In Loudoun County, the library recruited top-notch staff that weren’t trained librarians but had connections and relationships that enabled them to not only thrive in their jobs at the library, but also enrich the library’s work with a broad range of community partners.
Susan VanEpps and Kelly Senser use their backgrounds in Economic Development and Environmental Education to transform how the library aligns its work with the work others are doing across the county.
Senser’s transition from the nonprofit world to the library world came about because she had been working in community center that shared space with the library’s Sterling Branch. While there, Senser did a lot of work with food access and started working increasingly with the public library. When the library had an opening, Senser decided to apply. She got the job and immediately started using her background and expertise to enrich the library. She found out that the library was part of the Loudoun Environmental Education Alliance and also that going to all the Alliance’s meetings was becoming too much for the library director. Senser asked if she could start going instead, and the library administration enthusiastically supported her request. In this role, Senser was able to use her background and expertise to participate fully in the alliance, bringing new resources to the library while also sharing the library’s resources with the alliance.
Similarly, VanEpps made a lateral career move from the county’s Economic Development office to the county library in part because she saw all the amazing things that the library was doing, and she wanted to be part of that work. She said that “when I came to the library, one of the first thing I did was hit up all those great contacts” made during her career in the county’s economic development office. “I was like, ‘hey farmers, why don’t you do a farm series for me at the library.’ Those contacts came in handy when it came time to learn my role in the library. Because really, I was coming in from scratch, the previous person in my position had been in it for 25 years. And she basically left a blank slate when I walked in. So it was great and terrifying. But luckily, I had those contacts to fall back on to help get started.”
Both VanEpps and Senser were, in different ways, encouraged to come into the library and immediately transform how the library engaged the community – Senser at the branch level and VanEpps at the system-level.
VanEpps added, “I also knew that this the library system had really great leadership in place. We have a terrific director and assistant director. They had a great reputation. The library has a great reputation in our community. So that, to me, was a really strong reason for wanting to work at the library.”
Senser reflected on the value of the work she’s done in collaboration with the Environmental Education Alliance: “It’s given us a seat at the table, it’s helped those groups reach new audiences …. Even if we’re not necessarily program planning, these partners reach out to me and ask for advice or resources: ‘Can you post this at the library,’ for example, but [being part of the Alliance has] also allowed me to introduce partners to other branches, and then it kind of takes on a life of its own. One nature series I did with a grant was called Wild About Nature. Other branches sort of adopted that moniker and made it their own. And that’s what it takes, you know, for other people to show interest” and make it their own.
Senser’s skill as a connector and organizer both within the library and across the community propelled her from work she was doing at the Sterling branch into her current role as a Programming and Community Engagement Coordinator at the county level, working closely with VanEpps to mobilize and connect resources internally and externally. Senser said, “I’ve just been grateful to be in a system that has allowed me to do what I’m passionate about. I certainly do have other responsibilities, and whatnot, but if you’re passionate about something [and can incorporate that passion into your job] there’s a value in that that’s hard to measure.”
Get ahead of messaging and playing to peoples’ strengths
In addition to mobilizing connections, VanEpps and Senser also mobilize their administrative acumen to strengthen the library. Based on her experience, VanEpps said, “One of the things we try to do to remedy that [perception that library’s give more than they receive in partnerships] is that when wherever we’re setting up a partnership program, we try to set out at the beginning, what’s the marketing message for this and who are we targeting? And who’s going to control the message? Who’s going to make the flyer? Who’s going to make the Facebook event? And then who’s going to help send it out? I know everybody’s super busy. And I would just say that’s a challenge for both sides. It’s a challenge for them [our partners]. And it’s a challenge for us. We always ask our partners to help us get the marketing out, help us get the word out.”
VanEpps’s experience working with busy small businesses across Loudoun County has prepared her to upfront and direct about what the library needs to be successful in a partnership, while also communicating clearly and articulately what the library brings to the table.