By Stephen Smoot
“I was raised in Jersey,” said Walt Johnson, the new executive director of the Pendleton County Library, adding that, “one of the really nice things has been how welcoming everyone has been to this guy from the suburbs.”
But he left quickly, saying, “I couldn’t wait to get out as a young man.”
Johnson has piled up experiences working in libraries and museums from Newark, Delaware, to the Florida Keys. Through his travels and various roles, “I found interests in myself I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
He inherits a facility that benefited from many years of leadership in the steady hands of Becky McConnell. Johnson said, “I’m really thankful for my colleagues and what Becky left behind. It’s a really strong foundation to build on.”
During McConnell’s tenure, the library went beyond the traditional institutional role. For example, the Friends of the Library organized performances and presentations to both educate and entertain the community.
Johnson agrees with this ideal, saying “I’m a believer in an expansive view of libraries and their role.” He explained that as other institutions “whether by necessity or by choice” must “shave their roles,” libraries, when possible, must step in and help bridge the gaps.
Johnson noticed early on that Pendleton County serves as a fount of creative energy for many residents. With the library hosting performances, the Warner Drive-In building a stage, art contests hosted by the senior center, and a tradition of live music, the area excels in artistic production. He stated that “we’ve already talked to the drive-in theater to have a classic movie night sponsored by the library.”
He sees the library as a catalyst to coordinate the production of the arts while giving creative expression a forum. “Communities need a cultural hub,” Johnson stated. “There’s a lot of folks in this area adding to the cultural traditions.”
Johnson added, “It’s heartening to see how many groups in this area are doing creative things.”
He went on to explain the role of a library in such an environment, saying “libraries are not just protectors and advocates for literature, but of creativity itself, such as literature, fine arts, and theater.”
Immediate plans focus on having one adult and one child oriented event a piece at the library each month. Other short term needs include redesigning the interior and looking at the collection to see what could be removed to allow the introduction of new material, “but that doesn’t mean that you get rid of what is of value.”
Johnson also wants to “redo the signage to make it both more attractive and informational.”
In the long term, Johnson wants to remedy “severe space problems” so that the “collection remains vibrant and growing” and has started researching grant opportunities that could make those needs a tangible reality.
Johnson’s idea of a library mission, especially for a county library, lies in making it a dynamic institution that serves as a hub of knowledge, education, and culture that remains accessible to people of all ages. A library can help young people not only appreciate the wonder of the world beyond the county line, but also help them see the wonders of their own community with new eyes.
Part of that mission, he states, includes serving as a technology resource in a county where geography and legal restrictions often leave people without access to the tools of the information age.
He bemoaned the recent trend of some libraries and other institutions of knowledge and learning taking strong political stances and sides, preferring that they stay neutral. Johnson added, “We have to develop into a place where people can feel comfortable to be their best selves. There are many tools and methods to assist in that.”
Furthermore, it can help anyone take the next and necessary step after gaining knowledge. Johnson says “Knowledge is not the same as wisdom. The library can help people with the latter, but we don’t want to be the ones making their minds for them.”