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story.lead_photo.caption Crystal Gates

Crystal Gates told Laman Library trustees Friday that she didn't like talking about herself, but the public library board enjoyed what she had to say enough to offer her the executive director's position at the North Little Rock library system.

Photo by Special to the Democrat-Gazette
Lisa Scroggins
Photo by Special to the Democrat-Gazette
Cynthia O

Gates, 35, director of the Jackson Parish Library in Jonesboro, La., beat out two other finalists during interview sessions that covered more than 4½ hours Friday.

The executive director's job has been open since longtime Executive Director Jeff Baskin died a year ago this month.

The William F. Laman Public Library board of trustees made the offer after a 16-minute executive session called after the six members present split 4-2 in favor of Gates during a preliminary ranking of their top two candidates. The final vote in open session was unanimous to offer Gates the position.

Gates led Lisa Scroggins, director at the Claud H. Gilmer Library in Rocksprings, Texas, in that first vote. Cynthia O, library services director at Guthrie (Okla.) Public Library, was the third candidate.

"When we all started chatting about it, it was pretty easy that she needed to be the one for us," Chairman Vicki Matthews said of Gates. "It became unanimous once we started talking about it."

The offer is for Gates to start at a salary of $85,000 with a $5,000 moving allowance and a start date of Oct. 19. The offer, to be made through Bradbury Associates of Kansas City, Mo., an executive search firm for libraries, was also to allow Gates 24 hours to decide, so no formal acceptance occurred Friday.

The library system has a main branch, 2801 Orange St., and the Argenta Branch, 420 Main St. in downtown.

Gates, a Florida native, received a master's degree in library science from Louisiana State University and has a master's in history from Louisiana Tech University. She has worked with her local school district to implement a summer reading program that grew from 37 students its first year to 112 students in its third year.

Gates said after her session with the board that although she hadn't been looking to move, she was interested in going "somewhere that felt like home."

"I liked the sense of community I get here," she said of North Little Rock. "I wanted to go somewhere I thought I was needed."

Board members said they were impressed not only with Gates' ideas and enthusiasm, but also with the fact that she had studied the library system and the community. She said she spent Thursday in North Little Rock talking to people she met about the library system, and she visited the Argenta branch of the library unannounced to watch how staff members interacted with the public and each other.

"People have been wonderful," Gates told the trustees. "Two people I met asked why I was in North Little Rock. It was impressive that they knew about the previous financial problems and the [reduction in] library hours. [A woman] asked 'Have they quit cutting people?' Obviously, that's important to the community for two random people to share that with me. Staff brought that [the reduced hours] up, too."

The library system's interim director, Mary Furlough, announced in November that unexpected costs at the Argenta Branch, which opened earlier last year, would prevent the library from covering two separate bond payments on the Argenta library. The financial strain on the system's $3.2 million budget resulted in a reduction in hours at the branch and the main library beginning Dec. 1, the layoffs of 11 staff members Jan. 1, and several community programs and touring exhibits being canceled.

The main library cut back from being open 12 hours Monday-Thursday to 9 hours, and it eliminated Sunday hours completely. The Argenta Branch eliminated Saturday hours. It wasn't previously open on Sundays.

"We had a tough year," Matthews said. "Mary had some tough decisions to make, but it brought us back up to being healthy again."

The city stepped in by the end of the year to arrange a restructuring of the two loans, which will return almost $625,000 the library's budget over 2015 and 2016. City staff members also took over legal, financial and maintenance duties to help reduce outside costs for the library system.

"Your library struggled for a year, yet it's still here," Gates told the trustees. "It's still providing services. You've done what you can. A library is more than just one person. My main strength, I think, is change. Not just to do what has always been done."

Gates told trustees that, from her talks with library staff members, extending library hours "needs to be addressed" to make the library more accessible to the community and to have better communication between the library system and the public. She also would want to implement an employee appreciation program, encourage continuing education for staff members and have them attend conferences to talk with staffs from other libraries.

"The image and the message of the library with the community is important," Gates said. "There needs to be more communication across the board going forward. We want to make sure the library is meeting the needs of the community as a whole and not just one demographic."

Metro on 09/12/2015

Print Headline: NLR board offers top library job to Gates, 35

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