Spokane County Library District Executive Director Nancy Ledeboer will retire this September.
“It’s so refreshing to be in a community that supports libraries,” Ledeboer said, recalling her first impression of Spokane.
In 1992, she began working at the Spokane City Library as youth services coordinator and later as assistant director of the library system.
She moved to the King County Library System on the West Side in 1998 as an associate director. She then spent six years overseeing the 24 branches of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, first as the head of public services and eventually as the deputy director. She next moved to Tucson, Arizona, to be executive director of the Pima County Public Library.
“I became a librarian knowing that libraries can change a life by opening up doors and opening up minds,” she said. “But it was really working in Tucson that I came to see how libraries can actually transform communities.”
After an absence of roughly 13 years, she returned to Spokane in 2012 as the executive director of the Spokane County Library District.
When she asked her new library staff to tell her what they were proud of, she said, she received answers like “customer service” and “being good fiscal stewards.”
While she said these are important qualities, she found the library lacking an emphasis on “innovation” and “community.”
Throughout her time as director those two words became her top priorities.
In Tucson, she said, “The library became a transformational experience for the community.” She wanted the same for Spokane County.
Under Ledeboer’s leadership, the Spokane County Library District was chosen as one of 10 library systems in the U.S. to undergo an 18-month-long program called Libraries Transforming Communities, through which the district received a grant from the American Library Association to send five staff members to a series of workshops.
“We started to turn outward and say, ‘What can the library be in the community? What can we do to serve the community?’” she said.
Ledeboer described the strategy of “turning outward” as an “epiphany for libraries.”
“Google came in and transformed” the library system, she said. “For years libraries had invested in reference training and reference desks and reference collections, and within a short period of time all of that became irrelevant and libraries suddenly had to reinvent themselves.
“We started to see that the goal of the library would be helping connect people to local information and local resources, because the nonprofit down the street doesn’t have a web presence. They don’t have a paid web person,” she said.
The purpose of libraries, in the beginning, “wasn’t just to share books,” she said, “it was to create knowledge.”
Many community members are experts in their fields wanting to share their knowledge, said Ledeboer, “so it’s about finding them, inviting them in and giving them a platform to share that information.”
Ledeboer encouraged her staff to innovate and take risks, with the goal of connecting community members to each other and information.
A newly implemented project is a converted space called “The Studio,” located at the Spokane Valley branch. It is equipped with photo, audio and video recording devices along with appropriate editing software.
Trying to get approval for another library branch in Spokane Valley has been Ledeboer’s biggest challenge.
“We thought we had support for it,” she said. The district needs 60 percent approval to start the project, and the second vote came in 2.3 percent shy of that mark.
Ledeboer earned a Master of Library and Information Science from University of California, Berkeley, in 1980, after receiving a bachelor’s in history from the same school.
Ledeboer, 60, has spent five years as executive director of the Spokane County Library District and is ready to move on.
“It’s really sad to say, but you get to be my age and you start looking at the obituaries and going ‘Oh my gosh, what if I only have five years left? What if I only have 8 years left? What would I want to do?’ ” she said.
“You can work and work and work and save and save and save, but it isn’t going to do any good unless you actually retire and do something with the time and money,” she said.
She plans to walk the Camino – a monthlong hike in Spain – spend time with her four grandchildren and read “lots and lots of books,” she said.
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