By Jeff Keeling
Bob Swanay has spent his eight years as the Johnson City Public Library’s (JCPL) director embracing change and keeping the library relevant. Late last week, Swanay announced he will embrace a major change in his own life by taking the director’s job at the Carmel Clay Public Library in a suburb of Indianapolis.
Swanay, 46, said he has been and continues to be happy in his job at JCPL, but will move to a larger library, one with roughly triple the collection, square footage and employees. The board there, he said, is seeking a director who functions more at the 30,000-foot level. Where Swanay was both visionary and boots-on-the-ground implementer in Johnson City, the former will be more the focus at Carmel Clay.
“I’ll be concerning myself even more than I was at Johnson City with being on the cutting edge of librarianship and exploring why libraries are still relevant, and how they’ll continue to still be relevant and how to push the envelope on what a public library system means in this crazy modern age that we live in.”
Under the leadership of Swanay, who has worked at JCPL for 21 years all told, the library has embraced new technologies, renovated space, grown its collection and completed one strategic plan, having just embarked upon a second one. Both Swanay and the director of its board, Joy Fulkerson, believe the open position will be an attractive one to highly talented candidates.
“There’s a clear path forward for Johnson City right now,” said Swanay, who will work here through Oct. 28. “Our board of directors and staff know that direction and they’re going to keep going there. In the long term they need to find a director that can not only run with the direction that we’re going but be able to take the next future leaps after that.”
Fulkerson called Swanay a “visionary,” saying he has guided the JCPL into a highly respected status regionally, including in the eyes of Nancy Roark, director of the Holston River Regional Library.
“She always talks about the Johnson City Public Library and that they look to us and to our library for direction and best practices, and Bob is at the forefront of that. He’ll be missed for sure.”
The board will meet Tuesday to begin discussing interim and search plans. Fulkerson expects a national search next year.
“The public library is a very strong institution in our community and I think it will be an attractive job,” she said. “It’s not a library that is just happy with the status quo.”
The new director will be able to “reimagine staff” when a three-year project to automate checkout and checkin through RFID tags frees up significant staff resources, Fulkerson said. “We’re excited about what that might look like, and we’ve talked about redeploying some of those staff members to children’s services, particularly to try and grow and strengthen teen programming.”
Fulkerson, like Swanay, sounded unfazed by his imminent departure thanks to what she called a very competent staff. “We as the board have much confidence in their abilities to move us forward as well and to continue to do the great work they’ve been doing.
“I was at the library Wednesday and walked by, and there was a group of staff people at the table talking about what’s next. They’re talking about how better to promote the library’s services – it was a team of folks working together as they began to think about what teen space in the library could look like. It’s definitely been a team effort and that’s something the board is appreciative of.”
That said, Fulkerson said the board definitely will miss Swanay, and is, “extremely proud of what he’s been able to accomplish.
“But we would be remiss to sit on that. It’s a great opportunity to think about what’s next for us, and we will be okay.”
Fulkerson said Swanay’s finla weeks will be an important period for setting the transition in motion. The board meets Tuesday, and as evidence of its faith in the remaining staff, Fulkerson expects discussions about whether any of several current staff members might be interested in the interim directorship.
The board will consider how key priorities might be shared across staff into the spring, and examine the current director job description to see how it might be best updated to reflect the library’s direction.
Once the search process hits its latter stages, “we’ll have opportunities for community members to engage with the candidates, and different stakeholders. I think it’s important not to rush that decision.”
Swanay, for his part, looks forward to coming back to the Buffalo Mountain Room as a visitor on occasion. Appeal of libraries in general and JCPL specifically, he said, “is just to be able to go in and find comfortable, inviting spaces that are right next to stacks of books and all the shelf space of books and all the browsability.
“The Buffalo Mountain Room is a big open room with the windows and the sunlight and the view of Buffalo Mountain and downtown, and you’re surrounded by all those books – that’s a just a cool spot.”