Abilene City Manager Robert Hanna says he plans to start the search for a new city librarian in the new year.
Hanna is looking for the right person who can take the Abilene Public Library to the next level, someone to shepherd the transition from the city's downtown library on Cedar Street to a new location at Abilene Heritage Square, site of the former Abilene High/Lincoln Middle School building on South First Street.
Lori Grumet recently retired from the city after serving as its head librarian for five years.
Hanna said he plans to use a search firm, at a cost of around $23,000 or so, to find Grumet's successor.
"I know that there's been some in the community who have said we don't need to do this, we don't need to do a national search," he said.
But Hanna said that in his two decades of managing cities, he's seen firsthand that such an approach bears fruit.
"We found Lori through a nationwide search," Hanna said. "This is a specialty position, and they're historically very hard to fill. And I think Abilene is uniquely positioned because will have the Abilene Heritage Square project, which I think, frankly, is going to be one of the premier libraries in the Southwest United States.
"And what I want to do ... is make sure that we have a department that grows into that library and that concept."
The Abilene City Council will vote Thursday to approve transferring ownership of the former school to Abilene Heritage Square Inc.
Once the facility is renovated, that entity will lease space to the city to house a new library.
The project will renovate the 96-year-old academic building and 1929 gymnasium while preserving their historic facades, while new construction sensitive to the historic structures will be added to the west side of the academic building.
Heritage Square will provide around 62,000 square feet of fully-furnished and equipped contemporary library space. The project is expected to be completed in 2023, the centennial of the midtown site.
A new librarian for that space will need to be thoughtful, citizen-focused and passionate about the value of libraries and the role libraries play in the community, Hanna said.
The idea that libraries are something out of the dusty past has little merit, Hanna said.
"The reality couldn't be further from the truth," he said. "Library libraries are centers for entrepreneurship, libraries are centers of thought and creativity. And they're like little think tanks, engines of activity.
"You plant seeds and creativity and thought in our children. You give the adults in our community an opportunity to be creative and express themselves and learn new skills and abilities."
Hanna said he'd go so far as to say libraries are "one of the most essential things I think government does."
"(They) can give people access to information and resources that they wouldn't otherwise have, even with the Internet," he said. "It's a great powerful tool. But libraries are changing from a focus on just books and resources and information to maker spaces to a place of creativity, a place to test your ideas, a place for arts and culture to thrive."
That will make finding a new director with that same sort of ethos essential, he said.
Judith Phaneuf, the 2019 president of Friends of the Abilene Public Library, said she wanted to see someone in the position who is creative and will engage deeply with volunteers — perhaps even expand their role in the facility.
Right now, volunteers help with a yearly book sale or other fundraisers.
"But when I look at libraries (volunteers) are an integral part of the staff," she said, including preparing and offering programming.
Volunteers also become advocates for the library, which helps create an engine that feeds itself.
"The library is (a) hub within the community," she said.
The transition to Heritage Square will mean some necessary changes to the city's basic structure, Hanna said.
Currently, the city's three-branch library system is under its Community Services Department.
Hanna wants to uplift the library system to its own, standalone department, and bring to Grumet's successor a new title, "director of libraries," instead of "library director."
There's a nuanced change there, Hanna said, and one that's deliberate.
"What it signifies is that we are returning to the status of the library being around the table as important and integral part of the city's leadership team, which they have not been for some years," he said.
It's in many ways a restoration, he said.
In the past, the library system was its own department, but that changed "several administrations ago," Hanna said.
"What's important to me is that as city manager, I've never not had a library director or director of libraries around the table to provide wisdom, guidance and counsel," he said. "Librarians in general, are excellent researchers, excellent resources, and excellent people to talk to you about complicated ideas and thoughts.
"For me, in particular, I've always valued having them around the decision table."
The city has yet to determine what it will do with its Main Library, which was built in January 1960, following a library bond passed in December 1956.
At the time, it was hoped that the building would meet the community’s needs for 20 years; it now has been in use for more than six decades, according to a brochure about the Heritage Square project.
As published in the Abilene Reporter-News on Wednesday, December 18, 2019 by Brian Bethel