Roanoke County has welcomed a new Director of Library Services. Shari Henry relocated for the position from Northern Virginia, where she was most recently division chief of materials management for the Arlington Public Library. She’s active in the Virginia Library Association and currently chairs the Intellectual Freedom Committee. She graciously filled us in on some of what’s happening in today’s libraries and what libraries mean to her.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Welcome to Roanoke! Did you have ties to the area before moving to the area?
Shari Henry: I do have roots in the region. My paternal grandparents were from the area and are buried in Vinton. My father’s cousins are buried in the city, and my grandmother went to Roanoke High School. I have a copy of her teaching contract with Roanoke City Public Schools dated 1925, and a copy of my Dad’s Cradle Roll Certificate from a church in Vinton, dated 1928. When I was a child growing up in Fairfax, these same grandparents lived in Falls Church, and I got to spend a lot of time with them. They were great storytellers, and some of their best tales had to do with their childhoods in the Roanoke Valley.
BCR: How’s it stacking up so far? Does the area meet expectations set by the lore? SH: Yes! My initial impressions of the area align with the stories I was told as a child. The people here are big-hearted, generous in spirit, and value doing the right thing by others. I love the friendliness, inquisitiveness, and sincerity. Exchanges with staff and fellow customers during regular shopping excursions leave me feeling as if I’ve made new friends! And importantly, the area has a future-oriented outlook. People welcome new businesses and new ideas.
BCR: Does that welcoming stance toward change apply to the library system as well?
SH: Yes, I believe so. The community is supportive of the library system and what we’re doing. The staff at the Roanoke County Public Libraries is super-talented; there’s a lot of energy bubbling. They’re figuring out, and then undertaking, the next great advancements to best serve the community.
BCR: I know the RCPL is undertaking a strategic planning process, but can you give us any hints of what to expect?
SH: We’re talking a lot about how to honor the library’s past as we move into the future. (This is a core principle to librarianship, so we didn’t make this up). We’re working on providing state-of-the-art technology training, 24/7 access to library materials, and a robust view of a library without walls while providing beautiful buildings with lots of community space – all as we continue to stay true to our core mission and give people what we continue to (and what Pew research tells us) hear people want: high quality reference and research assistance, and readers’ advisory (reading recommendations). I’ve never met a more open-minded reference staff so I think I’ll leave this by saying you really want to stay tuned!
BCR: Fantastic. For now, let’s dig into that mainstay of the library—books. Are you a big reader?
SH: I was raised by two public schoolteachers—both avid readers. However, reading didn’t come easily to me as a child. If I was drawn to a story, and especially if I liked the main characters, I would stick with a book, and then read it again and again. I also loved researching at a very young age – if there was information to gain, I would become laser-focused on reading the related material. I’m very character driven, so my favorite books as a child were based around resilient and interesting girls, girls with whom I would want to share my life. Back then, Ramona Quimby and Pippi Longstocking were my buddies; today, I find those characters in fiction and also via memoirs and biographies.
BCR: What are you reading currently?
SH: I tend to have three books going at once: something leadership or self-help/improvement related, a current important or much-talked about nonfiction work, and something easy and fun with a predictably happy ending. Currently, I’m reading Evicted, which has been awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, have placed Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B on hold, and just finished Mary Alice Monroe’s Beach House for Rent.
BCR: Now for the big question: why does reading matter?
SH: My parents taught me that books can change lives. Words have meaning. Knowledge is a powerful thing. And with great knowledge comes great responsibility. It’s never lost on me that it is a great privilege to live in America, a land whose founding document contains something as compelling and thrilling as the First Amendment. And it’s certainly a privilege to work in the library profession, one which embraces and champions that important Constitutional right, and one that allows me to make every effort to be responsible with the knowledge I’ve been given.
BCR: I appreciate the big picture that you communicate about libraries, and their role in a healthy democracy. What first got you interested in library science?
SH: I was working as a sub at a reference desk in a Central Virginia library. I found the experience exhilarating. Recommending books was fun and so was helping teens who had put off assignments until the last minute. It felt good to show people how to find credible consumer health information, and on and on. The opportunities to serve are endless.
BCR: Do you have any fictional characters or biography subjects who we might look to for guidance in life today?
SH: Abigail Adams and Bryan Stephenson, because they both, against many odds, pressed on with grace, to make life better for others.
BCR: That’s admirable, and we can each do that in our own way. How about the immediate others in your life? Did you bring along to Roanoke a family of readers?SH: I’ve been married for a long time, and I have three grown children. All of them read. A lot. When we all manage to be together, we tend to talk about sports, food, and big ideas. We’ve always had dogs; currently, we own two adopted Coonhounds that my children joke are our “replacement animals.” We adore them and let them get by with way too much.
BCR: And finally, what in the library brings you the most smiles?
SH: Always the people. It’s incredibly rewarding to walk among the stacks and see the meeting rooms full. The library is as relevant as ever. It’s the best ‘marketplace of ideas’ on earth.
BCR: Thanks, Shari.
Be sure to say hello to Shari Henry if you see her around the Valley at branches of the Roanoke County Public Library. She’s new to the region, but she’ll already be at home, welcoming you to your library. ★