Julee Hatton, Abilene’s new library director, was a lifelong library user, checking out books in Valentine, Nebraska, from her local Carnegie Library.
But it wasn’t until she got a part-time job at the University of Nebraska library as a student that she found the foundation of her future profession.
"That really got me interested in library work," she said. She got a bachelor’s degree in psychology, then went to graduate school to study library science.
Working in both academic and public settings, she "really fell in love with the public library again," especially "how we work with all kinds of people in the whole community."
Hatton, who has more than 20 years experience in libraries, came here in June from Lincoln, Nebraska, to join the city’s management team.
She started her professional career in 2005 as a library assistant, working her way through the ranks to become assistant director of Lincoln City Libraries.
That system serves the 317,000 residents of the city and Lancaster County.
"So I really have had quite a few years of experience in public libraries, and I still love them as much as I did when I started," Hatton said.
The modern library is a community hub, she said, COVID-19 notwithstanding.
"People can come to the library without having to buy anything, and they have a place where they can build a community and grow as a community and learn about any topic," Hatton said. "It’s just a chance to get together with other people."
Previously, libraries focused mostly on information, she said.
"There was no Google," she said. "But now, we really have a focus on people in the library, and spaces for people and programs for people."
That includes the importance of literacy, especially early literacy and how that translates into future success.
"That was a big push in my library in Lincoln," she said, including the importance of reading aloud to children and "how that really changes their brains."
"And I think that’s one of the biggest things, (along with) just having an opportunity to connect with others in the community and do things," she said, including learning-related opportunities such as maker’s spaces.
Hatton is excited about the opportunity presented by Abilene Heritage Square, the future home of Abilene’s downtown library.
Located in the former Lincoln Middle School/Abilene High School (one starts to notice a theme related to Hatton), the new library space is going to be part of "campus" that has auditorium space, museum space, and other amenities.
"I really love how it’s part of a campus," she said. "And to think that it’s going to be really fantastic for the community. It’ll give the library a lot of opportunities to partner with other organizations like The Grace Museum. I’ve talked to (Grace Museum Executive Director Laura Moore) a lot about that. It’s not just going to be a standalone institution."
Hatton sees in that configuration the opportunity for the library to be an even more vibrant and interconnected part of the community, perhaps enticing those who have never come to a public library before to check the opportunities such a setting represents.
On a personal level, Hatton, loves spending time with family. She has five brothers, all of but one still in Nebraska.
She and her husband, Tom, have two rescue dogs.
"I like to be involved in animal charities and things like that," she said.
Reading, nor surprisingly, is a big part of what she likes to do in her spare time.
She’s also a big fan of cycling, already finding contacts in the Abilene community interested in the same.
"Those are kind of my fun things, going to the dog park and going cycling outside," she said.
She’s also trying her hand at gardening, specifically Xeriscaping - using native plants to produce water-smart but aesthetically-pleasing results.
While managing a library system in a pandemic isn’t easy, it’s something that Hatton said is a challenge worth meeting.
"We’re trying to give people the option to connect with other people, if they feel like that is a safe thing to do," she said, keeping programs going at 50% capacity and making space to keep participants young or old socially distant.
"We’re giving people the opportunity to come out and just get out of isolation a little bit, but also remain safe, which is our biggest goal," Hatton said.