An interview with Nathania Sawyer, co-author

Q: In working on this book, did you discover anything new about CALS?

A: Almost everything was a discovery in one way or another -- mostly from the human side. Learning about the early days of Bobby Roberts's tenure as director explains a lot about the unwavering loyalty he receives from the staff. Hearing about the long-term staff members' career journeys provides a glimpse into the evolution of library science. I have made the joke that the subtitle of the book should be "Comedy, Tragedy, Intrigue, and Drama -- and None of It Fiction."

Q: Has the concept of public service changed over the years for public libraries?

A: The spirit of public service has not really changed. In her interview for the book, Jennifer Chilcoat said, "This is a public library, and people come in with every range of vulnerability and every range of need. They all deserve the best that we can offer them from where they are coming from. If we can accommodate them at all, we've got to find a way to step out and meet them where they are and to be helpful to them." That has been the spirit of the library from its inception.

Q: How do you see the role of CALS in regard to the "electronic age"?

A: The methods through which librarians deliver public service have changed significantly. Computers, the Internet, audio books, e-books, social networking -- even Guitar Hero and Wii bowling -- all have found their way into the fabric of public service.

Many people predicted that the electronic age would kill the public library -- that the available technology would make the library obsolete. That would be true if CALS were trying to be the same kind of library it was in 1910. But, CALS has embraced new technologies and adapted to the needs of the modern patron. The reality is that the electronic age created a world of information overload, and many people rely on librarians to guide them to the best resources. Many of those electronic resources are not available to the general public or would be cost prohibitive for individuals.

Q: Over the past 100 years, what have been the most important changes at CALS?

A: Hands down, getting the state constitutional amendment passed that allowed cities and counties to increase library funding from one mill to five mills ranks as the most important change. Up until that amendment passed in 1992, the library had been starving for funds -- trying to exist at the one-mill level that had been established in 1940.

The automation project that took place in the early 1990s also significantly changed the library. By tagging all of the materials with barcodes, the library could establish a unified catalog that listed all materials and their locations -- whether at the Main Library or at the branches. This ushered in a major shift in service because the patrons could see the entire catalog of available materials from any branch location instead of having to physically go to each branch to look at its freestanding card catalog. This change marked the point when each branch ceased to be a mini-library unto itself and the power of a true library system was born.

Q: What characteristics do present and former CALS directors share?

A: Other than the common quest for excellent public service, each director of CALS has approached leadership from a unique viewpoint and has had to deal with a different set of challenges. You can see the differences just by looking at how they approached the library's financial state. Vera Snook spent two decades trying to get adequate funding from the city, angering every mayor who held office during that period. Alice Gray rose through the ranks of the library and epitomized the "steel magnolia" during a period of financial stagnation. Bobby Roberts used his political acumen to go to the heart of the problem and push through a constitutional amendment that allowed libraries across the state to get the financial support they needed.

Q: Can you name some of the real strengths of CALS?

A: Without a doubt, the staff tops the list of strengths. Bobby Roberts is known for thinking out of the box and coming up with extremely innovative ideas; the staff builds the bridge between innovative ideas and innovative realities. The other major strengths are the amount of trust the public places in the library and support it provides. From the voters who trust the library to use their tax dollars to the best advantage to the volunteers who provide hands-on support throughout the library system, the public provides a level of support that allows CALS to excel.