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by Katherine Kimball Adelberg, Senior Assistant, INALJ Michigan
Remembering a Legend, Charlene Davis
Earlier this month I attended a memorial service for my former director, a legend in Kentucky libraries. Over her 37-year career at the Kentucky Department for Libraries & Archives (KDLA), the State Library of Kentucky, she had a lasting impact on the state’s libraries and their patrons. She lead the charge on resource sharing and the Kentucky Digital Library, but her real passion was library technology. She spearheaded grants from the Gates Foundation that installed the first public computers in many libraries. More about her exceptional career can be found in the most recent issue of Kentucky Libraries.
Charlene Davis was also a fantastic leader. Instead of supplying a chronology of her numerous accomplishments, I’m going to remember her by sharing some of the most powerful lessons I learned from her.
Libraries are mission-driven organizations. Without stating it explicitly, Charlene’s every action was motivated by KDLA’s mission of supporting the state’s public libraries. Every project we took on, every interaction with library staff helped libraries empower their patrons.
Charlene’s laser-like focus on library patrons was exceptional. One of her final projects, Fueling the Mind, came about when she discovered that only a tiny percentage of students that receive free lunches during the school year have access to food during the summer. Charlene designed a program that stopped summer reading loss and ensured hundreds of children had enough to eat during the summer. A library director reported that when Charlene first told her about her idea, she had a catch in her voice and said, “we have to feed these babies.” She wasn’t a sentimental person, but the needs of Kentuckians were always on her mind. This sense of mission was contagious.
Look beyond the short-term battles. Charlene always took a bird’s eye view instead of worrying about short-term losses or gains. Long-term planning is not my strong suit, but she helped me see that taking a step back could be incredibly liberating.
Several years ago, I decided to take on a big project; a webinar series that provided examples of library programs that highlighted the IMLS 21st Century Skills. It was a failure in terms of conveying the skills, but the libraries loved hearing about their neighbors’ programs. Now KDLA hosts successful monthly online trainings following the same format. Where I saw failure, Charlene saw opportunity.
Curiosity opens doors. Charlene’s endless curiosity was legendary. There was no detail too small, no story she was not interested in hearing about a Kentucky library. An anecdote about a child winning a summer reading prize was met with the same level of interest as a challenge to a library tax rate.
Remaining curious has allowed me to seize opportunities I might have otherwise dismissed. For example, my curiosity about instructional design coincided with an opportunity from WebJunction. With Charlene’s support and encouragement, I applied to participate in the Strengthening Continuing Education Content for Libraries project. What followed was an amazing, occasionally hectic, and very rewarding learning experience.
Partnerships pay dividends. This lesson is intimately related to the previous two. I didn’t fully appreciate the value of partnerships until I saw Charlene cultivate them. Her focus on long- term goals helped smooth any bumps encountered and ensure that collaboration was cemented for years, beyond individual projects. In the 1990’s, she worked tirelessly to ensure Kentucky libraries were connected to the Internet via the Kentucky Information Highway, now in its fourth iteration. Charlene was still in contact with many of her collaborators from that effort, most of whom had moved on from state government. We met with some of them, now working for Internet service providers, to discuss the limited bandwidth options of rural libraries. Within days, the libraries had new quotes provided and greater bandwidth to offer their patrons.
Every employee at KDLA and many librarians across Kentucky have stories about how Charlene guided their career and encouraged their development. These are a few of my own. She’ll always be in my thoughts, and I’ll strive every day to be a little more like her.
Photo of Charlene Davis via the KY Gov website