Q&A: A little foreshadowing from the new Buncombe County library director

TURNING THE PAGE: New Buncombe County Library Director Jason Hyatt envisions a new chapter for libraries as community hubs.

Jason Hyatt, the new director of Buncombe County Public Libraries, planned to major in elementary education when he went to college. His father and sister had been teachers in Charlotte, where he grew up and was educated, and he says that was “really a meaningful, important part of our lives.”

But a part-time job shelving books at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library while he was in college changed his direction. “I had been one of those kids who volunteered in the school media center and frequented the public library,” he says. “So, it was a very comfortable and familiar place for me. I hadn’t really considered it as a place to work until I started that part-time job in 2003. And then it just took off from there.”

Hyatt earned graduate degrees in library and information science from UNC Greensboro and public administration from UNC Chapel Hill. He then worked at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library. The American Library Association selected him to attend a prestigious leadership institute at Northwestern University. In 2016, he became executive director of the York County Library in Rock Hill, S.C., where he served until accepting his new position with Buncombe County.

In a telephone interview with Xpress, Hyatt talked about the changing role of public libraries.

Xpress: You’ve talked about an expansive role for libraries as community hubs. How are you learning what Pack downtown and the 11 branches are doing to fulfill that role?

Hyatt: Each location has its unique characteristics and a unique community surrounding it. The majority of my learning is going to take place by spending face time with the staff and getting to know how those branches operate. People really emphasize the importance of the library as a space to work and a place to connect with services and each other.

The library has 123 employees. How will you get to know a staff that large across so many different locations?

The most important thing I can do is get out to all of our locations. Here at Pack, I’m already trying to make a habit of walking around on the floor when I can. I would love to say that I’ll be able to build a relationship with every single employee, but I know that might be unrealistic.

In past jobs, I prided myself on being able to go out and do anything that I’ve asked my staff to do. So, I want to be fully equipped to pop in and work a service desk or cover a shift, if needed. That’s really important for me to understand how things work and what it’s like on the front lines.

Besides meeting your staff, I imagine there are many community partners you will want to meet. Who’s on your list?

The partnerships that immediately stand out are the ones we have with our various Friends of the Library groups. I met some fun folks from the Friends of the Black Mountain Library and learned some wonderful things about what they do and how much they love their library. I’m eager to bring all our Friends groups together so that we can share our common purpose and figure out the best working relationships and what I can do to keep those running smoothly.

Outside of the library, we work with the schools and have some great programs with them. We have ongoing partnerships with lots of area agencies and programs — child care providers, for example, and early childhood centers. Our ZOOM Pass program enables you to use your library card to sample a long list of area institutions like the Science Museum, the Nature Center, the art museum and the arboretum. It’s a fantastic program for people who may not have had access in the past to those places.

Your predecessor put forward a long-range plan for the library system. Some of the plan’s recommendations were controversial. What were the recommendations and the community’s response?

There was a suggestion that some of our smaller locations be closed and combined into a regional model. We heard loud and clear from the community, and I’m thinking of Black Mountain and Swannanoa, how much they love their libraries and how important it is to them as a community space. That was one of the reasons the county administration hit the pause button. We want to be sensitive and responsive and understanding of what the community needs. There is still a lot of work to be done to bring all of our facilities up to an equal level.

Buncombe County recently announced a plan to convert 14 temporary, part-time page positions – people who shelve books – to seven permanent, full-time positions. How will this work?

Pages have been a very valuable part of the library’s workforce. I understand why the change is happening. It’s part of the county modernizing its processes and embracing best practices. That doesn’t mean that it’s not tough for some of our long-term employees and the rest of our staff. We hate to say goodbye to anyone. They’re given first priority to apply for the seven positions. That’s happening right now.

You’ve said you want to revitalize many of the county library’s facilities to make them more functional for the future of library use. A new East Asheville Library opened at a cost of $6.9 million. Can any of those ideas be replicated at the existing branches without that kind of expenditure?

A lot comes down to how much space we are working with and how large a transformation we are looking for. There have been great shifts in the library world about how things happen in public spaces — flexibility of shelving, for example, things that can be rolled away so spaces can be reconfigured on the fly. Those are the kinds of things that I will be thinking about and talking about with the branch managers and staff as I make the rounds. Ultimately, I want community needs to drive what that might look like.

Many libraries across the country have faced efforts to remove books dealing with topics some people find offensive, especially those related to race and sexuality. How does the Buncombe County Library deal with these issues?

If someone believes that an item should be removed from the library’s collection, they can go on the library website and fill out a Request for Reconsideration of Materials. It gives them a chance to offer some supporting information. We have a team of staff members who review it. The team will forward the submission and its recommendation to the library advisory board. The advisory board will review it and make its recommendation to the library director, who makes the final decision. Then we get back to the patron. It’s very clearly outlined what that process looks like.

We have had a few instances of community members submitting requests for reconsideration of materials. Of the recent ones of which I’m aware, none has been removed.

Finally, why did you kiss a pig during your time in York County?

I knew that would haunt me for the rest of my career. We had Daisy the pig come out with Farmer Minor, her owner, who travels the country visiting public libraries to encourage children to read. If the people of York County would commit to reading a certain number of minutes and record those in their online reading log by a certain date, I would kiss a pig. I did it two days in a row. Daisy was very sweet, but she had very bad breath and a fair amount of slobber that I did not count on.

Do you have any plans to bring Daisy the pig to Buncombe County?

I’ll have to talk with our youth services folks.


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About Arnold Wengrow
Arnold Wengrow was the founding artistic director of the Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1970 and retired as professor emeritus of drama in 1998. He is the author of "The Designs of Santo Loquasto," published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

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