WILR Features an Interview with NCLA Chair Dale Cousins

WILR Features...an Interview with Dale Cousins ,  current NCLA Chair 

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself, and your entry into librarianship:

I grew up on a small tobacco farm in Knightdale, NC when small farms were the norm rather than the exception.  Now the area continues to grow with subdivisions and shopping centers cropping up on every corner rather than tobacco!  I was educated in Wake County Public Schools and received a Bachelor’s Degree in English with a Secondary Teaching Certificate from NC State University. My first position with Wake County Public Libraries was as a (summer) Library Assistant in the Children’s Department of the Olivia Raney Public Library (the former Main Library) in 1971.  I continued to work part time during college and eventually became a full time Library Assistant in the North Hills Library location in 1980. From there, my career was set! I received my Master’s Degree in Library and Information Sciences from NC Central University in 1986.  I had the great fortune of finding a career I loved and being involved in the remarkable timing of phenomenal growth in Wake County so that I could grow and move professionally without having to leave my home. I recognize what a rare opportunity I was given and remain truly grateful.

2. What was the initial appeal of librarianship and what about it created a career for you?
 I had every intention of teaching English to high school students. My student teaching experience was a very positive one but it taught me that at age 22, I was not ready to have the discipline or structure to teach high school.  It was the mid seventies, after all, and the world seemed large. However, while I continued to work part time for Wake County Libraries, I also traveled a bit, worked part time for WaldenBooks and at a Raleigh restaurant institution, the Irregardless Café. It was a wonderful time to hear music, read a variety of books, make friends, and explore the world. In 1980 I became a full time Library Assistant and worked in several library locations throughout the County.  I returned to school and received my MLIS from NC Central in 1986. I remain so grateful to NCCU for the opportunity to attend the program while working full time….it was the only way I could have achieved this goal.  Immediately upon graduation, I was hired as a Reference Librarian and soon thereafter, Assistant Library Manager for the Cary Library. Within a year, I became Manager of that library location and oversaw a major renovation which involved relocation to a temporary site in a shopping center cafeteria (Note: this would happen again in 2006 when we replaced the Cameron Village Regional Library---go figure!).  I had the great fortune of being able to plan for the new space and learned to visualize the library from the user’s point of view. It was a wonderful experience and one I relish to this day.  From that point, I competed for and was offered various positions via promotion and personal growth. I served as the Coordinator for Adult Services for the system, as a Regional Library Manager, as a District Library Manager, and finally retired as a Senior Library Manager.  In these positions, I was given the responsibility to manage the adult book collection and budget, renovate and replace libraries of various sizes, coordinate the Library’s Centennial celebration where the Library Trust Fund was created, and I helped to create public relations standards that the system continues to employ to date. It was a fruitful and rewarding career with the public library. The thing that intrigued me from the beginning to the end was the role of the library in its community.  There is nothing that compares to helping individuals, one on one, with reading and informational needs.  Being able to make a difference in an individual’s quality of life, be it via recreational reading or via that one piece of information that changes a life’s direction, cannot be measured. And this activity occurs with library members of all ages and from a variety of life experiences every single day that the library is open and/or available. Also, I took great satisfaction in connecting the library to other community institutions.  Building partnerships and making alliances on behalf of the library was very gratifying for me.  In my holistic view of community, the library was always properly front and center, and it was always there to generate community good without judgement. The relationships that were cultivated over 35 years of library employment were the key factor for me. Knowing that the library made a huge difference to the residents of Wake County and seeing those individuals and families grow and prosper was so very meaningful. Those are relationships that helped me to value my home and community as well. 

3. How did you come involve with NCLA and what has the experience meant to you?

I was introduced to NCLA as a library school student via Dr. Pauletta Bracy and through work with the State Library’s Dianna Young on projects like Summer Reading and Quiz Bowl. From these individuals, I learned that “community” really did extend beyond the borders of Wake County and that I had so very much to learn from my colleagues from all across the State and from those who worked in institutions other than public libraries.  Again, NCLA provided fertile ground to build relationships and to work on projects to benefit both library users as individuals and as communities across the state. It has been and is both enlightening and energizing to see the success of others and to hear what creative solutions have been developed by library “people” from a variety of backgrounds and diverse realities.  NCLA is and has always been a great arena for collaboration and for collective professional work. I embraced the theme of the 2013 conference:  NCLA: Stronger Together for this very reason.  I have learned so much from so many wonderful colleagues via NCLA. I encourage every library employee  and/or advocate  to become involved with NCLA…..it is a great venue for creating a wide network of peers, for being given the opportunity to develop leadership skills,  and for a chance to represent the profession (and contribute to it) with pride. Now that I am 6 months into retirement, NCLA is also a lifeline for me to keep abreast of the issues, challenges, and interests of the profession.  Projects like National Legislative Day and the upcoming Leadership Institute give me the opportunity to do a good bit of listening. I am excited about the future of our profession when I hear new librarians with perspectives that are different than mine discuss what they face each day in serving library customers. The energy, the creativity, and the drive to succeed are evident in nearly every conversation I have with this new breed of library staff.  I am encouraged and enthusiastic about the future of libraries when they are at the helm.

4. What advice would you offer those staff who are entering the profession or might be ready to expand their library experiences?
.I would say never underestimate the value of relationships. Although this is a reoccurring theme with me, I believe that it is through relationships that opportunities emerge and great things happen. Spread the net far and wide and never put yourself in a place where you may feel undervalued and trapped.  It is so easy to view the profession through the narrow lens of what you know and the safety of where you are and that in itself becomes a self fulfilling situation where it never gets any better for you or for your gifts to your institution. If you are not excited to be going to work and stimulated by what happens there (at least on most days!) then you owe it to yourself to reassess what you need and how to find it.  Leave yourself open for opportunity and foster change….it is a good thing! Also, while assessing your strengths and goals, make sure that you have direction.  Often, I have observed individuals just pursue the next job opening out there, without taking the time to evaluate what the position offers and if there is a good match for one’s talents, skills, and desires. Don’t underestimate your strengths and your capacity to stretch, but make sure the stretch is in a direction that makes sense for you. One of the failings, I think, of our profession is lack of a true career path.  For example, the reward for a great job completed by an Information Technician, or an Information Services or Children’s Librarian or an Archivist is automatically a promotion to Management.  This route often occurs without an analysis of skills and/or interests.  Why isn’t there a reward for being the best ever Children’s Librarian or Reader’s Advisory Librarian or Library Spokesperson that rewards good work where it occurs? Sometimes the promotion to Management is not necessarily a logical path or one that is fulfilling and successful for everyone involved. I would advise to take the time to analyze what one needs and what one truly wants to learn and then identify how the profession can help build on that.

5. Now that you are retired from public library service, how do you fill your days?

Well, I do a lot of smiling!  Seriously, I find that my time is filled with ongoing commitments to the Literacy Council of Wake County, Wake County Smart Start, and of course, the North Carolina Library Association.  The great thing about being retired is that I can now take the time I need to participate in these venues without feeling rushed or overloaded. The timing is also great in that as these commitments wind down and the mantel is carried on by others, I can identify new interests and outlets for what comes next for me.  I am also excited, vicariously, as I see others in the profession grow and learn and prosper.  I am really happy to help when individuals call or email with questions or concerns or just need an ear to listen and I now have the time to invest there.   I am in a fine place….great memories of a wonderful career with Wake County Public Libraries and its people. And at the same time, I can be open to new experiences.