Roanoke Public Libraries Director Sheila Umberger was first hired by the City in 1982 to convert the traditional card catalog into computer code. That theme of transition is woven throughout her career, and since 2004, she has steered the library system in an ongoing response to the opportunities and needs of a changing community.
In 2012, Umberger shepherded a team of collaborators in developing Star City Reads, Roanoke’s Campaign for Grade Level Reading. The initiative works to ensure that all children read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade—the point at which children go from learning how to read to using their reading skills in order to learn new things. The efforts were recognized in 2016 by the American Library Association with Umberger’s awarding of the 2016 Peggy Sullivan Award for Public Library Administrators Supporting Services to Children.
Umberger’s optimistic approach is underpinned by hard work and a trust in a strong staff team. Walk into a Roanoke City Library, and you’ll find Sheila Umberger’s leadership present in a culture of service and connection to the community. Each day, she’s busy with literacy and constructions projects across a complex enterprise, but she took time to go deeper with us.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Congratulations on celebrating 35 years with Roanoke Public Libraries. How has Roanoke and the library changed over the years?
Sheila Umberger: Roanoke continues to become more diverse, and its leaders have remained focused on the community’s neighborhoods. This is a real strength. Roanoke is a city that retains a small town heart, and it’s a great place to live. I recently overheard someone telling another person about a positive interaction which they called “Roanoke nice.” I agree with that observation – it’s something special.
In library services, I’ve learned that change continues to happen. New trends over the years have included computers, the internet, video and digital formats, and downloadable content for iphones and tablets. These trends become commonplace, yet the need for a community space and the library is still there. Our customers still want access to information and reading.
When I converted all those book records into computer code years ago, it became the basis for our current access and online catalog. Our challenge now is to continue to stay attune to technology trends and to continue to respond to community needs. An example: many people need access to the internet to apply for a job. They want a community-centered library close to where they live. The library matters.
BCR: I agree. If anything makes Roanoke a BOOK CITY, it’s the work of public libraries and partners in a number of innovative initiatives. What’s the vision for the community from the library’s perspective?
SU: Our overall vision is to create a place where the community has access to books, information, community rooms, programs, and technology.
On a focused level, we always look around when planning programs and services to see what others in our community are doing. Our attitude is that it’s always more sensible and cost saving to work together, and we’ve had good success with this approach. We’re developing non-traditional partners and becoming more innovative. As the lead on Star City Reads since 2012 and a part of the national Campaign for Grade Level Reading, I realized quickly that there were a lot of people in Roanoke working toward the good of our children.
Since then, we’ve grown our Star City partners from six in 2012 to 27 right now. We focus on this one topic—helping our children read better. I believe this is why we were able to improve our reading scores by 12 percent in three years and ultimately why we won another All-America City Award again in June. We have more success by working together. I knew we were on the right track when I heard one of our partners say to another partner, “I didn’t know you did that. Why am I doing it when you do it better? I can use our limited resources to do other things.”
BCR: What’s the next milestone that we’ll celebrate as a community?
SU: Look for three big things soon. First, the Williamson Road Branch will reopen, doubling in size and featuring our largest community room. We have a dedicated teen center, a themed children’s area, small meeting rooms and a quiet reading room. Through a private donor we are able to add a reading patio where we plan to do science programs.
Second, look for the Star City Reads Big Truck Book Event in October. We’ll receive 40,000 books for our Star City Reads partners to distribute in their work with children. This is made possible by our collaboration with the non-profit group First Book.
And third, we’ll begin construction on our next renovation project later this year on the Melrose Branch.
BCR: What challenges are there in reaching the library’s goals?
SU: The biggest challenge is continuing to improve our current branches so that the facilities can support our programs, services and technology. Each year, projects are reviewed and we work hard to make a case that it is imperative to continue to upgrade facilities that are over 50 years old. We work hard to hard to respond to our community’s needs.
BCR: How can individuals help?
We can all also support the library by politely correcting those who say that no one goes to the library or reads anymore. They are misinformed. It is just not supported by our use statistics. Use of the library today is three to four times higher than it was in 2004.
I love reading a book. But it is okay if you like to read e-books, or prefer a DVD, or music. All of those formats are just containers for the information people still want and need, and they are getting them at the library.
BCR: I’ve been impressed with the number of energetic staff members in the library system. What do you look for in potential members of your team?
SU: Ah…this is the favorite part of my job. City library staff is beyond amazing. There is a spark of wanting to do good for the community. It’s a passion. It attracts more candidates who want this work environment. We generally make innovation and program plans part of our review of any new candidate. I look for someone who demonstrates work for the community, shares innovative ideas, and is team oriented.
BCR: Is there a guiding philosophy or mantra that unifies your team in their work together?
SU: Communication, team effort, and openness to new ideas or project. I foster this in three ways:
- I have 10 small groups and I routinely meet with all staff in small groups of 4-6 people.
- I support new ideas that are presented to me, and I’m a big supporter of pilots.
- I set up small, focused work teams for short-term projects. For example- we have a small work team for the Big Book truck launch and also for the opening for Williamson Road. These teams have been focused on all areas of those projects since about May. These teams give staff experience in new areas and allow people to bond and work together.
BCR: Okay, let’s get more personal. What first got you interested in a path of service as a librarian?
SU: Frankly, I give my mother credit that she did not laugh when I announced to her at the age of 10 that I wanted to be a Librarian. My Mom worked for years with early Head Start and had a real passion for children. She also was a wonderful reader and passed that on to me. Her best friend was a librarian and I thought the Librarian, Ms. Alma, was the coolest person I had ever met. Ms. Alma would basically perform when she read books. She was amazing.
BCR: What’s inspired you lately in the library?
SU: I am inspired by the way the facilities we renovated support our current work. I am inspired by the passion I see in staff for the work they are doing. And I am inspired by our customers who are finding support in whatever they are facing in life at the library. The most frequent example of this are people finding jobs, families or seniors able to do things they might not be able to afford because of their use of the library. I love to hear laughter and see the enjoyment of our services. It is wonderful and affirming.
BCR: Do you have a favorite fictional character or biography subject who might provide a model for how we can live today?
SU: I go back to children’s books. I very much identify with Peter Rabbit who was persistent and a little bold as well as the wonderful characters in Winnie-the-Pooh. They support of each other and have an ability to not become too stern or serious. Learning can be fun!
BCR: How about a favorite fictional librarian?
SU: The librarians in Desk Set. For a film made in the 1950’s, I love what it says about the role of librarians and technology. They learn and use the technology but at the end of the day, a trained librarian is the most important ingredient for success.
BCR: What are you reading now?
SU: I tend to read several books at once so that I can pick and choose depending each day on my mood what I want to read that day. I am currently reading three books.
- Lisettes’s List a novel by Susan Vreeland. It’s a historical novel set in 1937 France about a man who was a framer for Pissarro and Cezanne and the paintings he had received from his work.
- The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict. This is a book about the wife of Albert Einstein Mitza Maric who was a gifted student in Physics at the University of Zurich when they met.
- Dunkirk by Joshua Levine.
Can you tell I have a degree in history as well as library science?
Yes! And I always take recommendations from librarians, so I’ve added Lisette’s List to my own reading queue. Thanks for that. And thanks for all that you and our libraries do for our community. ★