Library CEO Retires

By John Swartz

Suzanne Campbell’s 33-year career with the Orillia Public Library is ending. Officially she is done July 31, but her last effective day was June 25.

“It was different. We have our name tags on the doors, so the last thing I did when I walked out was to pull my name off, “Now I’m gone, now my name is not even here anymore.” It just felt like the closing of a chapter, leaving that part of my life and moving on,” she said.

Her list of skills gained as a librarian also includes mover. She oversaw the move of the children’s department in 2009 when the library relocated to a temporary place at the old electrical worker’s union hall on Gill Street (where the fire hall now stands) when she was director of children’s services, and then the entire library back downtown into its new building when she became CEO in 2011.

“Also I was with the library when the roof collapsed,” she said. “I was pretty new too. It was ’92 and I started in ’88.”

“The whole building process would be my top memory. That took two years to see it through to fruition. I took over just at the point where everything was being closed in. I was able to refine the how the library would be opening, the whole opening plan,” Campbell said.

Planning how to use the new space, must have been exciting and challenging. The temporary building was smaller than the old library building, which was itself three times smaller than the new space.

“It was never me, it was always a team. Certainly the architect did most of the design work and gave me options. Initially when we were building it we had all those focus group meetings; what the building needs to be, this how we want to see it being served and they designed around that.”

Moving back to a purpose built facility didn’t happen overnight, but gradually as furniture and equipment was installed. The library remained open right to switch over day, so as one can imagine, despite the luxury of piece by piece testing out the new ship, there was still a crush on moving day.

“Before we opened it was just ‘get this ready and let’s get this out’, but when we first opened and we walked through with the first people, as people started coming in for normal use,  and seeing how students were using certain areas and people were sitting and reading magazines, just walking through and seeing it being used the way we had asked the architect to design it and seeing, ‘yeah, that vision was interpreted and it’s being used exactly how we wanted it to be used’ and there’s people in here and they are all doing different things and all having the space to do it all in, that was ( the indicator) we did a good job and this is  what the community needed and its being used.”

One would think the operation of a library to be a ground hog day kind of thing, each day being the same as the last with no new issues and challenges to account for, but that isn’t true. Libraries stopped being about only books in the early 90s when Netscape created the fist web browser, Mosaic, and everyone could start to communicate with each other and find information with ease. Predictions of the demise of libraries turned out to be as reliable as those promises of a paperless office, except now public demand for digital technology and convenience are part of the mix of service libraries provide.

“We have expanded the adult programming a little more, we have our emergent technology librarian so we are able to do more technology related programming, and then of course we have Jayne (Turvey) and her very creative (events and speakers) programming,” Campbell said of some of the change which happened during her career. The notable aspect is it’s still very much about people. The shift of thinking began at the close of the last century when staff revealed use of the library was dropping. Children’s programming was boosted, which lead to increase demand for youth and adult programming, and now being a librarian is as much about teaching people how to navigate a digital world as it is helping people find the book with the information they need. Campbell was in good position to create new programs and services and guide the implementation.

“There’s lots of things I have done that worked out well. When I started here, there was only me as the children’s librarian. Now we have a director, two full-time and a part-time staff member,” she said of the growth of staff. These new people also brought new ideas and skills useful in many roles within the library structure. A recent staff departure prompted a chain of staffing shifts as four current staffers assumed new roles of responsibility before bringing someone in from outside to fill the last empty position was necessary.

Outgoing Orillia Public Library CEO, Suzanne Campbell, with the children’s department in the background.

“We’ve been able to offer really great service because of that,” Campbell said of having quality librarians on staff.  She thinks the effect of being able to bring in people with skills, vision and enthusiasm will outlast her tenure, which saw the growth of an almost non-existent children’s programming menu 20 years ago into one the hallmark qualities of the Orillia Public Library. “It’s a very good legacy because we’ve moved our children’s programming to probably one of the best in Ontario.”

This change in operating philosophy occurring during Campbell’s career lead to the Orillia Public Library’s position as industry leaders. Not only did the library and staff pick up awards along the way, including a Minister’s Award for Innovation for the Lifescape’s program (teaching and encouraging adults to write their life histories) which Jayne Turvey got the go ahead to implement, but key staff members went from attending the annual industry convention to learn from others to being presenters about how our library was changing with the times.

The latest example of innovation is the library’s Surprise Bag program. With people being unable to go into the library and browse the shelves and discover things on their own, staff came up with the idea of putting together materials for family movie nights, kids and teenagers, adults and educators. Users fill out a form indicting their interests and staff pull items from the collection they think will be appealing. It’s turned out to more popular that they thought it would be with dozens of bags waiting to be picked up on the last day of June. And as Campbell reflected on what she’ll miss most it’s working with the talented staff she had a hand in creating.

“Oh, the people (will be missed). More so the staff. In my job I don’t work with the public as I did. It’s just a really rewarding place to work because everything you do you can see a direct benefit to the community whether it’s programming or space for people to come in and be engaged in the community, providing materials, providing online access, programming for the different ages, it is all rewarding to be part of that.”

And it was the functioning of the library which was a key component of Campbell’s decision to call it a day.

“I wanted to retire when it would be the most opportune time for the library,” Campbell said. “Other than the pandemic threw a little wench into my plan, but I had always planned to retire mid way through a board term so that the board would have the opportunity to be comfortable in their positions and be able to look for a CEO and have the changeover while there was a aboard with some experience in place.”

She thinks the new CEO, Bessie Sullivan, is a good choice to carry on with.

“I think Bessie has the experience. She’s been a CEO longer than I’ve been a CEO, so she’s got the experience working with a council doing a library budget, because she, she essentially worked in a township, or county library she actually dealt with multiple townships and multiple councils,” Campbell said.

The last major event Campbell planned and has to hand off to the new guard is the reopening of the library to the public. Even that required executive decision making in the face of a changing and unpredictable landscape at the political level.

“We had already planned to open up the 6th (instead of an unexpected date of June 30) It’s just easier for us to keep with our plan than to try and alter it,” she said.

Now she has time to plan other things for her unfilled weekly schedule.

“I’m taking the summer off and enjoy the summer and I’ll look at options in the fall; definitely I’d like to probably do some volunteering, maybe even with the library and the Friends (of the Orillia Public Library). If things open up and I feel it’s safe enough, we actually wanted to go to Newfoundland, that would probably be our first trip.”

(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia) Main: Outgoing Orillia Public Library CEO, Suzanne Campbell at a display of the latest innovative library program – Surprise Bags.


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