While working as a young advertising executive several years ago, Gary Shaffer had a conversation with a friend who had grown up in Oklahoma City before moving to Washington, D.C., where he now works as a law librarian.
"One day he said to me, 'It's too bad you don't want to become a librarian -- they could really use your skills,' " Shaffer said.
The conversation struck the young ad man, who had been a regular at his neighborhood library while growing up in a small town before going on to work in his university library in college. He considered the outlandishness of the proposal -- "After all, if somebody says you're good at yoga, you really don't go out and become a yoga guru," he pointed out -- before deciding it wasn't so outlandish after all.
So he quit the ad business, got a master's degree in library and information science, and started a second career as a librarian.
"That conversation with him was really pivotal in my life," Shaffer said last week while visiting Tulsa, where he will take over as the new chief executive officer of the Tulsa City-County Library on Jan. 5. "My job in advertising was to get people into a client's store, get them interested in something on the shelf and take it to the check-out. Libraries are no different. I saw boundless opportunity there."
Shaffer will come to Tulsa from the Sacramento (Calif.) Public Library, where he is an administrator. The job in Tulsa was attractive to him for a number of reasons, he said.
"You've got a community here that loves its library and supports it," he said. "It's not every community where 70 percent of residents hold a library card. That's very unusual."
Shaffer said he also sees a very enthusiastic staff, a library commission that is very engaged and an extremely literate city.
"I see a library that is ready to go to the next level, and I think I'm uniquely positioned to take it there," he said.
For those who doubt the importance of libraries in the early 21st century, when information is more widely available than ever, Shaffer has a long list of rebuttals. He quickly points out there are more public libraries in America than there are Starbucks or McDonald's locations.
"I like to share that statistic with people because we're everywhere," he said.
And when people ask him whether libraries are still relevant, Shaffer doesn't hesitate with his answer.
"The truth is, we're busier than we've ever been," he said.
Shaffer said the there is an erroneous belief that the widespread availability of Internet in American households has had a negative effect on libraries.
"That is not true," he said. "There is a huge digital divide in this country. That's the No. 1 factor driving our business.
A lot of households still can't afford to be online. And others may have a home computer, but if you're a kid, you may have to wait in line behind your brother or sister to use it.
"No. 2 is the explosion of information. People need help navigating that information. If we were just in the book business, I would say, 'Will the last one to leave turn off the lights?' But we're not."
One of the more important missions libraries are fulfilling these days, he said, is assisting out-of-work Americans find employment.
"Libraries and librarians are the first responders in the jobs crisis," he said. "We're the first place you should call if you get caught up in that crisis."
The Tulsa City-County Library not only offers books on how to write or update your resume, he said, it also offers its Learning Express Library, which features practice tests to help people brush up on their Microsoft Office skills or prepare to take an exam for a real estate license or an emergency responder certification.
"There are over 100 things I could tell you about that you probably don't know we offer," he said. "Ten times out of 10, we're going to have something that will help you."
Shaffer said libraries are a big part of the American success story, and he cites the characterization by Charles Belden, president of the American Library Association in the middle 1920s, of libraries as "everyman's university."
"Of course, I would amend that to every person's university," he said, smiling.
When he came to Tulsa earlier this fall to interview for the CEO position, Shaffer made a point of emphasizing the formative role the library played in his life as a youngster.
"I said this when I was interviewed: I'm a success, but the reason I'm a success is the public library," he said. "My family taught me reading, but the library is where I got my access. It was the first place where I was free to roam. I could pull out a book on Germany or I could pull out a book on the saints. It was my way of finding my way in the world."
Of course, Shaffer's love of reading continues to this day. He said he sometimes finds it difficult to find time to read for pleasure, but when he does, he prefers nonfiction, particularly biographies. He's currently making his way through "The Book in the Renaissance" by Andrew Pettegree, which he laughingly described as "a biography of the book."
Shaffer said he already has visited all 25 locations of the Tulsa City-County Library and has been very impressed by its market penetration.
"The fact that a city like Sperry -- which is about the same size as the city I grew up in -- has not only a branch with its own collection but access to a million volumes is incredible," he said. "The Library Journal rates the Tulsa City-County Library as a five-star library. That's an amazing accomplishment. If you're from here, you have nothing to compare it to. But this library is on the forefront of library systems."
Part of his mission during his week-long visit to Tulsa last week, Shaffer said, was to get feedback from staff members at all those branch locations and find out what they need to help them do their jobs.
"I'm not going to make change for change's sake," he said. "This library already does a great job, particularly in how fast they process a book here. Some libraries can take weeks or even months to do that. Plus, we're always purchasing new books and adding them to the shelves. Their turnaround time here is incredibly fast."
Even with all those things going for it, the Tulsa City-County Library -- like all library systems nationwide, Shaffer said -- has some definite marketing opportunities available to it in terms of packaging its offerings and making them more accessible or engaging in partnership opportunities with businesses and nonprofit organizations.
He also has his eye on some potential purchases, he said.
"There are some resources that would make a big difference to the citizens of Tulsa I want to investigate," he said. "Those are in the area of the jobs crisis and helping children with their homework."
Shaffer acknowledged there has been a good deal of discussion in Tulsa in recent years about the idea of moving the Central Library from its aging current building to a new location downtown, perhaps to a site in the East Village. But he said it's his understanding no consensus on that issue has emerged.
"It's kind of split," he said. "There is also a body of people who feel we don't need a new Central Library. My main job is to make sure the library is ready, willing and able to help the city of Tulsa in any way it wishes to move forward. My first charge is to make sure this building we have now is safe for patrons and staff alike, that it remains open and accessible. And before any potential move takes place, I really want to take the opportunity to experiment with this building to see what we would want in a new Central Library if the citizenry decides we want a new Central Library. We want to do our investigating now, so we're sure it's meeting the needs of the citizenry later."
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