Front & Center: Amber Williams veered from military track to library career
Amber Williams grew up gung-ho for an armed forces career.
As the daughter of a Coast Guard master chief, she was well-acquainted with the commitment and peripatetic lifestyle that required.
When her father suggested she earn a college degree before joining up, Williams chose political science as her major.
“I had a single-track mind,” she recalls.
But after graduating from the University of Washington, Williams’ march toward military life came to an abrupt halt when her grandfather became ill. Not ready to say goodbye, she took a job in Spokane. Then another, and another.
Gradually, Williams’ goals changed, and she discovered a new mission in life: serving people as a librarian. And earlier this year, she was named one of 50 “movers and shakers” by Library Journal, a 143-year-old trade publication founded by Melvil Dewey (inventor of the Dewey decimal book classification system).
During a recent interview, Williams discussed barges, bookmobiles and a memorable blunder.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Williams: I am a military brat. Where didn’t I grow up? But my parents are both from Spokane, so I spent almost every summer here. Spokane was the only constant in my childhood.
S-R: What was your first job?
Williams: The summer I was 16, I worked for a friend’s family renovating a naval barge in Hawaii. First we had to clean it from top to bottom – sweeping, mopping, and removing decades of grease from the cooktop.
S-R: What was that like?
Williams: It was great – more fun than I expected.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?
Williams: I was in JROTC (the Army’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps), intending to join the military, like my dad.
S-R: What changed?
Williams: After graduating from college, I came to Spokane to spend time with my large family – cousins, aunts, uncles – knowing I would not be back for a very long time. Then my grandpa was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and I didn’t want to leave. So I took a job with the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center in their after-school program. I loved working with the kids, and decided instead of going into the military I was staying in Spokane, and should probably look into getting a teaching degree.
Williams: I soon realized that what I really liked about working with kids was doing all the fun things. The prospect of grading didn’t appeal to me. I looked into library jobs, and was hired as a paraprofessional at SCLD (Spokane County Library District) in 2006. Within two weeks I knew I’d found my tribe. People who work in libraries want to help other people. So I researched what I needed to make a career of this.
S-R: Did the political science degree help?
Williams: To be a librarian in Washington, you have to have a master’s. And I needed a bachelor’s to get my master’s. But I can’t say that I’ve used my knowledge of political science.
S-R: Where did you earn your master’s?
Williams: Online through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee while working full time at the library district.
S-R: Then what?
Williams: I was hired as a youth librarian – the best job in the world. But when Nancy Ledeboer became the library district’s executive director (in 2012), she created a lot of opportunities for librarians to do their jobs differently. No person has had more impact on my career.
S-R: What’s some advice she shared?
Williams: Most organizations are pyramids, and there are only so many spots you can move up into. Nancy said, “If SCLD can’t provide the leadership opportunities you want, then look to other library organizations.” I got involved in the Washington Library Association and the American Library Association, and I’ve been able to grow my career in a very satisfying way.
S-R: Your current title is managing librarian: strategic initiatives. What does that mean?
Williams: Other managing librarians manage locations. I focus on identifying community needs and then managing those projects.
S-R: For instance?
Williams: The Studio at Spokane Valley Library – a video-recording space. The Lab at the North Spokane Library (which provides, among other experiences, access to Adobe Creative Cloud, Final Cut Pro X and Microsoft Imagine Academy). Our latest initiative is looking into increasing mobile services.
S-R: You mean bookmobiles?
Williams: Sort of. But not what we typically think of as a bookmobile, because libraries are changing.
S-R: Perhaps drones?
Williams: (laugh) I don’t know about drones. But why do mobile services need to be limited to books?
S-R: Where do you get ideas, besides from staff and patrons?
Williams: From other libraries nationally and internationally.
S-R: What programs have piqued your interest?
Williams: In the Yakima area, libraries use white space broadband – the TV cable channels not being used – to create internet hotspots in places like parks. That could happen here.
S-R: What program did the Library Journal cite when including you among the nation’s movers and shakers?
Williams: The snack program we offer at our Deer Park branch. Back in 2015, when we did our strategic planning, we heard about food issues in Deer Park, particularly among families with kids. They didn’t have after-school programs at the time. When I met with someone from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s child nutrition services, I learned we might be eligible for federal funding. When we qualified in 2016, we were the only library in Washington state doing this. Since then, other libraries around the country have started similar federally funded snack programs.
S-R: How popular is the Deer Park initiative?
Williams: In the past two years, we’ve given out more than 19,000 free snacks. And the program brings lots of kids to the library who we’ve never seen before.
S-R: What’s another success stories?
Williams: The poetry slams we run with high school students. When I hear their stories, I know this is a big, big thing in their lives.
S-R: Any flops?
Williams: (laugh) A few summers ago, we came up with the idea for a cardboard drive-in. Kids would make cars out of cardboard, then park them and watch a movie projected on a wall. When the school we were working with discovered they had asbestos, we had to move to another spot, which turned out to be very different at 11 a.m than when the movie started at 6 p.m. Sunshine poured through every window, and nobody could see the movie. Fifteen minutes into “The Incredibles,” the kids picked up their cars and said, “We’re going home.”
S-R: How have libraries evolved since you were hired 13 years ago?
Williams: We circulate a lot of nontraditional items, such as telescopes, sewing machines, video cameras. The first public libraries (in the early 1700s) didn’t even circulate books. You had to come in to use them. Gradually you could take the books home, and eventually you also got music and movies. Now you can even check out an upholstery kit. With each change, though, there’s a debate about whether this is really what libraries are for.
S-R: Homeless people use libraries as refuges. Are contemporary libraries designed to accommodate them?
Williams: Not in Spokane. There are models in other cities where they have lockers, showers. Urban libraries are making changes with that population in mind, but I don’t think we have the same level of need.
S-R: What challenges does the Spokane County Library District face?
Williams: In the Spokane Valley, we’ve asked voters twice in the recent past to approve funding for a new branch, and both times the bond failed. There’s a pretty strong need, so we keep looking at what we can do differently. And coming up in August is a vote to restore the library district’s tax levy rate to 50 cents. We haven’t requested a levy lid lift since 2010.
S-R: What distinguishes SCLD from other library districts?
Williams: Our commitment to be responsive to the community. We’re willing to try new things, and it’s a safe place to fail.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Williams: The feeling that I’m having a positive impact. It’s so rewarding when someone contacts me and says, “Do you remember when you helped me with a job résumé years ago? This is what I’m doing now. Thanks for getting me started.”
S-R: What do you like least?
Williams: It used to be weeding, but I don’t have to do that anymore.
S-R: Looking back on your career, what’s been the biggest surprise?
Williams: That I ended up a librarian. I was dead set on joining the Army.
S-R: Did any of that JROTC training stick?
Williams: I still find myself walking in step with people, and thinking, “Why aren’t we turning right together?”
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at email@example.com.