Friends & Fiction
Friends & Fiction

Episode 19 · 1 year 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 find somebody who would go there who was excited to go there and I was thrilled and so off I went and I had a great team there. You know, the other people on the staff were willing to try absolutely anything and we did programs like farm animals come to the city and we would draw huge crowds for pigs in a playpen on the library lawn. Welcome to the Friends and fiction Writer's Block podcast for new york times, bestselling authors, one rock star librarian and endless stories joined mary Kay andrews, Kristen, Harmel, Christie Woodson, harvey and paddy, Callaghan Henry Along with Ron Block as novelists, we are four longtime friends with 70 books between us and I am Ron block. Please join us for fascinating author interviews and insider talk about publishing and writing. If you love books and are curious about the writing world, you are in the right place. Welcome to the Friends and Fiction Writer's Block podcast. I am Ron block in today. We are continuing our periodic feature library rock stars. Today, I'm so happy to welcome someone who has been vitally important to libraries, librarians and readers for decades. Seri Feldman, full disclosure sarah and I have been close friends for a very long time and it's been my joy and honor to witness her trajectory in the profession and the impact she has made on so many. I'm thrilled to be able to shine a light on her wonderful accomplishments. Welcome Seri Hi, thanks so much for having me. I will say that I have been in awe of your trajectory and I'm going to take a lot of credit for pushing you into the profession 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 a graduate of Sunni Binghamton and received her master's degree in Library Science Madison Wisconsin. From there, she began her advocacy focus on helping the under served as her career progress. She took on more responsible rules and having worked with her early on, I joined the chorus of others who knew that she was destined for great things. She became an agent for innovation, both on the local and national levels recently, she's retired from former leadership, but she's still active in libraries and in the american Library Association, 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 conversation about her life and about this amazing human and her importance and contributions to readers everywhere. How about that? That's a lot. That's a lot. But Sarah, let's start at the beginning. So I want to talk about your growing up. I love this story about how your passion for reading grew and when libraries became your focus for your life, I grew up in a very small town in the western cat scans and we did not have a library, but my parents were readers, particularly my mother and my sister was my older sister was told to read to me every night but she would grow bored so I had to learn to read myself because she would start a mystery and wouldn't finish it. So I learned to read very early on and then I was insatiable, fortunately a bookmobile 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 the summer. He would negotiate with the school librarian at the local high school and he would take out a carton of books. The librarian and my father would select them. It wouldn't necessarily have been the teen romances I was dreaming of for summer reading but we would read through that carton of books over the summer and that was you know, also part of my reading evolution. So you were already reading way outside your normal comfort zone. That's great. Yes. So give everybody, we did a little bit about your educational background. But I love to hear you tell the story of your career path. So do you mind just giving everybody a brush stroke of of how you started in libraries and where it leads you. So I tell the same joke every time I tell this story and you've heard it a million times. I was living in Madison Wisconsin. I was working the kind of job that lets you know, it's time to go back to school, had my undergraduate degree, but I really had no skills or ability. I started to do some volunteer work at a one of the first rape crisis centers in America and I soon discovered that I really didn't like counseling people. But I love the information and referral part of the rape crisis center process. And a woman named Jane Perlmutter was in library school, which is what it was called at that time. And she said to me, you really should think about becoming a librarian. Mhm. So I went to the University of Wisconsin, Helen, see white hall and presented myself to Margaret Munro who was the professor. I was just enthralled with when I did some research that she was doing teaching around reader services in the public library. This idea that people connected with books and they had informal 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 to take 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 as a student and she was so important to me that she's one of the reasons my oldest daughter is named Margaret. Oh, okay. I wonder if I ever heard that before. And actually they met once. Like I was very scared of Margaret Monroe. And anyone who ever met you would say the same thing. She was a scary 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 hugged meg was shocking. So I know you actually began working there in Madison but then you moved on from there to other opportunities. What were some of those? So my first job, I worked in the jail librarian in Madison, Wisconsin at the dane county correctional facility and that was kind of life changing because I realized that the advantages of education and access to books and even more access to information could really change your life could make the biggest difference. And and I actually loved my experience there and I learned a lot and it matured me in some ways but not every way. And then I went off to Illinois where I became a teen librarian and I wasn't much out of my teens myself and I was always getting...

...in trouble for doing things like playing frisbee on the lawn of the library with the teens that would you know, come for my programs or having these dance parties in the library that were very noisy and other customers were object. But the library director was pretty open minded, I became homesick for new york state. And I came to 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 director there and I was definitely proving my immaturity at the time. And Rod Miller Tuttle, who was the head of Fiction and humanities, said that she had some grant funding at the main library of Onondaga County Public Library. It was the old main library with the big windows and glass stat glass floored stacks and that I could come and work as a teen librarian there. And so I made that leap where I proceeded to once again kind of raised the ire of a director because of some of my programming and this time he had great recourse bob kitchen who was the director then said that the grand funding ran out and so I would have to go and I decided to use that as a time to start doing a little professional writing and to also think about going back to school and I work part time and then I worked part time in the film library where I got to work with you on an almost daily basis, which was so much 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 and but then this is a very interesting twist all of a sudden people must have realized that some of the programming I was doing was actually catching the interests of the under served in libraries, that programming and correctional facilities and programming that really used film and non traditional media could have a great appeal to people. And so when the opening at beacon branch as the branch manager came available, okay. They actually offered me the job to come back full time. And this, I just want to say this was in uh, the most at that time, the most economically disadvantaged Syracuse community neighborhood. And it, it was predominantly black and I think they were challenged to find somebody who would go there who was excited to go there and I was thrilled and so off I went and I had a great team there of, you know, the other people on the staff were willing to try absolutely anything. And we did programs like farm animals come to the city and we would draw huge crowds for pigs in a playpen on the library lawn and then we would read pig stories or programs discussing why do our Children take drugs and having a panel of experts or programs on the history of the civil rights movement with people who had actually participated. I mean we would fill the...

...meeting room to the rafters, I learned to play the negro national anthem and taught all the kids coming into the library how to sing it. I mean we were just having the best time. And so I was there for about five years and I think that experience also, you know had a big 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 the transition to the main library, it was a great little circulator. It had an engine of borrowers because people were getting the reader's advisory they needed and the collection was reflecting the books people wanted. So I'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 of some of the early things that drove you and kind of like put in and as those of us who knew you knew you weren't going to stay put for long. Right. So then I was married, I had my Children and I decided that I needed to, I needed to be 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 on the weekends, I was always coming up with some crazy idea that took me to the library on Saturdays and Sundays. But in the meantime I went to the, what was then the new main library in Syracuse and I went and I started on this path to do every job you could ever do in a public library. I want you to experience everything. And so that every two years I moved around, I mean I did things like headed technical services, something you know really above my knowledge base. And I became the head of the system, Children's services. Again, no background really in Children's work. So I became the head 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, We worked on projects to really boost circulation in the main library and we were just driving traffic, we were doing these great best seller displays and people were coming in and drove to get those best sellers and then we were pushing all kinds of other materials in their direction. During that time, I also worked with the friends of the Central library and I was privileged More than 25 years ago to start one of the first library literary lecture series and to bring authors that I loved or that my friends loved and get some face time with them. So I started the series with Calvin trilling and when I started a series in the future, I started again with Calvin Trillin because he was so important to launching that series. But one great experience that we had together was lunching with Pat Conroy and you went with me to pick him up at the airport. We were both shaking because he was already a literary lion and he was, we went to lunch and I always say he was the kind of person who took his fork and dug right into your plate to taste what you were eating. And I didn't mind...

...one bit. He had no culinary boundaries and he was just the most wonderful person. And again, when I moved on to other literary series in Cleveland, Pat Conroy came again and pretended he had been my friend over The 10 years we have met since we have met the first time. Oh no, he remembers it well. And I after you left that day I got to spend the whole rest of the day with him and it's just, it's just been amazing to have been his friend and to know him on a personal basis, but also his writing, which you know is my absolute all time favorite. So fast forward to moving to Cleveland. So you started out with the Cleveland public library right. So I went to Cleveland Marilyn Mason was the director and she brought me in to have the branches, the library for the blind and physically handicapped. And then eventually we emerged youth services into that mixture. And again, it was, I was taking on a challenge because the branches were in underserved neighborhoods, almost all of them and they were also struggling to, they weren't struggling under like any kind of pressure from homelessness or crime, but they were struggling with not being utilized to their fullest. So lots of kids came in after school, but they weren't circulating materials and we needed to find ways to really turn that around. And again, it was programming was programming that made all the difference to introducing these underserved communities to books. And uh, the french librarians were just really outstanding and ready to do what it took. And we changed the whole kind of model to doing much more outreach and saying we're not going to sit in these buildings waiting for people to come, we're going to meet them where they are. And then of course they came and um, making the library feel much more welcoming to people when they came through 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 retire and over the course of the next year Andrew Venable was then appointed as Executive Director and he had been the deputy and he made me his deputy. And um, he gave me a kind of interesting set of responsibilities. Hey, it's uh kind of flipped my skill set and gave me facilities and security and technical services and um collections and still some programming. And it took me a while to find my place in all of that. But once I did, I realized that I could make even more impact because I could renovate those facilities now. Um it didn't have a big budget but there were branches that still had bars on the windows from periods of riots in the 1960s and they had to go and there were children's areas that were child unfriendly and um and then in terms of security, you know security was eating...

...up a bigger and bigger part of the budget so getting stay off much more involved in managing behavior in the library. So it didn't need that much security every day. And then um you know in the collections again now I was over over collection development and I could do really big projects and really big outreach around collection and so two things I'll mention one is that like pulver who is now the director of the Saratoga Springs Library was um at the main library and we cooked up this scheme to take the center of the book away from the Ohio State Library and bring it to the Cleveland public library. And we were successful, I really lead on that but because I was the deputy, I could really push for that to happen. Okay. And then when Cindy or who was um the collection development librarian met steve potash who was starting overdrive and she was giving him some tips, she could bring steve to me and I could convince Andy Venable the director to make that first investment In 2002 in an overdrive um subscription and so we became the first public library in America to launch e books on the overdrive platform. And I The best way to convince Andy to do something was to stay really late after everybody else had gone home and to take in the paper for him to sign off and let him that he rest in peace. He was a wonderful person. Let him shout at me for 20 minutes about about why it was 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 the very near future. And the Kindle was coming soon and then everybody will one and you'll be first and you'll be happy you were first. Right, right. He should have 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 e books and how it's expanded since then it has changed millions, literally millions of lives. And I I think that's one of the, one of your great accomplishments of so many. But that really, really had a big effect on people 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 would really have nothing because he was passionate about libraries. It wasn't just a sale for him. He really wanted people to have that equity of access that comes from e books being in libraries. He continues that too, has been such an advocate for years of libraries and he's really done a lot of things to help move it forward. So from there you then went to cayuga County Public Library, which was your well Or your big shining moment. I think that's kind of where everything in your career...

...really came to be in all of the skills that you have built up in the experiences and relationships really, you were able to utilize in amazing ways because you brought up that library system to become the number one library system in the country now for 11 running years. So I mean that's, that's a big thing. So can you talk about how your transition to there and what you saw and how, how you kind of built 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 every single day. But I really wanted to be a director and my family said absolutely no more moves go without us. They were very happy where they were. So cuyahoga County came open and I was fortunate enough to become the director and there were two things that I saw one was that cuyahoga County public library was actually pretty far behind in technology. They weren't used utilizing library technology or personal technologies offering through libraries to its fullest. So I knew when I was looking for a deputy director that I needed somebody with that understanding of public services, that passion for what public libraries deliver, but who really new technology. So I was very lucky that although Tracy struggle, didn't believe me when I said I was bringing her over to be the deputy of CUyahoga County Public Library because she was the web supervisor at Cleveland public. She was the perfect pick and I'm you know, so delighted and she's done an amazing job throughout covid especially in steering that library forward. Okay. But I also felt that for a library that had the kind of reach of cuyahoga County Public library. Um and many, many very well educated suburbs that they just weren't circulating enough. And I know circulation isn't the measure of everything, but circulation is the measure of book borrowing and people were using e books, but the physical book needed to be flying off those shelves. So um together with you know, really, you know, the system leadership with the system readers, we went about revolutionizing this whole idea of what libraries do with books and around the same time I had become kind of friend colleagues with nancy pearl and in a joke, I said nancy, the library owns this 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 the winter from Seattle. But I'll come a lot and I'll train your staff and I'll do things for your public and together we'll make a difference. And so nancy came once a month for 10 months for multiple days I think three or four days every time and just change the culture because nancy is interested in everybody and is interested in everybody finding the book. They want to read. So many entrenched silly rules that the library had went out the window. Many entrenched policies and practices went out the window. But more importantly, nancy was able to get everyone talking about books and um sure just did incredible work and she...

...kept coming back and refreshing us whenever we got a little stale. But this whole idea of reconnect with reading, our circulation began to soar and you know, just climbed. It was astronomical. And there were years where per capita our circulation was number one in the country. And you know, we're talking about per capita. That might not seem like a big deal to people. But when you compare the education levels of, of the all of cuyahoga county, not just the greater Cleveland area with places like Seattle or Portland. It's much less educated and education makes a difference in reading. So we were reaching the underserved, you know, and then we built libraries to further invite people into the experience around books and learning. So it was just the greatest time and the luckiest time and the impact of that focus. It still felt every day I hear from people that just hearken back to that time when Nancy Pearl was there and they just they really absorbed at all. And so that was a great opportunity that you gave everybody. So I'm going to house will now highlights some of your national, you know, there's more, there's more your national involvement. You you became both the president of the Public Library Association and then subsequently the american Library Association, a lot of our listeners may or may not know exactly what those organizations are. So you could tell us a little bit about that and about their importance to libraries and to readers in general. So the public Library Association is a division of the american Library Association and the American Library Association is the largest and longest existing library association of librarians in the world. So um the American Library Association has between 50 and 60,000 members. And um you know, I would say the Public Library Association probably has between 15,000 20,000 members of any given time. And it's, you know, our professional associations, it's our people. 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 president and that was perhaps not that surprising. I'm passionate about public libraries are taught about public library. I've written, I've spoken you know, I ran against the most admirable and talented person and squeaked through to become president between that presidency and the L. A. Presidency, I became the chair of the digital content in the digital content in libraries working group with I was the co chair with bob evolve in and we were trying to build a bridge between libraries of all types and the publishing industry to make sure that libraries continue to have access to digital content. Because the question at that time was not just how much the bloody things cost when libraries by them and now when libraries leased them because we're not really buying them anymore. But it was will you even let us have them? And there were two published, two of the big five publishers weren't even given libraries access at the time. So I became probably well known because I was speaking at every conference I was writing an american libraries and the Washington office and bob Waldon like one of the nicest people in the world were making me look good and smart all the time. And I was asked to run for L.

A. President and I said no but I was in san Francisco having dinner with a bunch of my library pals including luis Herrera who was then the director of the san Francisco public library and my daughter Bridget was failed with me and everybody said why don't you run? You'd be 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 cool to my kids so I said I'm gonna run because she'll think I'm cool and then I and then my other daughter, meg Margaret got really involved in my campaign as did you Roz as did all my pals and I kept saying to people I am not gonna win, there is no way I can win. The odds are against me but like in most things in life I was all in so I didn't think I was going to win but I gave it my all and I want so yeah it was just the most amazing thing and the libraries 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 thinking about Julius jefferson and patty juan and how they were presidents during a time 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 you know travel, there was a lot of travel but you know just people were interested in you you were a kind of superstar was your moment of celebrity and I felt like Julius and patty had all of the work and none of the like laughs somehow and we laughed a lot Ron yes, we did. But it really it gave you a platform to take all of your advocacy though on a global scale. And I think one of the things that stands out for me personally was your library's transform campaign which has had such an initial impact and continues to this day 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 my presidency and I had a team of people help to evolve the ideas around it. And Halle Rich cuyahoga county Public library was very instrumental but then steve petition overdrive stepped up to support it so that it became a big splashing professional campaign and not just relying on skills and talents that were available in libraries. And it was very successful, particularly in social media, in many states. And libraries adopted it. And I think when I think about what's happening now in libraries, I keep thinking about the fact that libraries will have to transform again because I think um Covid has again profoundly changed libraries and um what libraries will be as we move forward. So uh you know, I don't know if transformation will be the right word, but libraries will, in my opinion, need to get back to our core, what we're best at, which I think is what we're best at is readers and learning advisory helping people supporting...

...people, making sure that there's equity of access and equity of experience and learning Absolutely. And if anybody wants to that you can go onto social media and use the hashtag libraries transform and you will get a slew of the slogans used around the country and the things that are actually based in this platform, but how it's been used to get the word out to communities. So I want to talk also before we go about you're teaching and your mentorship because you have made such a difference in so many lives, both as an adjunct professor at Syracuse University and the School of Information Studies, but also have taken on a lot of people that you see value in as their mentor me being number one of course um from there, but what you give back to them so much I want to know also whether that gives you so uh you know, I believe that I must leave the profession better than when I came into it. So it's incredibly exciting to see the pool, a pool of talent evolving and changing libraries and um I just love when uh I say to somebody, have you ever thought about becoming a librarian and their eyes light up and I know they're you know, they're going to be a change maker in libraries and it's not, you know, it's not just readers, it's other sparky pieces about people, but um usually it starts with a conversation about books and you know, there's a few people at Arapahoe County Public Library right now that I helped get their library degrees and then there's people scattered around the country that I helped you get into school, 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 her final 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, these great people are in the profession, right? And you don't just mentor and let go. You are with people for their life and you mean a lot to all of us who have benefited from your expertise and generosity. So let's talk about reading. That's why we're here. That's why we're here. What makes a great lifelong reader. Why is it important? So I think that, you know, not everyone comes to reading. Not everyone is lucky enough to be surrounded by books. So I think it's often connecting with someone who helps you find that first or next great read, not feeling isolated around reading. And again, that's where nancy has been so important because she's kind of codified some of these uh some of these really good ideas around reader's advisory, that it's not about what I like, It's about what you like. So I think that, you know, I'm a person who resists book recommendations unless I really trust the person and nancy educates people on how to build that trust quickly on the fly on the floor in the library. I think I wanted to tell you a little bit about being a lifelong reader and what happened during Covid. So I'm living on second avenue in new york city. You know, a really, really hectic, busy neighborhood on the upper east side. I live 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 night leader. And so I would like try to read...

...and then I would be standing at the window watching this woman exercise in a completely empty subway station. Actually was nervous for her. She was walking this escalator and counting the number of people who walked on the street because there were so few and I was completely distracted. I just couldn't read. And I turned to a lot of comfort books. I went back to people like jane Austen and Barbara Pym. I read mysteries and mystery series that I had read before, a bad sign for me because I'm, there's so much to read in so little time and then a really interesting choice. I reread the library book by Susan Orlean and I saw it as a book of library resilience and I understood that libraries would come sewing in back with a vengeance as soon as they could figure out the best ways to offer service. I mean just reading about that fire and what was lost but people mourned and then they moved on and one of the people have actually talked to who has given me some inspiration about libraries is john's a bow 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 city of Los Angeles And I think you know, people like john Zebo, his staff, other really talented people across the country will discover new pathways for libraries. But that Susan Orlean book helped me to get back into reading. And then 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 for days and days and of course I will offline. But thank you so much for being on the podcast. I know you've truly given our listeners a new appreciation for and understanding of libraries and librarians truly are a library rock star and I'm so grateful. I get thank you publicly for all that you've brought both to me personally and to readers and library users everywhere. You are the best. Thank you so much. This has been an honor. I know I talked a lot but I guess I always have a lot to say You do. It's okay that we need to hear it all. We hope that you've enjoyed this episode. It's certainly been an honor to bring it to you and we can't tell you how much we appreciate the support of our listeners. Please be sure to tell a friend remember you can always find all the books by every Friends and fiction writer's Block podcast. Guest, past and present in the friends and fiction bookshop dot org shop all sales place their help to fund friends and fiction and a portion of each and every sale goes straight into the pockets of indie booksellers nationwide. Since its inception bookshop dot org has raised more than 16 million for indie bookstores, shops, small shop local from the convenience of your screen with bookshop dot org and tell them Friends and fiction sent you. Thank you for tuning in to the Friends and fiction writer's block podcast. Please be sure to subscribe, rate and review on your favorite podcast platform, tune in every friday for another episode And you can also join us every week on Facebook or YouTube where our live friends and fiction show airs at seven p.m. eastern standard time. We are so glad you're here. Yeah.

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