James Kelly

James Kelly, director of Frederick County Public Libraries.

Have you ever wondered what a library director does? Or is that just me? Well if you ever wondered, keep reading because last week I spent an hour with James Kelly, director of Frederick County Public Libraries, to pick his brain about what he does and why libraries are (still) so important.

Kelly became the director in May 2018 prior to serving as the associate director for operations from 2014 to 2018.

He got the “library bug” in college when he worked in his school’s academic library through a work-study program. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in English from Loyola University in New Orleans and got his master’s degree in library science from UNC-Chapel Hill.

While he started in an academic library, his passion was public libraries.

By no surprise, when you get a library director and a writer together the conversation quickly turns to books.

Kelly’s wife, Kari, is the children’s book buyer for Curious Iguana downtown. Whenever they travel they try to visit libraries and local book stores wherever they go.

On a recent trip to the Outer Banks they stopped at a book store after his wife had made connections with the owner through social media. They ended up stopping in and chatting with the owner for an hour.

“We joke about having a busman’s holiday,” he said. “The bus driver goes on holiday, then he rides the bus in the town that he goes to.”

He’s always consuming two books at a time. He generally reads one hard copy and listens to another on audio. Not simultaneously, obviously.

He’s currently reading a hard copy of The Overstory by Richard Powers and listening to an audio book by Cal Newport called Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. The latter book, he explained, is about trying to get a handle on the computers we carry around in our pockets and trying to build a more healthy relationship with any digital product.

“I’m actually listening to the audio book,” he said. “Which is kind of funny because I’ve downloaded it to my phone and I’m listening to the book about how to improve my digital lifestyle.”

Even though he’s the director he, and his family, still need library cards to borrow books.

Boiled down, his job is about politics and money, he told me. But most importantly it’s about working with the community, which he likes best.

“I like the aspect of working with the community,” he said. “After 25 years I’m pretty firmly committed to library work. But if I were to pivot from library work, it would still be some aspect of helping the community.”

Whether it’s interacting with colleagues, other county departments, elected officials or public library systems throughout the state his focus is knowing what that community need is and helping connect people to different services.

“Everyone has something that they want to learn, everyone has something that they can teach,” he said. “Libraries used to be really transactional. You need a book, here is a book. Libraries are transformational. It’s really about connecting people in the community and helping grow the community.”

Follow CJ Fairfield on Twitter @FairfieldCj

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