Nearly six months ago Tonya (pronounced TONE-ya) Kennon took leadership of the Howard County Library System (HCLS). Kennon joined HCLS following a long career working in her native California, most recently serving as director of the Riverside Public Library.
During her tenure, she secured unanimous City Council approval to construct a new $40 million main library, convinced 85 percent of voters to approve a library parcel tax measure, secured a 20 percent increase in grant revenue and implemented 100 percent privately-funded STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) makerspaces at all locations. They system also hosted the 2017 California Library Association conference.
Earlier in her career, Kennon served as the county librarian and library services supervisor with the County of Riverside and Tustin Unified School District. She received her B.A. from California Baptist University and M.L.I.S. from San Jose State University.
What’s new programs would you like to offer at HCLS?
We want to increase community engagement with our offerings to all sectors, and in doing so we will often be working outside of our walls. We want to increase the community’s options in regard to classes, materials and mobile outreach with books and technology, including makerspaces and art exhibits.
If you had an additional million dollars in your $20 million budget, what would you do with it?
Thank the donors, mightily (laughing). We want to be as inclusive as possible and would look to integrate sectors that may experience barriers due to access, age, language, and so on. Around 27 percent of HOCO residents speak a non-English language, and it’s costly to translate a website into several dozen languages. Keeping up with content changes on the site would be challenging, but worth it. We would also offer enhanced early learning spaces, and more interactive and immersive learning experiences for all ages, especially around technology and the arts.
Does the HCLS need more branches?
We’re reviewing the west end, and there’s a definite need for a new and expanded Central Library, in Downtown Columbia. Despite the recent renovation, we could use additional space for meetings, classes, interactive learning and exhibit space for public art. Our libraries are “bumping” places, where the various cross sections of our community can interact with people and groups they may not ordinarily come in contact with, like seniors and youth.
Registration for our classes fills quickly, often within minutes. We’re looking to offer culinary literacy classes, cooking demonstrations and expand our speaker series, so we could use a large auditorium, though we have been able to partner with Howard Community College.
Do you see new libraries, in general, moving to more mixed-use type developments and approaches, like the recently renovated Elkridge branch, which also houses 50-Plus and D-I-Y centers?
Various entities, governments and private businesses are seeing the benefit of partnering with libraries. Libraries serve a large segment of the community. Our customers may become theirs, and vice-versa. It’s a win-win.
The Anne Arundel County Public Library is operating a small branch out of the mall in Annapolis. What are your thoughts on such marketing efforts?
There are many successful examples of this model across the nation. Pop-ups are also becoming a popular way to reach the community where they are.
What technological advances do you anticipate?
We’re looking to enhance passive access to technology and work more in the area of gamification and apps as learning tools. We’re also working to ensure the community is aware of the current robust assortment of online offerings, such as Mango Languages, a language learning tool that is similar to Rosetta Stone, but free. Also, someone who likes Netflix or Hulu should try Hoopla, which allows streaming of movies and TV shows, also for free.
How does the library generate additional money, materials, etc.?
The library is a component of the county’s education system. The library received $20.9 million from Howard County and $980,000 from the Maryland Department of Education. In addition to donations and grants, which vary, the Friends and Foundation of HCLS also fundraise on our behalf through events like Evening in the Stacks.
Members of the public are encouraged to donate old books and DVDs. We work with Better World Books, a company that sells items and returns a percentage of the revenues, then recycles what it can’t sell.
What has been your biggest career challenge?
HCLS offers world-class resources, but there are always things you can do more often and better. We’re continuing to seek and find ways to build on our success.
What’s your vision of the HCLS for the next five years? And libraries in general?
HCLS will continue to be at the forefront of changes in the field. We’ll strengthen partnerships and collaborations the arts and with existing partners, like the Howard County Public School System, as well as promote new ideas and innovations in the community.
I’m inspired by our local community and I also look outside of the community, and even outside of my profession, for inspiration. Collaborating with leaders in other industries is crucial to the success of the library.
For instance, with STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) so pronounced on our radar screens, we want to expand our work with various tech groups. We envision people working in our spaces on technological pursuits, the arts and other disciplines, with organic learning and collaboration happening naturally ― to the degree that this co-learning leads to the creation of new products and customers applying for patents.
Are libraries as relevant as they used to be?
Absolutely. Libraries are vital institutions in the community that strengthen them educationally, socially and economically. History tells us that there was also a time when film and TV would render books obsolete, which never happened. In fact, people have always learned various ways using various tools in various formats.
Libraries are so much more than books. Libraries offer classes, for instance, that are often full, as are many of our other offerings. Remember, in the same way that people come into contact with diverse community members in our spaces, they also “bump” into materials, resources and events that may not have been at the forefront of their minds prior.
What else is on your mind?
I’m surveying everything right now, through our lens at HCLS and also wondering how members of the community view the same topics. We’re discussing methods to collect community input in various areas.
I was recently at a conference where one of the topics centered on seizing opportunities. The example used at one point was, of all things, a ketchup packet. Our group contemplated the issues: they can be hard to open, not have enough ketchup inside, etc. The point was to seize opportunities for innovative ideas and solutions, rather than to create work-arounds. And that’s where my focus is, innovating and creating for even better service for our community.