Library director in ‘right place in the right time’
Jessica Chamberlain has a love of books, a love of learning and a drive to help people — three traits of a good librarian.
It was those traits combined with solid leadership skills that led Chamberlain, the director of the Norfolk Public Library, to be named as a finalist for 2018 Norfolk Area Person of the Year — an award sponsored by Elkhorn Valley Bank and the Daily News.
Chamberlain was nominated for the award for her role in helping prepare the Norfolk library for the future with its $8.7 million renovation and expansion, which was completed and unveiled in May.
While Chamberlain acknowledges she put a lot of time and effort into the project, she refuses to claim the honor of the nomination alone.
“This honor is extremely humbling and not one I can claim on my own,” Chamberlain said. “This was definitely a team effort. I was just in the right place in the right time.”
Chamberlain became the director of the Norfolk Public Library in 2012, two years after moving back to the community in which she spent the first few years of her life.
“I was born in Norfolk, but my dad worked for Goodyear, so we moved away when I was 5,” she said.
Chamberlain said she moved all over the country and developed a deep love for books while growing up. After high school, she attended Milligan College in Johnson City, Tenn., from which she earned degrees in English and sociology.
“I started working in libraries kind of by accident,” she said.
While looking for a part-time job and considering a master’s degree in education, Chamberlain began working at a library in Ohio, where she and her husband, David, had settled.
“I just loved it,” Chamberlain said. “I did story time, which is probably why I’m still drawn to the kids’ area. I have a real love for that. I decided libraries is what I wanted to do.”
She received her master’s degree in library science from Kent State University in Ohio and then later moved with her husband, who is a musician, and two children Ellie and Ian — who are now in middle school — to Norfolk in 2010.
Chamberlain initially provided consulting and training for mostly rural libraries while working for the Columbus-based Northeast Library System, a nonprofit organization funded by the Nebraska Library Commission.
Although she loved the job, Chamberlain said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to apply for and later accept the director’s position at Norfolk Public Library in the fall of 2012.
Almost immediately after she took the job, the community’s need and desire for improvements to the facility became apparent. A space needs study conducted in the spring of 2013 showed what should be expected of a library in a community Norfolk’s size.
The Norfolk Library Foundation then funded a voter study to see if the issue might pass if the expansion and renovation was added to a ballot. The project was added to the ballot and passed in November 2014. The collection and stockpiling of a half-cent sales tax began the following spring, and work on the project began in April 2017.
“What amazes me is there were so many people who I don’t think could picture the end product and yet were so supportive and embraced the project and voted yes for the project and didn’t even really know how much they would enjoy it in the end,” Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain said the staff at the library and personnel from other city divisions worked hard to make the renovation and construction process run smoothly. Among the tasks undertaken was the relocation of each library item on three separate occasions to accommodate different phases of the project.
“That’s about 75,000 items — each touched and moved three times. Then we went back and inserted a new security system, so we had to touch every book again to put in a new security tag,” she said.
Chamberlain said the majority of her time during the construction and renovation was spent dealing with different meetings and issues concerning the project. She credited the library staff for stepping in to make sure library operations as usual continued.
The grand reopening occurred on May 29, 2018, a little more than a year after construction on the facility began.
After being hired as Norfolk’s library director, Chamberlain said she didn’t foresee leading the facility through such a monumental change.
“It wasn’t even on my radar,” she said. “But it wasn’t long after I started that it became clear that this was something they wanted to do. I didn’t know how quickly it would all happen or that this is what we’d end up with.”
There are too many positive aspects about the newly renovated and expanded library for Chamberlain to name a favorite, but she is partial to the children’s area because it’s such a fun space.
Now, nearly seven months after the grand reopening, Chamberlain said she finally has begun growing accustomed to the new surroundings and is settling back into her role as library director.
But she also is looking toward the future and setting new goals for the library.
“It’s more about where do we put our energy,” she said. “We know books are our bread and butter, and they will be for a long, long time. Beyond that, what other things can we do?”
She’s preparing to meet with library users and members of the community in 2019 to update the strategic plan for the facility.
“I see that (the library) is here to meet the community needs — whatever those needs are — if it fits in our mission of providing lifelong education and learning opportunities,” she said. “We’ve got such great forward momentum and great community support. I’d like to see them on that same positive path.”