By Deb Peterson
If you can remember your first trips to a library—perhaps for story time in bean bag chairs, maybe struggling to choose just two or three books from what seemed like a million, or sitting on the floor of a bookmobile pulling adventures from the lower shelves—if you can remember proudly presenting your very own library card to the librarian behind the desk you could barely see over and toting your own heavy book bag, you know deep in your bones the magical power of a library.
“The library opens doors for people. It helps people pursue the next step in their lives through learning,” says Kim Crow-Sheaner, who, on July 1, will be the new director at the Donald W. Reynolds Library serving Baxter County in Mountain Home, starting a new chapter at the library as Gwen Khayat retires.
“The library was the first place I sought out when I moved here,” Kim says.
And the library would prove to do for Kim what libraries do for people—change her life—because people like Gwen dedicate themselves to creating spaces that hold not only books, lots of them, but audio books, CDs, DVDs, magazines, genealogy, computers connected to the Internet and jobs, special areas for children and teens, and spaces for the community to gather and learn.
Ten years ago, new in town from Dallas, Kim took her three stepkids to get library cards. Not long after, she went to work at the library as part of an AmeriCorp Promise Fellowship, establishing a teen library. Stepdaughter Ashlee was into anime at the time, and together they created the Anime Club.
“Many teens feel that they don’t fit in,” Kim says.
Kim tried to find ways to get them involved. The library, it turns out, is the perfect vehicle for listening to the community, including teens, figuring out what they’re interested in, and reflecting those things in programs and events. It’s one of the things Kim loves most about the library.
“The library says so much about the people in the community,” she says.
And it has from the very beginning of this story.
The Power of a Library in Gwen’s Life
Gwen’s life, too, was profoundly changed by a library. She grew up in Gassville, where her grandfather had a general store. Like so many other natives of the Twin Lakes Area, she went out into the great wide world—Kansas City, Kuwait, Houston—and came home.
While she was away, she earned a business degree, worked for an overseas shipping company, met and married Tony Khayat, had a daughter, Dalal (who lives in Springfield with husband Nick), and was a full time mother.
When she and Tony made their home in Cotter, the community college in Mountain Home asked Gwen to teach business classes.
“No! Please!” she said. The memory makes her laugh. “I’m truly an introvert.”
She is by nature quiet, humble, and skeptical. But she tried it, and found she enjoyed teaching adults.
“It was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” she says.
The experience put her in a position that would change her future dramatically. At the time, the community college was part of North Arkansas Community College, and the branch was in danger of losing its accreditation because it had grown to a size that required a library. Norma Wood, a local teacher and librarian, stepped up to the challenge, but she was in a wheelchair and needed help.
“I was her legs,” remembers Gwen.
The school and its library would eventually become Arkansas State University-Mountain Home, and the library is now the Norma Wood Library.
Norma was inspirational for Gwen, and so was Tony. When Gwen decided to return to school to earn a master’s degree, Tony had a little advice for her.
“You know you’ve always wanted to be a librarian,” Gwen remembers him saying. “If you’re getting a master’s degree, get it in library science.”
And she did. She has been the librarian in Baxter County since 1989. By 2005, the library had completely outgrown its location on Seventh Street, and Gwen spearheaded the building of the new Donald W. Reynolds Library Serving Baxter County. She is quick to take very little credit for it.
“It needed to be done,” she says matter-of-factly, “and I happened to be the librarian at that time. A lot of strong women were a part of it.”
When voters turned down a millage increase to build a new library, the need for alternative funding became crystal clear. Three local women—Deborah Knox, Katie King Risk, and Carol Landrum—started the Baxter County Library Foundation.
“Out of our failures,” Gwen says of the millage defeat, “come some of our biggest successes.”
The newly formed foundation sprang into action, eventually winning a prestigious $9.8 million Donald W. Reynolds grant. The brand new library opened in 2010, and today includes a collection of more than 85,000 titles, the Keeter-Dryer Children’s Library, a teen library, the Knox Community Meeting Rooms, a local history and genealogy collection, public computers, WiFi, and the Blackbird Café.
“Gwen is someone I have always been able to count on to listen to my ideas or opinions whether she agrees with me or not,” says Katie King Risk. “Her leadership style encouraged diverse opinions and ideas that worked well together. From the initial forming of bylaws and the choice of trustees, to the forming of a planning and construction committee, art committee, and so many other committees, Gwen has been a strong leader and a great pleasure to work with. Every time I pass Library Hill and see the accomplishment, I am thankful for Gwen. We would not have our awesome library without her leadership.”
While Gwen is quick to praise the original foundation as a “strong and active part” of the process of building the new library, she also gives credit to the library board and the foundation’s sister organization, Friends of the Library, a group of dedicated volunteers that promotes the library and helps raise funds through membership dues, special contributions, auctions, and used book sales.
Gwen is clearly grateful for the passionate participation of so many people.
“Gwen has a talent for identifying an issue and getting to the heart of it,” says Deborah Knox. “She is a born leader with an exceptional ability to find the right person for the job. She was “leaning in” long before the concept hit the bestseller list.”
“People have different talents,” Gwen says. “They’re good at different things.”
And Gwen is naturally good at matching them up with appropriate jobs. She has a good sense of who is willing to bake cookies for an event. She knew who to call on to help find land for the new library. She knows who not to ask to make phone calls.
“I have one strong talent,” Gwen says, agreeing with Deborah. “I’m good at picking people.”
The statement is a great simplification of her contribution to our community, an example of her humble spirit.
“She is unique and amazing,” Kim says. “She’s smart, devoted, and highly capable. There’s nobody who can replace her.”
But Kim will do her best come July 1, and there are many people who believe she will do marvelously. She has had a little time to grow into the position.
Kim Steps Up to the Challenge
When Gwen started thinking about her own retirement shortly after 2005, she mentioned to the library staff that if anyone wanted her job, they would need a master’s degree.
“I was all over it,” Kim says. She applied for and won a scholarship from the Arkansas Library Association, and for three years worked on her Library Science master’s degree while working and raising twins, Jack and Trevi.
“The value of a degree is not the degree itself,” Gwen says. “It’s the choosing of a goal and illustrating the capability of staying with it long enough to succeed.”
But just because Kim was already an important part of the library staff, do not make the mistake of thinking she had an advantage in winning Gwen’s job.
“It was not a gift,” Gwen says with a shake of her head, demonstrating her ability to be brutally honest. “I didn’t give her anything. It was the board’s decision.”
The library advertised nationally for the position, and interviewed people from all over the country.
“I was nervous for a year,” Kim says. She waited months after her interview to learn she had won the position and would serve as deputy director until Gwen retired.
She calls Gwen a reluctant mentor, but a mentor she most certainly was.
“I observed her,” Kim says. “I learned from her. She brings in people who are tough like her, individual self-starters who are also team players. She picks strong people, very strong people.”
Kim is fortunate to have been surrounded by strong women in her life. Her mother, Roxie, was a nonsmoker who died from lung cancer 13 years ago.
“She worked hard to orchestrate experiences for me and my sister that allowed us to stretch our minds, be creative, and learn,” Kim says. “Visiting the library was one of those experiences. I smile when I do something with Jack and Trevi, and realize Mom would have done this. It is a tremendous source of joy for me.”
When Kim lost her mother, she became closer with her grandmother, Marzee Brookings, who lives at Elmcroft and is now 98.
“I have coffee with her as many mornings as possible,” Kim says. “She blows me away with her strength and perseverence, despite losses and setbacks in life. She is something else. She is my inspiration. I have had two loving, selfless women in my life, devoted to family. I constantly strive to be like them. Their strength, their ability to accept and face head on what life throws at us, is something I particularly want my children to inherit.”
She is, indeed, modeling that strength for the 10-year-old twins she has with husband Mark.
“There are no bigger fans of the library than our two kids,” she says. “They grew up in the library. They have a big connection between school projects and library exhibits.”
Kim says she hears people say that anyone who has a bond with the library was taken there as a child by their mother, that it’s a gift that connects you forever with lifelong learning, but she sees lots of dads with their kids, too. The library specifically creates events to attract dads and children, like the recent Star Wars event.
“We look for events that will bring different folks in,” she says, “that appeal to various interests.”
One of her goals is to reach more parents who may not be familiar with the library, to increase parent commitment to early literacy. She wants to eliminate all perceived barriers to the library, knowing that some people may see the grandness of the building as intimidating.
“The library building is wonderful, of course,” she says, “but the library is amazing because of the people it serves and what they value, and the education it provides through all parts of people’s lives. It stretches our brains and our capabilities. Because of what people learn at the library, they accomplish amazing things.”
She knows, too, that the magic that happens at the library may not be exhibited until a generation later, that children and teens may not realize the results of participating in library events until they are adults bringing their own children.
“It’s so hard to put into words something so big that means so much,” Kim says of what the library provides. “It is a combination of being creative and helping people learn. The reward is not fame or fortune. It is knowing you are doing something positive and good for the community for generations.”
“We are excited to welcome this next chapter in the community’s library,” says Heather Loftis, current chair of the library board of directors. “We look forward to watching Kim shine in a role she has worked very hard to attain.”
What will our quiet, humble introvert do with herself in retirement?
“I am not going to meetings,” she says emphatically and with a smile.
She plans to delight in not having a schedule. She’s going to declutter her house, spend time with her 93-year-old dad, kayak, hike, and ride her bike.
“And I think I’ll get a puppy,” she says.
The puppy is as much for her schnauzer, Lucy, as it is for Gwen.
“I think Lucy is ready for a puppy,” Gwen says.
She also plans to write a children’s book, Lucy Gets a Puppy, an appropriate next chapter for our librarian, who will be passing on the magical power of a library to the next generation of children.
“Gwen is the only librarian I have ever known!” Heather says. “She is just part of the fabric of Mountain Home! There were lots of people involved, but without a doubt, we would not have the tremendous facility we have today without her vision and perseverance. She was, absolutely, the driving force behind the dream.”
“I can’t quite get my mind around a library without Gwen,” Deborah says, “but that is because it has been a wonderful journey of exceptional accomplishment that she and I have shared. She is leaving the library in good hands with Kim, and that means she’ll have more time with me! My best word for her is friend.”
To new adventures, Gwen and Kim, on the page and off! M! June July 2015
Visit the library at 300 Library Hill in Mountain Home or at baxtercountylibrary.org.
On behalf of the Library Board of Directors, it is with the utmost appreciation and gratitude we wish you happiness in retirement, Gwen. The hard work, vision, and admirable leadership you have given to our library will be forever remembered
— Heather Loftis, Chair, Board of Directors