Q&A: Meet Riverhead Free Library director Joy Rankin

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Riverhead Free Library’s new director Joy Rankin says she doesn’t think of the library as brick and mortar.

The Riverhead Free Library’s new director has learned from personal experience how a public library can help patrons get through a difficult time.

Joy Rankin, 51, who started last Tuesday in her new role, said in an interview this week that her public library in Atlanta, Ga., was there for her when her husband, a 37-year-old art teacher, became terminally ill.

When they met, he had three children and she had a son. After the couple married, they had another child about a year later. When their son turned 10 months old, Ms. Rankin’s husband was diagnosed with cancer and died nine months later.

Ms. Rankin described that experience as a whirlwind, but said her public library welcomed her and her children and offered an understanding environment, which helped the healing process for her family.

Ms. Rankin said she plans to go beyond Riverhead library’s walls and out into the community to let residents know about the services that are available to help with any of life’s problems, like losing a house or having trouble finding work.

The Nassau County native graduated from SUNY/New Paltz and the Palmer School of Library and Information Science and has worked as a librarian in the children’s department at the South Huntington Library and at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. While serving as an adjunct professor at SUNY/New Paltz, Ms. Rankin said she started its first black and Latino children’s literature class, because she believes it’s important to teach educators how to bring language into the classroom through literature.

In 2002, Ms. Rankin worked as media coordinator for the Atlanta Public Schools, and was the supervisor for all media centers in school libraries.

She has also worked as a fashion and beauty writer for Essence magazine. Most recently, she was the director of the Roosevelt Public Library in Hempstead.

“With all of the experience I have, I feel there’s not an audience I can’t touch or be connected to,” she said.

We sat down with Ms. Rankin at the library to discuss her new role. Here are some excerpts.

Q: Why do you believe libraries are important?

A: I recently heard a story on the radio about the roles of libraries after Hurricane Sandy and in the midst of the storm. They acted as community hubs. The community came to think of the library very differently because in that emergency the library really rose up to this role it hadn’t expected to have in the past. It also empowered libraries and support staff. It really took on new meaning, a refined meaning. [Libraries] made us a lot stronger. Another library audience was added that wasn’t there before. And while [this new audience was] there, it took note of so many other services and access available.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing libraries?

A: Libraries are a lifestyle. If I can’t find some portions of my lifestyle at the library, why would I come here? People say, ‘I’m getting it on my tablet and I can read anything I want to at home.’ The two worlds are now coming to the table. There’s going to be an opportunity to use libraries in their first intended roles and that’s how libraries impact democracy in communities. If this becomes the last institution standing that’s unbiased and allows people to bring their concerns and discuss them in a fair and respectful manner, so everybody can hear all sides of a point, libraries, to me, will continue to create the space where people can bring all kinds of issues and challenges, and find solutions.

Q: What drew you to Riverhead?

A: Riverhead excites everybody. Riverhead, for me, is a cumulation of all these various work I’ve done and the various paths that have lead me here. I’m not just thinking of the library as brick and mortar. There’s so much more outside— the array of people in Riverhead. I’m so excited to meet and engage with and be connected to them because there are some voices that haven’t been heard, and then there are voices that we’ve gotten so comfortable with that they are the only voices you get to hear. I hope that I’m able to quickly show the community that I walk with fairness in my blood.

Q: What are your goals as the library’s newest director?

A: When I was a media coordinator in Atlanta, my conversations would be at the level of the state as a lobbyist with the district superintendents to make sure the library program in their schools was impacting the various school reforms. The beauty of public libraries is that you can have a certain level of freedom. I can be more cutting edge in public libraries. I can operate more non-traditionally in public libraries. I felt kids connect more with edginess. That’s my style. The conversation could also be about, what are we sharing in terms of resources? If a school can’t purchase a particular database, then that’s something the library could look into having. I’m looking forward to partnering with the schools and developing new programs for children.

Q: How has the transition been as you settle into your new role?

A: The staff has embraced me in a way that I have never experienced. Even in the process of being interviewed — and I said it to the staff when I met them last week — it was like I went on a date. I first thought, ‘I’m just going to have fun on this date. If I never see this guy again, I had a great meal and had a good time.’ At the end of the evening, I thought, ‘I wonder if we’re going on another date. This was nice.’ So, I went on like three dates and now I’m married. It was really a great process for me. I just felt pulled in and I wanted to be a part of something I felt was becoming big. And now I’m on the edge of it. I’ve been fortunate that way, that I seem to enter into something just in time.

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