Clark says library will support literacy — cultural, financial, and digital

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin
New in town, sort of: On Nov. 1, Sarah Clark, a Slingerlands resident for 11 years, became the new director of the Voorheesville Public Library. She had previously worked in the Albany Public Library system for 13 years. 

VOORHEESVILLE — As a kid, Sarah Clark lived across the street from a public library and says going there was a first step to her independence. Now, after more than a decade working at Albany libraries, she sees the need for a library to serve its community.

On Thursday, Nov. 1, Clark became the new director of the Voorheesville Public Library, taking over for Gail Sacco, the library’s longtime director, who retired in October.

“It’s time,” Sacco told The Enterprise, in September, about retiring. “I’ve been here for 30 years, and, it’s a good time to let someone else take it.”

A new director was a chance for “a new breath,” said David Gibson, president of the Voorheesville Public Library Board of Trustees.

The board was looking for someone with energy; someone who wanted to be in Voorheesville and was excited about the opportunity, who didn’t view the job as a stepping stone to their next opportunity, Gibson said.

Sarah Clark, 41, wanted the same thing.

Clark wanted the job, she said, because she had been in management for several years, and had worked (she took courses, for example) to put herself in a leadership position but had moved up as far as she could at the Albany Public Library.

Voorheesville presented an opportunity to move into a leadership position, she said.

“But most importantly, I wanted to work in the town where I live; I’ve wanted to feel more engaged with this community since I’ve moved here,” Clark said. “I’ve lived here for 11 years, but I’ve kind of felt like it’s just been where I sleep — and I really want to feel like a townie.”

Clark grew up in Old Forge, a hamlet in the town of Webb, in Herkimer County. She graduated from Hartwick College with a degree in religious studies; she received her master’s degree in library science from the University at Albany.

She and her husband, Eric Halder, settled in Slingerlands.

For the first two years of her career, Clark was a librarian in the Coxsackie-Athens Central School District; for the next 13 years, she worked in the Albany Public Library system, at its main branch on Washington Avenue, and at its West Hill Branch in Arbor Hill.

At the Albany Public Library, Clark began as a reader-services librarian, where she helped visitors with their reading selections. “It’s a department that doesn’t even exist anymore,” she said. She then became the head of adult services, where she supervised the reference desk and its staff.

Her last position was overseeing both the Washington Avenue and West Hill branches, she said; there are seven libraries in the Albany system.

To earn her new job as Voorheesville’s library director, Clark beat out a number of highly-qualified candidates, Gibson said.

The search

“Why don’t I tell you a little about our process,” Gibson said.

“I’m a believer in process; and if you have a good process, you often have good outcomes,” he said. “It’s never a guarantee, but it greatly increases [a positive outcome].”

After Sacco announced her retirement, Gibson said, the library board met to discuss its priorities and the criteria it would use to choose her successor.

“We clearly wanted to make sure we protected the things that have been built,” Gibson said.

The initial search had broad parameters, Gibson said, as the board was looking for someone who would work well with the staff and find ways where “we can continue to increase the value that the library provides to the community.”

A subcommittee was appointed by the board to spearhead the hiring.

The subcommittee winnowed down the initial list of 12 and extended six in-person interviews, an unusually high number, Gibson said, but also indicative of the strength of the applicants and desirability of Voorheesville.

Three applicants were then recommended to be interviewed by the full board of trustees.

“Now we were very careful,” Gibson said. The subcommittee neither ranked the applicants nor indicated a preferred candidate. “They wanted to leave that open to the whole board to experience themselves.”

For board members, there was no weighting of the selection criteria, Gibson said; each used his or her own discretion to make a determination.  

The three prospective library directors were all interviewed in one evening.

After the final interviews, the board then received the subcommittee’s notes from the first round of interviews, Gibson said, which contained a different set of questions than the final interview.

“We hadn’t wanted to look at [the notes] prior because we didn’t want them to bias us,” Gibsons said.

Two days later, the board reconvened to make a decision.

“We determined that 100-percent of us — so, unanimous — felt that any of the three could do a good job as director and we could be comfortable with that,” Gibson said, it was a “remarkable outcome” that, again, spoke to the strength of the applicants and attractiveness of working in Voorheesville.

After further discussion, the board was unanimous in its support of Clark. She was hired at an annual salary of $70,000.

Unemployed in Portland

Clark did not decide at a young age that she would be a librarian, but, for her, libraries have always had a special significance.

“I grew up across the street from my hometown library … That was one of the very first places where I was allowed to go by myself without my parents or older sisters or my brother. So, [libraries] represented a kind of independence for me my whole life,” she said.

But in college, she said, she still didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up — she had changed her major three times.

It would seem, Clark arrived at her career decision by way of a utilitarian appreciation for the job.

“I used libraries quite a bit when I was unemployed, living in Portland, Oregon,” she said. She had moved to the city shortly after graduating from college; she had friends living there and had thought it just seemed like a cool place to live.

“Turned out, it was really hard to find a job,” she said.

Soon, Clark said, she was spending a lot of time in the public library, looking for jobs, refining her résumé and typing cover letters. “I was impressed by how much activity was going on,” she said, “and I thought, this is something that I could do.”

As a religious-studies major, Clark was able to learn about all of the different faiths that are practiced throughout the world, and drew a similarity with the appeal of library science: “To a lot of people, it’s not a single subject; it’s the study of all subjects.”

Today’s library

Clark echoed her predecessor when it came to describing the library’s role in the community.

“The library’s role in the community is to support literacy,” she said; that means the traditional definition of supporting reading as well as supporting early literacy for preschoolers but also cultural, financial, and digital literacy.

Nearly everything a public library does is free — that’s what makes it a service to the community, Clark said, rather than a business.

“We provided a lot of really high-quality cultural programs for adults at Albany,” she said, citing a silent-film program as one example.

Clark said that local musicians would score with their own, original music for classic silent films from Buster Keaton or “old German expressionist films.”

“I wouldn’t have believed it when I started it 12 years ago,” Clark said of the silent-film program, “but it was a program that was sustained with new musicians participating every year. And it ended up being a huge [success].”

Until recently, the program had been all-volunteer, she said. Musicians had participated to challenge themselves, and to give back to the community, and also to perform for music fans of all ages rather than the traditional over-21 bar-goers who make up most of the local music scene.

In addition, Clark said, she helped put on all-age live concerts in the Washington Avenue parking garage, which had very positive unintended benefits. “After we had it a couple of times, people actually remarked, ‘Hey, you know, I’ve been interested in seeing this band but I’m in recovery, and I don’t want to go out to a bar to see them play. So this has been really great,’” she said.

Another cultural program that Clark would like to bring to Voorheesville is a book group called, “Book Tastings,” where discussions take place in area restaurants and group members are treated to samples of the chef’s specialty fare.

As for her own tastes, Clark doesn’t have a favorite book. “I’ve had different favorite books throughout my life,” she said. In high school, it was “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J. D. Salinger because, she had been told, it was “controversial.”

“I didn’t really find it all that controversial,” she concluded.

In college, Clark said, she gravitated toward Southern Gothic literature.

“I read a lot of nonfiction now,” she said. “I like memoirs and biographies; David Sedaris is one of my favorite writers.”

It’s about the community

“The most important thing is, for us to listen to what the community wants, adapt, and do our best to provide it,” Clark said, “in an equitable and free way.”

In Albany, she said, for example, there was a shift from people wanting to use the library’s computers to wanting to use their own devices, which increased the need for better Wi-Fi, and “us being able to provide good enough Wi-FI to make it worth their time to walk to the library and use our space.”

The Albany Public Library eventually started to loan out mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, which, Clark said, became so popular there weren’t enough devices to meet demand.

What Clark calls the “library of things” is another way that, she said, libraries are meeting the needs of their communities — “in kind of an innovative way.”

Other than books, she said, a patron can borrow a sewing machine from the Voorheesville Public Library. “You can borrow lawn games,” Clark said; a ukulele is available as well; and there is a seed library, “so you can take seeds for your garden.”

For would-be anglers, fishing poles can be borrowed.  

“That’s a way that a lot of libraries have tried to meet needs of different neighborhoods,” she said of the library of things.

Clark knows firsthand how neighborhood libraries adapt and serve their constituencies.

At Washington Avenue, the largest branch in the city, “We really had everybody come in through the doors,” Clark said. State workers would stop by on their lunch breaks to pick up books or magazines that had been set aside. There were also a lot of people who were using the public computers to look for jobs, she said.

In Arbor Hill, at the West Hill branch, because of its proximity to the Edmund J. O’Neal Middle School, she said, there is a large youth community. “So when school got out ...  it was just a huge influx of kids,” Clark said; there were after-school programs, but West Hill was also “just a place to hang out.”

“So, it was a lot of managing behavior,” she said, which is not really an issue at Voorheesville.

In Voorheesville, Clark said, there is a lot of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) programing that interests her; the library has a three-dimensional printer, and it is working to develop a makerspace.

She had helped establish a makerspace at the Washington Avenue branch of the Albany Public Library, she said, and, in an example of libraries adapting to serve their constituencies, the makerspace began with one sewing machine and ended up with five.

“Immigrants were using the sewing machines; we didn’t know that was going to happen at all,” Clark said. “They were so popular.”

The new job

Asked about the state-mandated cap on property taxes, where adequate funding for the library could be an issue for the foreseeable future, Clark said that has been ongoing issue that Voorheesville has skillfully navigated.

In September, Sacco told The Enterprise, “We’re very thrifty — we’ve always been very thrifty,” she said. “I’m going to be conservative; I’m going to say at least 80 percent of what we get from our community goes back into our community.”

The library’s budget, Sacco also pointed out, has been flat for the past few years.

Admittedly, for Clark, of all her new responsibilities as director, the budget has the steepest learning curve. She’s served on advisory groups that have helped shape budgets, she said, and has dealt with budgets in Albany — but she managed those budgets; she didn’t develop them. Certainly, nothing on the scale of Voorheesville’s budget.

But, asacco pointed out, the library has a supportive and capable board of trustees that will help Clark as she learns to develop a $1.18 million budget.

Clark has been in contact with Sacco.

“She got in touch with me during our first snowstorm,” Clark said.

Sacco told The Enterprise, in September, that, in retirement, “I’m looking forward to not having to decide in the middle of winter if the library is going to be open for business or closed for business — and getting up at 5:30 in the morning to figure that out.”

Clark had been on the job for all of a week-and-a-half, she said, and made the decision to delay the library’s opening. Most schools had decided to close that day.

“I think it was the right decision,” she said.

Clark said of making the decision, “Actually, it was more stressful than I thought it was going to be. Because, I thought, ‘No matter what you do, someone’s not going to be happy about it.’”

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