,but you know you'd be invited to um you know give a talk, given award, give youknow travel, there was a lot of travel but you know just people wereinterested in you you were a kind of superstar was your moment of celebrityand I felt like Julius and patty had all of the work and none of the likelaughs somehow and we laughed a lot Ron yes, we did. But it really it gave youa platform to take all of your advocacy though on a global scale. And I thinkone of the things that stands out for me personally was your library'stransform campaign which has had such an initial impact and continues to thisday to be used by libraries across the country. Can you talk about that? So on,the library's transformed campaign grew out of what would be my platform for mypresidency and I had a team of people help to evolve the ideas around it. AndHalle Rich cuyahoga county Public library was very instrumental but thensteve petition overdrive stepped up to support it so that it became a bigsplashing professional campaign and not just relying on skills and talents thatwere available in libraries. And it was very successful, particularly in socialmedia, in many states. And libraries adopted it. And I think when I thinkabout what's happening now in libraries, I keep thinking about the fact thatlibraries will have to transform again because I think um Covid has againprofoundly changed libraries and um what libraries will be as we moveforward. So uh you know, I don't know if transformation will be the rightword, but libraries will, in my opinion, need to get back to our core, whatwe're best at, which I think is what we're best at is readers and learningadvisory helping people supporting...

...people, making sure that there's equityof access and equity of experience and learning Absolutely. And if anybodywants to that you can go onto social media and use the hashtag librariestransform and you will get a slew of the slogans used around the country andthe things that are actually based in this platform, but how it's been usedto get the word out to communities. So I want to talk also before we go aboutyou're teaching and your mentorship because you have made such a differencein so many lives, both as an adjunct professor at Syracuse University andthe School of Information Studies, but also have taken on a lot of people thatyou see value in as their mentor me being number one of course um fromthere, but what you give back to them so much I want to know also whetherthat gives you so uh you know, I believe that I must leave theprofession better than when I came into it. So it's incredibly exciting to seethe pool, a pool of talent evolving and changing libraries and um I just lovewhen uh I say to somebody, have you ever thought about becoming a librarianand their eyes light up and I know they're you know, they're going to be achange maker in libraries and it's not, you know, it's not just readers, it'sother sparky pieces about people, but um usually it starts with aconversation about books and you know, there's a few people at Arapahoe CountyPublic Library right now that I helped get their library degrees and thenthere's people scattered around the country that I helped you get intoschool, get internships or whatever it took for them to finish those degrees.And I'm the advisor right now for Halle Rich to finish her degree, doing herfinal paper, leave me a kind of find she is amazing. Just one more feather.But I get a lot out of it. I get a lot out of it knowing that you know, thesegreat people are in the profession, right? And you don't just mentor andlet go. You are with people for their life and you mean a lot to all of uswho have benefited from your expertise and generosity. So let's talk aboutreading. That's why we're here. That's why we're here. What makes a greatlifelong reader. Why is it important? So I think that, you know, not everyonecomes to reading. Not everyone is lucky enough to be surrounded by books. So Ithink it's often connecting with someone who helps you find that firstor next great read, not feeling isolated around reading. And again,that's where nancy has been so important because she's kind ofcodified some of these uh some of these really good ideas around reader'sadvisory, that it's not about what I like, It's about what you like. So Ithink that, you know, I'm a person who resists book recommendations unless Ireally trust the person and nancy educates people on how to build thattrust quickly on the fly on the floor in the library. I think I wanted totell you a little bit about being a lifelong reader and what happenedduring Covid. So I'm living on second avenue in new york city. You know, areally, really hectic, busy neighborhood on the upper east side. Ilive across the street from the subway, one of the new glass subway station.And during Covid at night I could not sit still to read and I'm a nightleader. And so I would like try to read...

...and then I would be standing at thewindow watching this woman exercise in a completely empty subway station.Actually was nervous for her. She was walking this escalator and counting thenumber of people who walked on the street because there were so few and Iwas completely distracted. I just couldn't read. And I turned to a lot ofcomfort books. I went back to people like jane Austen and Barbara Pym. Iread mysteries and mystery series that I had read before, a bad sign for mebecause I'm, there's so much to read in so little time and then a reallyinteresting choice. I reread the library book by Susan Orlean and I sawit as a book of library resilience and I understood that libraries would comesewing in back with a vengeance as soon as they could figure out the best waysto offer service. I mean just reading about that fire and what was lost butpeople mourned and then they moved on and one of the people have actuallytalked to who has given me some inspiration about libraries is john's abow out in L. A. Because he's you know, doing some really incredible projects.Like he's doing a project on biodiversity with residents of the cityof Los Angeles And I think you know, people like john Zebo, his staff, otherreally talented people across the country will discover new pathways forlibraries. But that Susan Orlean book helped me to get back into reading. Andthen of course there was a wealth of books I had missed been reading Everson.Good, good. Well that is the perfect place to end. I could talk to you fordays and days and of course I will offline. But thank you so much forbeing on the podcast. I know you've truly given our listeners a newappreciation for and understanding of libraries and librarians truly are alibrary rock star and I'm so grateful. I get thank you publicly for all thatyou've brought both to me personally and to readers and library userseverywhere. You are the best. Thank you so much. This has been an honor. I knowI talked a lot but I guess I always have a lot to say You do. It's okaythat we need to hear it all. We hope that you've enjoyed this episode. It'scertainly been an honor to bring it to you and we can't tell you how much weappreciate the support of our listeners. Please be sure to tell a friendremember you can always find all the books by every Friends and fictionwriter's Block podcast. Guest, past and present in the friends and fictionbookshop dot org shop all sales place their help to fund friends and fictionand a portion of each and every sale goes straight into the pockets of indiebooksellers nationwide. Since its inception bookshop dot org has raisedmore than 16 million for indie bookstores, shops, small shop localfrom the convenience of your screen with bookshop dot org and tell themFriends and fiction sent you. Thank you for tuning in to the Friendsand fiction writer's block podcast. Please be sure to subscribe, rate andreview on your favorite podcast platform, tune in every friday foranother episode And you can also join us every week onFacebook or YouTube where our live friends and fiction show airs at sevenp.m. eastern standard time. We are so glad you're here. Yeah.

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