Social justice amid the stacks

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by Christoper Cole, courtesy of The News & Advance

An early role teaching poor kids changed the career path of Nan Carmack.

As a student teacher at the College of William and Mary, hoping to make a difference in an impoverished area of Williamsburg (VA), she was just launching an education career when she was struck by a desire to pursue social change.

Carmack, now director of Campbell County Public Library, recalled what may have been her big turning point — watching one day as police brought a young boy into her class whose family had just been evicted from their home.

She remembered reflecting that if the child had just been thrown out of his home, “Of course he can’t sit there and learn how to add.”  The experience nudged Carmack to enter counseling instead, a move that would also involve social services for at-risk kids — which also led her back to the Lynchburg region.

That was a crucial first step that eventually led to her dream role of running a public library system.  Her efforts culminated recently in Carmack, 48, being named the first Donna G. Cote Librarian of the Year by the Virginia Library Association.

The award comes at a frenetic time for Carmack, who while running the libraries has been juggling roles in several professional groups and has just completed her doctorate. These challenges are all worth it for Carmack, who said she views enlightening and helping people as the crucial twin pillars of libraries.

“Libraries exist at the intersection of intellectual curiosity and social justice,” she said, “and it’s the perfect place for me.”

Sitting down for an interview in her office tucked inside Campbell County’s main library in Rustburg, Carmack talked about big ideas for the taxpayer-funded system. These information centers, which also get grant money, should be a hub for not only educating but helping people and providing key community services, she said.

That means a lot more than keeping books.  The needs are myriad: Job-seekers use the library to craft and polish resumes; home educators use its spaces as classrooms; senior citizens get help with computers and online services, Carmack said.

She said everyone is welcome to take advantage of the vast array of library products and services that taxpayers and others are funding. “Everybody who walks in the door is treated with the same respect.”

Considerable benefits accrue from well-managed public libraries, which are reasons to promote libraries at the state, regional and local levels, she said.  Carmack has tackled numerous roles on behalf of the profession, statewide to nationally, including just recently, the 2016 Virginia Library Leadership Academy chair.

Locally she was already known as quite the workhorse, and as someone who instills a culture of community service in the public library.

“One of Nan’s great contributions is how embedded that service philosophy has become in every element and staff person at the library,” said Frank Rogers, Campbell County administrator.  Rogers added that Carmack’s influence “really has lasting benefit.”

Driven to succeed

After deciding to shift careers, Carmack, who was born and grew up in Campbell County, found herself back in Central Virginia to study counseling at Lynchburg College.  She also got involved in social services, with organizations such as CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Central Virginia.

At the same time, she was beginning to raise a young family but realized that “it turns out I was a terrible stay-home mother” and yearned for a full-time career. “That’s what ultimately led me to library land.”

Carmack opened a bookstore and ran that business for about four years until an opportunity opened up in the Bedford Public Library System in 2004, working on community relations, development and programming.  “That’s when I realized this was it, this is where I could serve,” she said.

In 2008, she moved to the Campbell County system and her career in library administration really took off. She earned a master’s degree from Drexel University before then turning to her doctorate from Lynchburg College, which she just completed this year. All the while, she was ramping up her participation in statewide professional groups.

This year, she earned the first-ever Donna G. Cote Award, which, according to the VLA, recognizes a working Virginia librarian’s “exemplary achievement” and contributions in the nomination period, which was 2015.

Promoting libraries

Campbell County’s system runs on a roughly $1.3 million budget — $900,000 in local taxpayer funds and the rest in state aid and grants.  It’s enough funding to keep up what Carmack described as “fantastic facilities,” but the desire for more resources will always be there.

It has helped that the regional library systems often work together, she said, citing as an example the book-borrowing partnership among Campbell and Bedford counties and Lynchburg. That creates volume discounts for the libraries, along with the benefits to members, she said.

Still, one aspect of the job that took her slightly aback was that it could become politicized, especially during the budget process.  “I had no idea how political libraries were, but as an arm of local government, it’s inherently so,” she said. Over time Carmack said she has learned to work on her poker face amid the inevitable back-and-forth over issues that affect the library.

Funding is a perennial concern. Carmack started with the Campbell County Library in the midst of recession, when local tax revenues began falling. “With a library system you don’t know how much is going to come in” revenue-wise, she said.

Carmack in turn promotes what she called the crucial role of public libraries in building quality of life and driving economic growth.  Locally the library also uses funds effectively, she said. “I feel we are a, excellent stewards of taxpayer dollars and b, excellent innovators.”

Rogers said he agreed with Carmack’s view of public libraries’ regional contributions.  “Libraries are absolutely critical to establish a qualify-of-life experience,” and that extends to economic development, he said. “The value of a library can’t be understated.”

While it’s hard to project future funding levels, Rogers said, “obviously the value of the library is understood in the community and will continue to be a factor in our future planning.”

Balancing acts

All through these professional pursuits, Carmack has still managed a bustling family life, raising a daughter and two sons with her husband, Todd Crytser.  Their children are grown now: Rachel has entered the work force; older son Ford attends Christopher Newport University and younger son Will, James Madison University.

This year, the whole family will make time for a holiday trip to Iceland — “It’s as close to the North Pole as we’re going to get,” she quipped.

Carmack and her husband Todd, who works in operational excellence at Teva, just got back from a trip to Ireland. As “empty nesters” now, they would love to travel more in the next decade, she said, though they also enjoy living at home in the Evington community, which straddles Campbell and Bedford counties.

When she can, Carmack makes time for knitting, painting and yoga.  Not that she has much spare time. Getting her doctorate done recently was its own challenge, for example, because of a heavy lift in collating all the data she needed for her dissertation.

That paper, which she hopes will be published soon, involves a study of how prepared new librarians coming out of degree programs are for the work force. The answer: not very.

It was the same way for Carmack when she started in the library profession, she said.   “It became abundantly clear as a brand new director … I definitely didn’t know enough,” she said.  That could partly explain her lengthy academic career. Carmack said she had a strong sense that her role demanded knowing more about everything from information science to politics.

Today, as the profession and community take notice of her longtime efforts in the field, she’s hoping people stay engaged in libraries, realize just how much they have to offer, and indeed, participate more.

She has many ambitions for the county library system, from launching software coding classes to expanding what it has to offer for local history and genealogy. Much of it depends on resources, she said.

At the same time Carmack plans to continue her robust involvement in library advocacy at all levels.  Staying involved in groups like the VLA fits into a larger life philosophy of remaining engaged and working with others, she said.

“It’s very easy to become isolated,” instead of seeing the wider view of the profession and community, Carmack said. “All people have a responsibility to one another to share. We’re only enriched by our relationships with others.”