Earlier this month, Lisa Rosenblum had her first day on the job as the King County Library System Director. Rosenblum has worked in libraries across the country, but she’s taking the helm of an especially vibrant library system in KCLS.
King County Library System seems well-positioned for the future. Last year, digital reading platform Overdrive announced that King County led the nation in digital book checkouts, ahead of the systems for Los Angeles, New York, and even Seattle. In 2017, KCLS users checked out over four and a half million ebooks and digital audiobooks, but physical media hasn’t been left behind in the digital gold rush—over ten million visitors checked in to KCLS’s 49 branches, and they checked out some sixteen million non-digital-book items.
We talked on the phone with Rosenblum last week, to get a sense of where she’s from and what she wants to do at KCLS. The following transcript has been lightly edited.
What brought you into this line of work, and how you came to be interested in libraries? Do you have a librarian superhero origin story?
Well, I know you’re hoping for a romantic story, but I'm afraid mine came from a recession. I went to this fancy liberal arts school back east, called St. John's College, which is a great book school that gives you a liberal arts education in the most traditional sense — you study Ancient Greek, and you translate Sophocles, and you read the plays in the original language. It was an amazing education. But I got out during a time where there were no jobs, especially for overeducated liberal arts majors.
So, I started working. I got a job at a government contractor that provided library services to Army libraries. This was outside of Washington DC. Then, from there, I moved to Houston, married my husband, and got a job at Rice University, doing what we called, back then, cataloging. I knew from that point on that I never wanted to be a cataloger, because we had to file cards. I don't know how old you are, but I’m old enough to remember cards and card files.
Oh, sure. Yeah.
So, the big deal was, if you were good, you could drop your own cards. You know the little rods that went through the holes in the cards?
Well, when you did it correctly, you were allowed to pull out the little pole, have the cards drop down, and then the pole went through the hole in the bottom of the card, and that was it.
At Rice University, you were only allowed to do that if you never made a mistake filing. Well, in two years working there, I never could figure it out. I always had one or two mistakes, so I was never able to drop my own cards. So, long story short, I knew that this level of detail work was not my strong point.
So, fast-forward: we leave Houston, we're in California. Back then, California was hiring librarians without library degrees if they took tests, and I said, 'I'll never pass.' My husband encourages me: 'Oh, just take the test. Take the test.' So, I did, and I failed miserably on anything librarian-ish. But remember I told you I had that fancy liberal arts education? Well, I could match the author with the title of all these old Greek and Latin and Roman works, so I passed the test. Then I had an interview, and I got the job as a librarian.
I really loved it in the public library. This was before the internet. I really enjoyed helping people find answers, find information. This is back when these big reference books were behind us, and we could pull them down and find the answers to questions like, what was the average temperature in Prague in August? You just felt so empowered. I also was a youth librarian, and I did book talks. I'd go out to schools and talk about books in a very entertaining way, summarize them very dramatically.
So, I really learned to love the public library, and that's kind of how I got into it. It wasn't like I woke up one day and said, ‘I want to be a librarian.’ It wasn't that I met a librarian when I was in high school or when I was in elementary school and she made an impact. In fact, back then, librarians, I thought, were kind of mean. And they also would separate the children's areas from the adult's, so if you were a kid you were kind of isolated from things.
That's really how I got to be a librarian. From there, I progressively started to enjoy what I was doing. I worked for a big system, did basically everything in it, and then decided I wanted to be a director. I got a couple of different jobs as a director — including the last one as the director of the Brooklyn Public Library. Every time, I just really enjoyed what we do in our communities. I think that we really are very impactful and have done a great job in changing with what our community needs. The library I entered into more than 25 years ago is different than the one that we run now, but it's still the same. We still value books and reading and literacy, but we just do it in a different way, that's all.
So you mentioned Washington DC and Houston and California. Where are you from originally?
I originally was born in New Jersey, on the East Coast. Then, when I was 12, we moved to Virginia because my dad got a new job. Then, like the pioneers, I gradually made my way out west. I lived in California for most of my career, but I took up the opportunity to work for Brooklyn, because they recruited me.
So, I did that for two and a half years, and I decided that as much as I like New York, I'm a West Coast girl now.
And, of course, the King County Library System is known nationally as one of the best in the country.
I wanted to ask you what drew you to apply for the job at King County.
Well, first of all, King County has a national reputation of public support for libraries, and building beautiful libraries, and being really innovative. We were hearing about King County in California 20 years ago, when Bill Ptacek, the beloved leader of KCLS, had the insight to realize we were in the materials movement business. He knew we needed — this is back before digital — to be more efficient in how we move our materials around our system, and created that huge sorting machine in Preston. They've always been ahead of their time, and the community support for libraries is very desirable.
Plus, living here, this is a wonderful place. Or so I’ve heard. Because I've come at the worst of times, I'm told. It's dark when I go to work, it's dark when I leave. So I'm told this is a beautiful area, I just have to wait a couple of months.
Fortunately, I moved here from Brooklyn and not California. I think the change from California would have been too much for me, but I left in a blizzard from Brooklyn, so I’m used to variations in weather.
What are you reading right now?
Well, right now, I'm reading the classifieds to see where I can buy a condo here. I have to be honest with you, I have not been reading a lot since I moved here a week and a half ago. But, the last book I read was Manhattan Beach [by Jennifer Egan]. In Brooklyn, one of our libraries was in Manhattan Beach.I am very interested in reading regionally. I can't tell you what my favorite Seattle regional authors are, I'll be honest with you, but I'm looking forward to discovering them. The other nice thing about moving from Brooklyn to here is that New York City, in general, is a big reading community, and Seattle is too. So, it's great to go from one place to the other. People really like to read here.
Do you have people putting together a list of King County authors to check out, now that you're here?
Well, you know, I haven't asked them to do that. I've asked them to create a map of where all my libraries are. I'm starting there. But that's really a great idea.
I’ll be a patron and ask for a list of the 10 best books I should start reading to learn about Seattle.
Oh, man. If you'd like to come back and share that experience, I would love to talk to you about that, too. That sounds great. I know you haven't been to all of the libraries yet, are there any of the libraries that you think are especially nice in the King County region?
It's like asking who's my favorite child. Let me just say this: I'm very interested in the Skykomish library, the one that I can't get to in the winter.
I'm interested in that one because, first of all, it's in a beautiful area of the state, but, also, it really represents how important a rural library is to a community. It's got limited hours, but it's important that it's out there, that it's open for people. So, that's sort of my adventure library.
I'm starting to visit libraries this week. We're putting in a new maker space area in Bellevue, so that's going to be fun to go to in the next couple of weeks. We're basically creating a space where teens can create things. There'll be laser printers, and there'll be maker machines, and all sorts of stuff.
Oh, and I want to go to Vashon because I think it's so cool I have to take a ferry to get to one of my libraries.
So, yes, I'm looking forward to those, but those are kind of the cool adventure libraries. But, in general, I can't pick a favorite because the design of our libraries here is really amazing. Just the light — the recognition that it gets dark [in this part of the world] and just having all the light, even under the shelving, so that everything is so bright when you come in. It's very thoughtful. Our voters supported us to build new libraries and to renovate the existing ones, and I think we gave them a good bang for the buck here.
Do you have any priorities for your first few months at King County other than visiting the libraries?
Visiting, certainly. As I visit, I’ll be meeting with the staff. Also learning about the board, and working with the board.
And, of course, it's all about the budget — understanding the budget process, and really looking at the budget. How do we spend our money? What could we be doing differently? Just all the sort of basic stuff you do when you start a job.
I also said to the staff today, ‘when I'm visiting your libraries, I want the full King County experience. So where are the best coffee shops, the bakeries near where you are? Where would you go to lunch?’ I love to learn about the neighborhoods where our libraries are too, because they're all very different.
It just occurred to me that the Literary Lions fundraiser for the King County Library System Foundation is coming up in March. Are you going to be at that? Can people meet you there, if they attend the dinner?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I need to find a dress for that.
What have you learned in your meetings with the staff? You have some great librarians out there in the King County system — I know from experience. Is there anything that the staff has really impressed you with, or is there anything that you learned that surprised you?
Well, first of all, I think our librarians are wonderful, but I also think our support staff — the people behind them, the people that are on the floor, that aren't librarians, our circulation people — are great. I think what impresses me is their service philosophy. They really love working with the public and serving them in the way they need to, and in a changing way.
I had a meeting this morning with staff that is very interested in how we're serving our diverse communities. They're interested in social equity. They really keep abreast on what's current in the library field, and what makes the most sense here. They're passionate about what they do. They're very, very passionate about their love of the profession and serving the public.