Q & A: Northbrook Public Library Executive Director Kate Hall
Executive director of the Northbrook Public Library since January 2015, Kate Hall was named the 2021 Librarian of the Year by the Illinois Library Association.
A library director since 2010, including five years in New Lenox, Hall holds both bachelor's and master's degrees from Dominican University in River Forest, and a second master's from Marylhurst University near Portland, Oregon.
She is a former executive board member of the Illinois Library Association and also of the Reaching Across Illinois Library System, for which she served as president.
Hall also is the co-author, with fellow librarian Kathy Parker, of the book, "The Public Library Director's Toolkit."
Under Hall, for 2020 the Northbrook Public Library was rated the No. 1 library in Illinois and No. 2 nationally within its budgetary category in the Library Journal index of public library service. It was the second straight year the library earned a 5-star rating, among 10 libraries nationwide with budgets from $5 million to $9.9 million to earn that distinction.
The Northbrook Public Library first earned a 5-star rating in 2012 under late director Chad Raymond.
The following is a question-and-answer session with Hall responding by email to questions from the Herald.
Herald: What made you want to become a librarian?
Kate Hall: I have always been a huge reader and still read about 4-5 books a week, but growing up I was never one of those kids that declared what I was going to be from a young age. Growing up, my parents valued education and had instilled a strong service ethic in my siblings and I. It wasn't enough to be successful, you needed to do good in the world. That really stuck with me. I looked at what else I could do that would satisfy helping people and surround myself with books.
In college, I started working in bookstores and loved most of it. But there was one piece that I really disliked and that was having to do so many sales pitches. I just wanted to give people good books to read and not ask them to sign up for membership cards or buy something in the cafe. And that is when I transferred to Dominican University to finish out my undergraduate degree and go on to get my master's in Library and Information Sciences.
I started working in libraries during that time and have never looked back. In the past 20-plus years I have had the joy of working in a profession that is focused on lifelong learning and helping others. Even though my parents are no longer with me, I think they would be proud that I am carrying on the message of learning and service to others that they instilled in us. Plus, I found a job where I can be surrounded by books all day every day and who wouldn't love that?
H: How did it feel to be named Illinois Library Association 2021 Librarian of the Year?
KH: Being named the Illinois Library Association 2021 Librarian of the Year is such a surreal experience. The past year has been tough and receiving this accolade meant the world to me. Knowing that my library peers saw me as someone who had made our profession stronger and who has worked hard to provide the highest level of service to the communities I've worked in is a feeling I will cherish in my heart for the rest of my life.
H: When COVID hit, what key things did you and your staff do to continue to offer services to customers? Did you have any guidance to go by, or work with others in your position to form solutions?
KH: Here at the library, I feel like we talk about March 13, 2020, in the same way people talk about what they were doing during the moon landing or any of the other important moments in history they've lived through. That was the last day we were open to the public for the next few months. We checked out over 13,000 items that day compared to about 2,500 on a typical day. We didn't know what was going to happen and figured, like most of the world, that this would be a few weeks or maybe a month and then we would be back to normal.
Even before we closed, we were starting to plan for how to continue services to our patrons. Our two priorities during the last year and a half have been to keep staff safe and to provide education and recreational support to patrons. Within days we had our first virtual program scheduled and quickly planned on how else we could provide support to patrons. We had recently switched to a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone service and were soon able to have staff working remotely answering patron calls. We ramped up our marketing around eBooks and other eResources and focused on keeping the community updated on what we were doing and planning.
While we received no guidance for libraries from the state or county health departments, library directors spoke daily about what they were doing, sharing ideas and navigating the health guidance that was coming out. I went through every DCEO (Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity) recommendation and put it together into a guide for libraries that I shared with other library directors. I reached out to many different people from the state library to our library association and our elected officials, but no one wanted to provide guidance for libraries, which was very frustrating and added additional stress to every public library in the state.
Luckily, as librarians, we have experience with research and vetting sources and though I would never have thought I would need to, I believe that most public library directors had to become unofficial public health officials when we had no guidance provided to us.
In Northbrook, we had convened an intergovernmental task force with schools, villages, park districts and libraries for Glenview and Northbrook to share ideas and provide community updates. I believe that we have been better able to provide for the residents during this time as a result of the collaboration between all these units of local government. We have continued meeting regularly and look forward to even more collaboration once the pandemic is through. You can learn more on the task force website: www.glenviewnorthbrookcoronavirus.info.
H: For 21 years you've been working at Illinois libraries. How have they changed and what are the challenges for their relevance in the future?
KH: Technology has definitely been the biggest change in libraries over the past 21 years. Smartphones did not exist and Wikipedia had just been formed when I started in libraries. Streaming services were not even a glimmer in our eye and eBooks were very difficult to get and put on devices.
When I first started working in libraries, we were using dial-up modems to connect to the internet so you didn't use online tools in the same way we do now. We relied on reference books and other librarians to help find answers. At my first library, I was tasked with covering the reference desk during lunches because I was in library school and they thought it would be a good experience. On my first day covering the desk, I had someone come up and ask me about how to look something up in Value Line. I had no clue and there were these large imposing binders, but now we have it online and there is a handy help page that can guide you through using it.
So much of the technology and how we use the library has changed, but one thing that hasn't changed is the commitment of public libraries to connect their communities with information and resources for recreational and educational purposes. We have changed the way we do that, but the core of who we are and why we exist remains.
H: Who are your favorite authors? Your favorite book or series?
KH: Asking who my favorite authors or books are is the most difficult question you can ask any librarian. Each year, I list 10 books that were my favorite for the year but asking for my all-time favorites is hard. So I'll cheat a little and do multiples.
Fantasy: "The Others" series by Anne Bishop is one of my favorite series. It is urban fantasy and takes readers into a world where shape-shifters are the dominant society and humans are seen as inferior or less. It touches on belonging and community in a completely unique way. I reread this series often when I need to de-stress.
Nonfiction/Productivity: "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. I have lived by this book (sometimes more successfully than others) for decades.
Nonfiction/Self Help: My mom died of breast cancer in late 2019 and I read "It's OK That You're Not OK" by Megan Devine shortly after. I strongly recommend it for anyone who has dealt with death or loss or who expects to deal with it at some point in your life. It is very affirming and powerful. Atul Gawande's "Being Mortal" is also very powerful and helps us understand how we look at death in our country.
Historical Fiction: "Pope Joan" by Donna Cross Woolfolk is a captivating telling of one of the popes that many historians believe is female. I also love "Clara & Mr. Tiffany" by Susan Vreeland, which is about the women's division of the Tiffany Glass Co. Great as an audiobook as well.
Romance: I've read everything that has ever been written by Nora Roberts and my husband teases me that he always knows if I've had a hard week because I turn to one of her books. Knowing there will be a happy ending is tremendously satisfying. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to people who read romance even though it is the highest grossing genre year after year. If you haven't tried a romance, try one. You might be surprised.
Young Adult: Madeline L'Engle's sci-fi books shaped so much of how I look at the world. But if you only associate her with her sci-fi, you are missing out. Her "Crosswicks Journals" offer so many insights that will help you think more deeply about how you view the world.
Audiobook: "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman is read by Neil Gaiman. Hearing his lyrical writing read aloud by him will transport you to other worlds and make you believe that maybe magic does exist.
Classics: "Pride & Prejudice" by Jane Austen. I have reread this book probably 50 times and am also a fan of P & P adaptations.
H: Do you miss the Dewey Decimal System?
KH: I don't miss it because it is still here! The Dewey Decimal System is still used to organize our nonfiction collections. And if you're old enough to remember card catalogs, you can still find one on the third floor!
H: What's something people would be surprised to learn about you?
KH: I don't know if they would be surprised, but I almost didn't get my first library job because they thought I was lying about how much I read. When they checked my references, they found out that I did in fact read 150-200 books a year and had a fairly popular blog with reviews for everything I read.
I am horribly uncoordinated (that is not going to be surprising), but learned archery as an adult and found that I was able to actually acquire some proficiency with it. No one was more surprised than I was considering that I often have bruises from not looking where I am going and running into things.