Interviewing Chris From The Dothan Library!

Would you like to get to know who keeps our local library operating smoothly? In this episode of “Home Grown,” we’re going to interview Chris Warren, director of the Dothan Houston County Library System. We’ll hear about his career experience and some of the great things the library offers so you can take advantage of our library system.

Meet Chris Warren

Chris Warren grew up in Warner Robins, Georgia. He attended the University of Georgia in Athens and got his very first library job at the University of Georgia’s libraries. Chris says that those jobs were not a good fit for him, so he decided to teach high school—until he discovered that that was not a good fit for him either. 

When he left UGA, he told himself he was never going to work in a library ever again. He soon discovered that public libraries were a better fit for him, so he started working for the Gwinnett County Public Library as a library associate. There, he fell in love with the work. 

Chris liked the fact that he got to help all kinds of people with all kinds of issues throughout the day. No day was the same, which he found rewarding both personally and professionally.

A Wealth Of Experience

With his degree in Library Science, Chris went from Gwinnett County to the Chattahoochee Valley libraries in Columbus. There, he worked as a branch manager and director of library design for their library system. Next, he went to the Auburn Public Library and held the position of director for about eight years.

For a little over a year and a half, Chris has now been in Dothan as the Director of the Dothan Houston County Library System. He brings a lot of experience to the position. Chris is proud to say he hasn’t just worked in management or administration; he’s also worked in Circulation, Reference, and Youth Services, doing a lot of the frontline work that you have to do in a library.

A People Business

The most important skill that Chris has acquired, he says, is just the ability to listen and not assume that he knows everything. He’s very proud of the fact that whenever the library is looking at some major change or some new initiative, they really think about how the change is going to impact frontline workers and their end users.

Chris and his team at the library try to keep people at the center of everything they do. Books are really important and buildings are really important. However, at the end of the day, they’re in a people business. Keeping people at the center of their decision-making process is always important. 

Chris says they have to listen—to patrons, coworkers, civic leaders, and elected officials—to really understand what they can do. That's going to make the community a really great place to live, work, learn, and play.

Impacting The Community

I grew up as a library kid, always getting bags full of books to read over a couple of weeks before coming back for more. I know how important the library was to me as a child, and Chris agrees that it has a very broad impact.

In terms of children, the public library provides an accessible resource. Anybody can use it to either borrow books and take them home or read books while they're here at the library. This helps create a community that supports literacy and learning so that children are not just learning at home or school; they’ve also got this community resource that helps support them.

Whether they're just wanting to read for fun or there's something that they're curious about and want to learn more about, the public library has resources to support them. 

Resources And Economic Stability

Chris and his team have made a point (especially during National Library Week) to talk about how the library positively impacts economic development. For example, the library has resources that support job seekers at every step in the job search process—whether they're writing a resume from scratch or are navigating the Internet to apply for a job online.

They also have resources for small business owners and entrepreneurs to help them grow their businesses the way they want to. Additionally, public libraries provide a sense of socio-economic stability for their communities. This is because once you've put them there, Chris says, chances are they're not going anywhere. 

Chris says the library provides a desirable civic amenity. It also serves as a catalyst for economic development. The Dothan Houston County Library is a very, very busy facility. People come to the library to use the computers, check out a book, or attend storytime. They then go to local restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, or shops and support economic development that way. 

Clearly, there are a whole bunch of different benefits gained through the public library. Some studies that various states and organizations have done show for every dollar invested in a public library, the return on investment is somewhere between $4 and $5.

State-Of-The-Art Facilities

People from this area may have grown up with the Houston-Love Memorial Library. Now, we have two high-tech, state-of-the-art library locations here in Dothan that replaced the old library. 10 years or so ago, the city really started crafting a vision for what public libraries could look like in Dothan. Several civic leaders came together to create an aspirational vision for what public libraries could look like in Dothan and Houston County. 

In terms of crafting that vision and raising the funds to make these facilities possible, it’s remarkable what Dothan was able to accomplish by working together. While Chris wasn't in the city at that time and can't take any credit for it, it’s been amazing for the community. It speaks to what librarians can accomplish and what communities can accomplish when they work together.

Making Use Of Technology

When people think about the library, they think of books and everything in a written format. However, technology is helping to promote the library—with social media giving Chris and his team new ways to engage with patrons.

One of the things they’ve learned is that it’s important to meet people where they are. In terms of outreach, the library goes out in the community and into the schools, where people already are. However, in a digital context, that means engaging with people who are already on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. 

Chris says the more they can engage with people online, the better job the library is doing. One of the things they learned during COVID is the importance of adapting and using technology to their benefit. For example, they’ve moved a lot of their storytimes into a digital format online, allowing them to continue that engagement. Now, they’re gradually shifting back into in-person programs. 

Events And Activities

There is a long list of events, activities, and programs that the library offers and provides. For example, they have several activities for adults—including a Crafternoon Tea activity and Paint and Sip with Ashley. They’re also gearing up for their summer reading program—which most of us can remember doing as kids—called Oceans of Possibilities.

Out of all the initiatives that the library does, Chris says the summer reading program is probably one of the most impactful. Every metric—including circulation, program attendance, and door count—goes up during the summer. There's also been a lot of research that shows the benefits of a summer reading program. These kids do better than those who learn all through the school year and stop when summer hits. 

Research shows that kids who spend the summer months reading—continuing to engage their brains and minds in things they’re curious or passionate about—require less time to be caught up once the new school year starts. The problem is that learning loss is cumulative; kids can get to fifth grade and have lost say two years of reading skills. 

Engaging Minds

By providing the summer reading program, the library engages those minds through the summer months and provides academic support. This way, kids go back to school ready to continue learning, just as they were when they left off in the spring. The library also makes a point to say anybody of any age can participate in the summer reading program. 

Chris believes it's really important that kids see adults reading. The library wants to make sure that they know that reading is cool and is something that people do. Kids should see that they’ve got a community of readers and learners around who want to support them in learning, reading, and pursuing the things that they’re passionate about.

Library Director Duties

As library director, every day is different for Chris. In addition to interviews like the one we’re doing with him, a typical day involves meeting with various managers and making sure to deal with any figurative fires that need to be put out. Chris also meets with the library’s various stakeholders and civic leaders, making sure that they understand what the library is able to do with the investment they've made.

It’s a mix of management, administration, and advocacy, Chris says, and he does his best to be a good ambassador for the library to the community. His job is to represent the library and what they’re able to make possible. Additionally, Chris wants the people of Dothan to know that the library is listening. They want to know what they can do to be relevant and supportive of people's needs and priorities. 

This, Chris said, is one of the challenges of library work. Every community is different, and the suite of services that libraries provide needs to be different as well; they need to address what those needs are. Because of this, it behooves the library to listen as much as possible and tailor what they’re doing to what's most important to residents of Dothan and Houston County.

A Vision For The Future

I asked Chris what his vision is for the future of the library. He feels like they could do a better job of communicating their value and what they do. When Chris speaks with civic clubs or organizations, he often has people who come up to him later and say they had no idea that the library has eBooks, did passport applications, has a Library of Things, or has a Seed Library.

Chris feels that the more the library communicates the variety of services that they offer, their vision, and the value they bring to the table, the better off they are and the better off the community will be. He also wants to see the library become an even more essential part of the fabric of the community—whether that's continuing to support literacy and learning or continuing to support economic development. 

The more that the library can elevate what they bring to the table, Chris says, the better off they are. This is an important part of his vision for the library going forward.

Getting A Library Card

If you’re interested in getting a library card, the steps are easy. As long as you reside in Dothan and Houston County, you are eligible for a library card at no cost. All you need to do is visit any one of the library locations, and they’ll ask to see something with proof of who you are and of where you live. 

If you've got a driver's license with your correct address on it, you’ll be able to get signed up for a library card with no problem and at no cost. If you reside outside of the service area, there is a $25 annual fee. Considering the breadth of services that the library offers, this is a great value. 

Chris encourages the community to get a library card if they don’t already have one. Considering all the different services that they offer, the programs that they make available, and the resources that they share, it’s astonishing with the library’s limited budget. They’re able to deliver services and resources, innovating in ways that are on par with any of the best library systems in Alabama—if not some of the best libraries in the southeast. 

Chris’ Reading List

Something I love to ask librarians is what they are personally reading. Chris says he’s currently reading two books. The first one is The Upswing by Robert Putnam—who is also the author of the book Bowling Alone, which was very popular probably 10 or 15 years ago. That book was about how we've become increasingly isolated from each other; as social media is supposed to bring us closer together, we've sort of drifted further apart. 

Some of those themes are revisited in The Upswing, though it’s a little bit about social equality that Chris finds a fascinating read. The other book he’s reading right now is Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. Originally published in 2007, it’s a book about why certain ideas and certain stories stick with us while others don't. 

This is a really intriguing read from an advocacy and marketing perspective, Chris notes, when thinking about how to get things to stick when he’s communicating about the library. He definitely has a vested interest in the topic as Director.

Take Advantage Of Our Library

I hope you enjoyed getting to know Chris Warren and everything the library has to offer. We appreciate all the hard work he does to keep the Dothan Houston County Library running smoothly. And remember, if you don’t have a library card, be sure to go and get one today.

Make sure you subscribe to my channel so you never miss an episode of “Home Grown,” my show all about living in the Wiregrass area. Stay tuned to see what I feature next!