Laurel Gustafson was about 8 when she first walked into the Mirror Lake library. She thinks the first book she borrowed may have been a biography or a historical account. In February, she completed a chapter of her own history, walking back into St. Petersburg's first library as the director of all the city libraries. Her office is on the second floor. Gustafson, who replaced Mary Gaines, was formerly branch manager. She comes to the director's office at a time when the library system's $6 million budget is facing cuts and when technology is changing how people read books and do research. We chatted with Gustafson about her career, what she's reading now and what the future holds.
Where did your career begin?
I grew up here and started right out of college in a temporary six-week job as a clerk. … When the six weeks were over, they asked me to stay on. I knew I had found what I loved. I had wanted to be a reading teacher, but this combined my love of reading and books and literature with my love of people and customer service.
The library has come a long way since then. What's different?
We have downloadable audio (on the Web site), DVDs, CDs and wireless access at all of our libraries. We have digital kids now who don't know anything but the technology that is here. … There are other libraries that have (Amazon) Kindles. They are circulating them to their patrons. We are looking at all of those options.
How has the librarian's role evolved?
We have a lot of people who access our computers. Sometimes it's the only way they can avail themselves of government services. … They also check their e-mail, print out airline tickets, learn how to put a resume online. They've recently lost their jobs and they've never, ever had to do an online application. … We are seeing, particularly in this tough economic time, that libraries are used more than ever. This is where people turn to. … They tell us, "I can no longer afford my home Internet access. I let my subscription to the newspaper lapse because I need to use those funds for something else."
A week or so ago we had a large number of people step into our libraries who were required to go online in order to apply for Section 8 housing. It was time sensitive, and many did not have access to computers. On top of that, many of them did not have experience using computers. It was library staff who stepped up.
There have been some major library projects of late. Anything in the works?
We've done a lot of construction in the last couple of years. We partnered with St. Petersburg College, we renovated the Main Library and we opened the Childs Park branch. We are just completing an addition to the North Branch library at Fossil Park. We've added 16 public access computers there. The finishing touches on that should be coming soon.
What are you reading now?
How to de-stress your life (laughs). That wasn't a title. Actually, I just returned a book on women's health. Another one was The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. I also like reading the latest James Patterson, that type of thing.
Do you own a Kindle?
Do you own an iPod?
My husband and I share one. It's the exercise thing. I use it for walking.
Many people are nostalgic these days about the feel of a book in their hands. Are you one of those?
As a librarian, that is music to my heart and ears. But I also believe that technology truly complements what we do. I don't think it's going to replace what we do.
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or email@example.com.