Bringing people with the right connections and interests into your library

Chang Liu, the director of the Loudoun County Public Library in Northern Virginia, has worked in libraries her entire career. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in librarianship in China and has worked in libraries ever since.

Despite being the consummate library insider, Liu recognizes the value of bringing diverse perspectives into the library system she manages.

Two such perspectives are those brought by Susan VanEpps, the library’s Programming and Community Engagement Division Manager, and Kelly Senser, the library’s Programming and Community Engagement Coordinator.

Both VanEpps and Senser worked for 20 years in other roles before joining the library. VanEpps worked for the county government, primarily as the Marketing Manager for the County’s Economic Development Office, while Senser worked for over 20 years for the National Wildlife Federation (NLF) before joining the library.

Each brings these experiences and expertise into their roles as public library workers. Neither has any degrees in librarianship or library and information science.

In this case study, we’ll look at what VanEpps and Senser bring to the table, and how you can learn from this library’s experience to bring new perspectives into your library in order to extend, amplify, and re-imagine your library’s community relationships and partnerships.

This case study is part of HEAL (Healthy Eating and Active Living) at the Library, funded by the U.S. Institute of Museum & Library Services (# RE-246336-OLS-20)

Learn more about heal at the library >

Key Take-Aways:

In this community, Susan VanEpps and Kelly Senser used background in Economic Development and Environmental Education to change how the library aligns its work with the work of others  engaged in these sectors.

They also aligned their work for the library with a strong tradition of excellence in public librarianship, merging public librarianship with economic development and environmental education.

Background to Loudoun County

Loudoun County in Northern Virginia is very different as you move from the west to the east. The western side of the county is much more rural and agricultural, while the eastern side of the county is much more suburban and urban, with parts of the county near Washington D.C.’s Dulles National Airport having high levels of socio-economic diversity. Sterling, for instance, is only 30% non-Hispanic White, compared to 53% non-Hispanic White for the entire county. Overall, the county is 8% African American, 22% Asian American, 14% Hispanic or Latino, and 4% Two or more ethnicities.

Loudoun County is a fast growing county, with the population growing from 37,150 in 1970 to 420,959 in 2020. In the context of this fast growth, the Loudoun County Public Library has also quickly expanded. The library system began as a county system in 1973 as a two branch system. Today the library has 10 branches throughout the county.

The system was named an honorable mention for Library of the Year by Library Journal in 2021.

Logo of Loudoun County Public Library a tree fashioned in the shape of a book with orange leaves and flowers sprouting from pages
  • Location: Leesburg, VA
  • Population: 48,250
  • Service Area: 396,068
  • Demographics: 68% White, 10% African American, 18% Hispanic or Latinx population
  • Staff Size: 289
  • Operating Budget: $19,426,829
  • Annual Library Visits: 1,495,810
  • Annual Program Audience: 242,205

Right People for the Job of Community Organizing

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.

Kelly Senser (@klsnature) / Twitter

Kelly Senser

Susan VanEpps

Where will it lead?

The relationships VanEpps and Senser brought to the library and then further cultivated as library employees have led to so many amazing accomplishments and programs, everything from environmental education, to gardening classes, food distribution to cooking, classes, StoryWalks to Yoga classes.

VanEpps said sometimes it is hard to predict what is going to be successful and what isn’t, but it’s key to keep trying. “The surprise programs where we get a huge turnout are always fun to talk about. Our stargazing event we did last July [2019]: We partnered with the local park system and we got them to let us use a giant greenspace, maybe 20 acres of land, and we partnered with the Northern Virginia Astronomy Association, and they brought out maybe 15 astronomers with giant telescopes. And we thought we were going to get like 150 people to come out and look at stars. And we had 750 people! It was insane. 750 people came out and look at the stars and spend an evening outside running in the fields.”

VanEpps even won a national award for this work. Read more at and on the American Library Association webpage.

In 2017, Loudoun County Public Library (LCPL) faced a critical service gap—few adults were engaging with programming without their children. As a remedy, LCPL created an expanded lineup of relevant adult-focused programs, including the monthly Science on Tap series. A partnership between LCPL, Old Ox Brewery, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus, Science on Tap brought nationally and internationally recognized experts to the brewery to present on biology, neuroscience, cybersecurity, counter-terrorism, bomb analysis, and outer space, often describing their own groundbreaking research. Science on Tap has become LCPL’s most successful sustained effort in exposing science and tech-focused adults to the library, reaching an average of 150 attendees and signing up 15–20 new library cardholders per session.

As skilled communicators, VanEpps and Senser have written extensively about the fruits of their labors. Read on below

Science on Tap: How Loudoun Public Library Brought Cutting-Edge Science to the Public

Loudoun Extension Series: Gardening & Agriculture

Start Where You Are: Early Career Perspectives on Cultivating the Relationship-Driven Library

Fostering a lifelong love of nature at the library

Exploration outdoors: Kids bird-watching. Kelly writes that she “still warmly remembers the happy shout of a child when she spotted her first bird through binoculars.” Image courtesy: Loudoun County Public Library.

Rainy day play during Story Stroll program sponsored by Virginia’s Loudoun County Public Library. Image courtesy: Loudoun County Public Library.

An example of the wonder and joy of nature-based programming: A young patron excited to have found snail in creek water sample. Image courtesy: Loudoun County Public Library

Action Steps to Extend, Amplify, and Re-imagine

Action Steps:

  • You might not be in a position to hire a bunch of new staff, but you can start by being inquisitive about the networks, assets, and connections your existing staff especially have.
    • Pay special attention to part-time and paraprofessionals who often have deep community connections but are often not in a position to mobilize them on behalf of the library.
  • After you’ve discovered these assets and networks, mobilize and nurture them.
    • Senser and VanEpps not only connected the library to new partners, they also connected other library staff to those partners, enabling everyone in the institution to benefit from these new connections.
  • Take what other libraries have done and adapt them to the particular needs of your community. Make it your own.
  • A perennial challenge this library confronts is measurement and evaluation. The gratitude a library staff member feels when they have the opportunity to work on something that they are passionate about is intangible – it’s the type of thing hard to measure. We recommend empowering your passionate librarians to document the work they do to expand their passion outwards and also to expand the evidence of impact.

Learn more about how to document your successes and your passion in our Cultivating the Relationship-Driven Library Toolkit.