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New library manager balances skills with passion

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County: Thomas jumped at the chance to move to Los Alamos

By Arin McKenna

Steven Thomas, the newly hired library manager, was not planning on leaving his position as assistant director of the Washington County Library System in Arkansas.

“I really wasn’t out on the job market, but my wife and I had four or five places in the country that we always knew we wanted to live over and above everywhere else, and this was one,” said Thomas, who had vacationed in the area several times.

“When this opened up, it was just a perfect job at this point in my career. I’ve been assistant director at three libraries that, like here, were kind of model libraries in their part of the world. So we were just delighted, and couldn’t possibly be more excited to be here. We weren’t just hunting for jobs: it was very much this specific job and this specific place.”

Thomas said that he and his wife Lisa Caldwell, were attracted to three things in particular.

“It’s the combination of the arts, music, film, mostly in Santa Fe, but really all around and in Los Alamos, as well. The quality of that is very high for the size of the community,” Thomas said.

“But what really makes it just wonderful for both of us is the ability to do that and leave your house and be hiking in just two or three minutes: hiking and running and the aquatic center. We’re kind of a merger of both, Lisa and I, of all things cultural on one hand and then all things outdoors on the other hand. So that blend is really wonderful.

“And then there’s the people stock as well. Just in general, we found people to be really smart and interesting and friendly, just kind of a nice mix. Every time we’ve been in the area, it just felt like home, a place we’d really, really like to be part of a community.”

Thomas brings solid skills and experience to the director’s position. He has a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He began his career at Brooklyn Public Library in New York City from 1995 to 1998, where he was promoted to assistant branch manager in just six months.

“I started out my career working a lot with kids and families, running neighborhood libraries and dealing with all the nuts and bolts of summer reading programs,” Thomas said.

Thomas’s next move was to the Fayetteville Public Library in Arkansas, where he was promoted three times between 1998 and 2004, to become director of operations. Thomas was a key member of the team that coordinated the planning and construction of a new 80,000-square-foot library and wrote grants that garnered more than $200,000. The library was named Library Journal’s Library of the Year in 2005.

Thomas became assistant director of an 11-branch library system in Kanawha County, W.V., from 2005 to 2006, where he managed technical services, technology, buildings and facilities, purchasing/accounting and security.

When his wife had an opportunity for promotion, Thomas returned to Arkansas to take up the Washington County Library position in 2007. He implemented  initiatives that saved the system more than $120,000 annually and achieved circulation increases of nearly 40 percent.

“I’ve spent years in budget management and years dealing with facility issues, years dealing with issues related to staffing and that front. But then on the other hand I’ve also led children’s programming and I’m passionate about books and music and art and film and ideas,” Thomas said.

“So I think what makes me a good fit for this position, because a library is both of those things. It’s a complex organization, but then it’s also this cultural and educational cornerstone of the community, and I think embracing both of those is really important.

“The other thing you’ll find with me is I know how important the role of the library is in the community, and to be absolutely supportive of working with the great people that help maintain and build it,” Thomas said.

When asked about his first impressions, especially in areas he has personally been involved with, such as children’s programming and technology, Thomas responded, “I think it’s a really good library and a really good community.

“I’ve only been here a couple of weeks, but having been in five really good libraries — the children’s programming here is pretty exceptional. I’ve seen the whole team, it’s pretty impressive.”

Thomas has also been favorably impressed with the technology the library has in place and sees some areas where he may be able to bring his own experience to bear.  

“The library’s automation system is starting to get old. Considering that for replacement is a potential project and that’s something I’ve done a couple of times,” Thomas said.

“I think continuing to look at eBooks and how publishing has changed and will change moving forward — those are questions that are facing libraries and it’s definitely something that I’ve been doing for the last decade. I think it’s a skillset  that will help me fit in with the group here and figure out some projects to help move the library forward.”

Thomas is looking forward to the job ahead.

“There are lots of great projects and challenges out there, but they’re challenges that look familiar from other libraries,” Thomas said.

“I think the goal is going to be to work with the staff and the team and the community to maintain what’s been great and beloved about the library. We’ll also find some ways to push it forward and create some great new services for the community. But it’s very much what I expected and also what I hoped for. It’s a nice team and a nice organization and I’m thrilled to be here.”