NEW PORT RICHEY — She's always looking for new ways to connect and educate people, so the city's library director started community gardens, grew a literacy program that helps hundreds learn to read and overhauled her city's budget.
And that was just last year.
Since she came to the New Port Richey Public Library in 1990, director Susan Dillinger has led the library from a single-floor storefront with one computer to one of Florida's best.
Last year she introduced environmentally friendly products and services, which, along with her work as New Port Richey's interim city manager, earned her the Florida Library Association's Librarian of the Year award.
A press release that came after the May announcement read:
"Ms. Dillinger is an effective leader, helping others through her knowledge as a librarian, and continuously working to make people's lives better."
For her, a library is more than a place to check out books. It's a people's university.
"A library's about making connections between people and materials," she said. "And connecting people to people."
Now more than ever, people rely on the library for vital services. Spending cuts have led to government agencies asking more of libraries, Dillinger said. Free education provided there serves as a boon to residents who have few other options.
On most days, folks looking for jobs are downstairs using the computers to draft resumes and look for openings. Young children explore iPads upstairs, and across the hall teens are off the street, perusing graphic novels.
As demand for these services goes up, budgets are tightening.
Dillinger left the city manager's desk two weeks ago, after the City Council hired a permanent replacement. Now she's working to ensure the library continues to serve its community while funding gets harder to come by.
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When the trade publication Library Journal chooses the nation's best libraries every year, it rates them one to five stars.
Last year it rated only one Florida library: New Port Richey Public Library.
It got four stars. Ann Scott, the library's assistant director, said she doesn't think a Florida library has ever received a single star, let alone four.
"But there's a story behind that fifth star," Scott said.
Libraries are awarded the fifth star when they earn large budgets, sometimes millions. Scott said she thinks four stars are more impressive because it shows the library did more with less money.
A study by Florida's Division of Library and Information Services has shown every dollar given to the state's public libraries generates about $10 in economic return. Dillinger said her library's no different.
The library's budget, about $1 million, comes from multiple sources: the state, the city, donors and grants, which are some of the most important funds. Successfully garnering grants is one of the library's biggest challenges.
Dillinger said some of the library's key grants are tied to its state and city budgets. When they shrink, so do the grants.
State aid used to be about $33 million, she said, now it's about $22 million.
"We're still behind where we were in the '90s," she said.
Yet the library has grown continuously since then. Card membership, visitors and participants in programs have all gone up.
Scott said Dillinger has been key to that success. They've worked together for 11 years.
"I think Susan is essential to the growth of this library and the community," she said. "I think the library has become a real locus of the community."
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A typical day for Dillinger starts with checking for what's new.
Serving the community well requires evolving with it, she said, so when useful, new technologies and ideas emerge, she's all over it.
"I'm always looking for something no one else is doing," she said.
One such idea came last year when Dillinger started a seed library. Hundreds of pouches filled with flower, vegetable and shrub seeds are ready for free check out in the library. When gardeners are done, they can gather seeds from the new plants and return them.
Scott said it's common for Dillinger to flood her inbox with links to new ideas. Currently, Dillinger is excited about Apple's recently announced Yosemite software. It'll sync nicely with all the library's new Apple computers and iPads, she said.
"I'm sure if she had her druthers, she'd have everyone in town walking around with an iPad they checked out from the library," Scott said.
That enthusiasm for maximizing service to the community is why she calls Dillinger a Jack Russell, Scott said. Dillinger doesn't back down, even during hard times.
When the library had to lay off employees in 2012, Scott said, Dillinger fought to get them back.
When Scott helped the library organize an LGBT film series in 2005, a former city manager ordered the films to stop after he received complaints.
Scott said she asked Dillinger what to do.
"She said, 'Roll the film,' " Scott said.
"To me, that's a classic Susan Dillinger story," she said. "It has guts, integrity and enthusiasm for the community."