Pamela Kiesner serves as Library Director in Bellingham.
What brought you to Bellingham?
I’m from the midwest. I grew up in Minnesota, and spent a lot of time in Green Bay Wisconsin. I was looking for a change when I saw this job come available. I think I got it in large part due to my experience building new libraries. At that time the Bellingham Library was about to launch into a building program, so I was excited to come here for that. And we’re still working on that new library! [Laughs]
What’s the latest on that front?
Well the recession in 2008 put the whole thing on the back burner. We had significant cutbacks at that time. Things are now starting to normalize and we’re starting to think about rebooting that project. We had a very comprehensive building program statement written in 2006–2007 that needs updating. In the next year we hope to update a lot of the data in that document so that we’re sure we are planning for a library that the community will use and love.
The needs of the community have changed, and the vision for what a library should be has also changed. It’s becoming almost the community’s living room, where folks can meet in small or medium sized groups to study, read, and discuss.
I think the more technology we have, the more people want to be face-to-face, and the library can provide the physical space for that.
Besides the library, do you have a favorite spot in Bellingham?
The YMCA. I’m a member, and I serve on the board of directors there. I believe passionately in the mission of the Y. I try to exercise everyday.
What I love about the YMCA, which is not unlike the library—It’s open to anyone. It’s a little quirky—this old hotel where people go for all sorts of different reasons. Some for the daycare, others to get support for a physical ailment like parkinson’s or diabetes, and then people like me go just to work out.
What do you love best about your job?
I’m working in an institution that everybody loves. Most people have fond memories and good feelings about the library, so you’re working for a community asset that is very popular. And that’s particularly true in Bellingham. People write letters, and send checks just gushing about the library. We have almost 50,000 card holders, and draw almost 800,000 people to all our facilities each year. That is very high usage for a community of our size.
What do people not understand about the library?
A couple things.
We have almost 2,000 people at our central library on a daily basis, and we circulate 1.6 million items throughout the community. That is tremendous. We’re one of the highest circulating libraries in the country for a community of our size.
Also, public libraries are changing. This probably isn’t the library that you remember from when you were a kid. We do a lot of programing and offer services that many contemporary libraries do, but in Bellingham we’re doing it in a space that was built in 1951. And I don’t think that people understand how much more the library could offer if we had the facilities to support it.
We have 44,000 square feet serving a community of 85,000. That is undersized for our community. As an example: we offer 13 storytimes every week, and they are all full to capacity. If we had a larger children’s area, we could help meet the community demand for early childhood literacy. And that’s true in many other areas as well. I don’t think many people understand what would be possible with more adequate facilities.
Is there something you’d like to see new in Bellingham?
That’s tough. Bellingham has so many good things to offer.
In Green Bay people used to say that we were a drinking town with a football problem. There just wasn’t much happening besides the Packers. Bellingham isn’t like that. There is always something going on, there’s good restaurants, and lots of places to walk and explore. This is a wonderful community.
I might say a good women’s clothing store. We have Gary’s, but otherwise it can be hard to find women’s clothing.
Is there a local institution that you’d like to call out?
I haven’t been to the new Museum Wine Bar yet, but I’ve heard it’s quite nice.
We ask this of everyone, but I’m expecting a really good answer from you. What is the best book that you read recently?
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. She is our Whatcom Reads author for 2016, and she’s coming in March. I have to be honest; it took me a little while to get into this book. We picked it because it had great reviews and the subject matter is very timely, but I had trouble getting started so I bought the audiobook version—which she reads—and it’s very engaging in audio. I loved it.
I’m also reading Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google which is about the transition from print to digital while maintaining the availability of public space.
What are people always surprised to learn about you?
Me personally? That I don’t like to talk about myself.
I’m an exercise nut, and an introvert.
Though, I can be an extrovert when I need to. Sometimes my job requires that. I remember when I first moved to Bellingham, I came by myself at first. My husband was still in Wisconsin to sell our house, and I was attending a lot of public functions to meet people and promote the library. On the one hand I loved it, it was exciting. But on the other hand, I was exhausted.
If you could go back to Western and study whatever you wanted, what like to study?
Psychology, because everything we do is about people. That’s maybe another surprising thing about the library. It’s not really about books, it’s about giving people the tools and the access that they need.
Whether we are reading to a child, or modeling how to read aloud for a father, or helping a senior log onto a computer, we help people accomplish what they want to with their lives.
Is there a cause or a charity that you’re involved in?
Rotary. I’m a member of the Rotary Club of Bellingham, and we do good work there. We give lots of money both locally and internationally. I love everything Rotary is about—service before self. And I love meeting all the people in our club who come from all across the community and all walks of life.
Another passion of mine is early literacy. We do our best to connect with the schools and early learning organizations in town because we do so much in that area. For Public Libraries it’s a powerful niche. We are one of the only places that a young family can get access to free early learning programs. I’m a children’s librarian at heart, so I’m very passionate about that.