NJ Pen Q&A: Collingswood Library Director Carissa Schanely

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The new director chats about her approach to the position, perks of being a library member in Collingswood, and why she loves to help people. 

By Matt Skoufalos

In January, Collingswood Public Library Director Brett Bonfield accepted a job as head of the Princeton Public Library. His replacement, Carissa Schanely, joined the library six years ago at Bonfield’s request. We spoke with her about her vision for the local library, the needs of its patrons, and its role in the community.

NJ PEN: You were recently formally appointed to your position, but you’ve been effectively doing the job of library director since Brett Bonfield’s departure in January. How are you settling in?

CARISSA SCHANELY: It’s a little bit intimidating because people have very high expectations based on what Brett was able to do. This is a very dynamic community. People are just finding out that I have this position, and saying, “You should do this,” and “You should do that.” And that’s great, but I need to move my desk; I need to get our staffing numbers back up. There are these practical matters, and then we can deal with other stuff. It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We need food and shelter, and then I will take care of self-actualization.

NJ PEN: What are some of your objectives in your new role?

SCHANELY: Privacy is huge. We’re trying to get to a point where everybody only uses their own card and always has their card on them as opposed to the casual look-up that we always do. We want [patrons]to have the freedom to read what they want to read without oversight from someone else. [What happens] if you have a person who’s in an abusive relationship and they check out a book on divorce? How do you do that without inconveniencing families and individuals? Everybody’s sharing communally, and that’s nice for them, but we want to balance that.

NJ PEN: Is there a workaround for people who forget their cards?

SCHANELY: We recommend Keyring or Cardstar. You know, you can use the library without ever coming to the library. As long as you get your library card, there’s a lot you can do from home. Use the website to see what’s checked out, renew items, request items to be put on hold. [There’s] information for Inter-library loan; Mango language learning software, e-books, e-audio books, databases, Tumblebooks. We like to give the people what they want, balancing those wants and needs with our limited budget and staff. It’s hard because it’s a very diverse community, and everyone wants something different.

NJ PEN: What are some of your favorite services that the library offers?

Museum passes available to members of the Collingswood Public Library. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Museum passes available to members of the Collingswood Public Library. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

SCHANELY: Museum passes are huge, and it’s such a good bargain. The only trick is it’s first-come, first-serve, and you have to stay on top of it. If you want to go to Grounds for Sculpture, you’ve got to know five days ahead of time. There’s too many people and two few passes, and it’s too time-sensitive.

[Passes are available for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the U Penn Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, the Garden State Discovery Museum, Grounds for Sculpture, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, and Morris Arboretum.]

Databases! Most people never really use a database. Here’s what librarians get kind of cranky about: somebody wants to know something, and they go to the Wikipedia page. If you have a health issue, please don’t google your health issue. Go to Pub Med. Or go to the Mayo Clinic. Go to an authority on research. There are better places to go.

I really like Mango. You can learn another language, and you can learn English from another language. If you have a microphone on your computer, it reads how you’re saying the thing to make sure that your pronunciation is proper. It gives you hints on the culture. You can do mini-lessons. I’m reviewing my French right now. I feel like most people either want to learn another language or want to brush up. It’s also really fun. You don’t have to buy discs that either go missing or break.

Probably the most popular thing is “help me get a job,” which, given our economy over the past few years, is not a surprise. We have a lot of people who are trying to get into or stay in the workforce who don’t have the basic tech skills necessary to apply for a job. To fill out an application online, you already need a resume typed up, and you need an email address, which a lot of people don’t have. We have to start at the beginning. Maybe once a week, I have somebody come in and say, “I don’t know anything about computers. How do I use a computer?” That’s a big part of what our reference staff still do, helping people develop those basic tech skills that they need for employment.

The children’s collection and section is responsible for at least one-third of the traffic we get. There are people from other towns who pay for a library card to come here because our children’s collection is so good. [Children’s librarian] Dot Garabedian is amazing. She scours the reviews. She is on top of all of it. Story time is huge. We added Lego Club, and it’s huge.

We haven’t had adult programming for most of the time we’ve been here, but we did start a book club, which I run, and I wish more people could come. We read a book a month and discuss it. It’s usually an average of 12. This month we’re reading The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, author of the very popular Secret Life of Bees. Wednesday, March 23, at 7 pm. All are welcome.

The Collingswood Public Library Awesome Box, which Schanely established. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

The Collingswood Public Library Awesome Box, which Schanely established. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

NJ PEN: What do you like best about the library?

SCHANELY: There are weird little things. I like it when it’s raining because you can hear the rain pounding down. It’s so quiet and cozy here. Those of us who have fond memories of libraries as children always think of it as a safe haven.

I think the DVD collection is awesome. We have foreign films, Game of Thrones, BBC dramas. We have all that fun stuff.

The [book]collection, I think, is pretty solid for such a small place. People think of the library as a static place because it’s always the same to them. For every year we add 1,000 books, we have to discard 1,000 books. We’re constantly discarding them.

I like the kids. The kids are really funny. Once time, I was having a bad day and this little girl came in and hugged the stairs and said, “I love the library!” It was this adorable and perfectly placed moment.

I love helping people. I was in teaching before this, and I like that I still get to teach everyday here. How wonderful is that, that I can help someone find a job? It’s useful. When you do something for somebody, it’s pretty cool.

NJ PEN: How about personal favorites?

SCHANELY: I am never far from J.D. Salinger, Bill Bryson, Jane Austen, David Sedaris, and all of my other beloved, imaginary friends. I love, love, love all the new picture books. One of my recent favorites is Weasels by Elys Dolan. [I love] when the kids dress-up in costumes for Halloween story times, and they parade around the building. When patrons come in and gush about what they’re reading, watching, making, etc. I love to hear that an eBook you borrowed helped you learn how to brew beer, or that the John Adams miniseries helped you understand American History.  That’s what we’re here for.

Collingswood Library Director Carissa Schanely. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Collingswood Library Director Carissa Schanely. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

NJ PEN: Are there challenges that you’re expecting to face in your position? 

SCHANELY: I think a lot of people were surprised that I had this role because they didn’t really know who I was. I’ve always operated in the background. Even though I’ve been here for six years, and I’ve been making changes and overseeing departments, it was never about me, it was about the product, so I was never really selling myself, I was just selling the library. I feel like now maybe I need to be better at making that case, because people think the library just operates.

It’s a lot more than what meets the eye. There are schedules and budgets and vendors and technical problems. You’re overseeing this very diverse group of people every day—our patrons—and they have different interests and different needs.

That’s the magical thing about library world: that you get to do all this stuff. That’s how Brett tricked me into library world. If you’re a generalist, people want to know about everything. If you want to help people, you’re a good fit. Because I’d been in service for so long, sales, teaching, hospitality, I was already familiar with getting people the things they want.

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