Student Spotlight: Samantha Reid

The past year has not been easy for anyone. Amid dealing with the unknowns of COVID, going to school, and taking care of her family, current SLIS student Samantha Reid also took on the role of Library Director in Runnells, Iowa.

Samantha generously offered to share a story about her experience in Runnells as well as some advice for her peers.

I saw the job posting for a library director in Runnells, IA (population 507), at the end of my first semester in SLIS. I hadn’t worked in a library before, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Runnells is a 45-minute drive from my house, but that was okay with me. I needed library experience, and this library seemed less intimidating than a big one. I had no idea what I was getting myself into!

I officially took the reins from the previous director on February 15, 2020. So I had only been there for a month when everything shut down. To make it even more complicated, my library is located inside an elementary school library, and the school district closed all buildings to everyone for two months. There were limited hours the week after spring break for staff to go in and get things they needed, so my board president and I met there and chose books and movies we thought people would want to check out. Between the two of us, we took more than 1,000 items to our houses, which is about 25% of the total collection. At the time, the library catalog was not accessible online, so I designed a quick google sheet and we cataloged all the items so patrons could search for books they wanted.

During this time, I also instituted a “mystery bag” service and put together bags of books I thought people would enjoy based on their interests. When someone wanted to check out a specific item or request a mystery bag, they sent me an email. I gathered items, wiped them down with cleaning wipes, and delivered them right to their doorsteps in my vintage VW bus, just for the fun of it. One mom told me that her daughter saw me coming down the long driveway and said, “Hey, Mom, the library van is here!” And I’m proud to say that my library’s circulation during April and May was 50% higher than it was for those months in 2019, despite being closed!

I also put together a spring break reading incentive, a virtual Easter activity, and delivered May Day baskets made from rolls of toilet paper (funny, right?!) filled with candy, a library bookmark and pen, and a plastic pinwheel, all wrapped with colorful tissue paper.

My approach during Covid was to try to determine what the community needed (enrichment for kids was a HUGE need) and meet that need. I also wanted to make sure that the library stayed relevant in the community, despite being closed to the public. As a brand-new director who doesn’t live in the community my library serves, I also needed to find a way to introduce myself to them so they would feel comfortable emailing me to request books. The May Day baskets and home deliveries were a vital part of that.

It’s been a wild year. Besides dealing with Covid, once we were able to get back in the building and reshelve everything, my first order of business was to make the switch to a newer catalog software system so patrons could search online. I made that change July 1. Later that month, my assistant director and I conducted a complete inventory. It was also my library’s accreditation year, so I was gathering documents and data for that application while maintaining library operations. I submitted my accreditation application in February, and my current project is weeding the entire collection.

I have learned so much! I dove into unfamiliar waters and immediately had to learn to swim. I’ve made friends with people there and established myself and the library as valued community partners during a difficult time. I’ve learned about Iowa law concerning libraries and their boards, and I provide monthly updates at Runnells city council meetings. This has been uncomfortable, it’s been tough, it’s been exhausting, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I still can’t allow patrons in the building, but I’m hoping to have a summer program that looks a little more normal this year.

One advocacy plug: Don’t take small libraries for granted. I have one assistant, and between the two of us we manage circulation and cataloging, programming, event planning, promotions, and general library operations. There are so many dedicated librarians in tiny libraries, doing everything they can to support their patrons and improve their communities! They provide the same things as larger libraries, but with a fraction of the budget and no staff. It’s hard work!

My advice to other students is to be flexible and be fearless! Don’t hesitate to try something new. You’re getting a fantastic foundation at Iowa. There will still be things you learn as you go, but you have all the building blocks to be a wonderful asset to any library and any community. Take on challenges, and you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish!