Coffee With Rose Dawson
Checking out Alexandria's Public Libraries with Executive Director Rose Dawson
Rose Dawson, the enthusiastic Executive Director of the Alexandria Library, has advice for those who dread paying fines for overdue library materials: the library became fine-free shortly before the pandemic.
Items borrowed from the library can be returned without fear and at no cost. Dawson said, “we told people, ‘bring the stuff back, it doesn’t matter, we no longer charge fines and it’s going to be erased off your card.’ ” During the pandemic the library also implemented automatic renewals. The libraries are now open on an hourly schedule close to what was in place prior to the pandemic.
Dawson became Executive Director in 2008 after coming to Alexandria as Deputy Director in 2005. She said, “Alexandrians love libraries, hands down. They have always been supportive of the public libraries. As you know, [there was] a subscription library as early as 1794. Alexandria gets it when it comes to a public library.”
Dawson said that patrons include traditional users who know the staff and enjoy checking out hardcover books in person. She said, “we will see them in 21 days [when they return the books].” In contrast, nontraditional users, “get a library card and we never see them again because they use all of our services online.”
Dawson said that when the Internet arrived, “people thought we were going to go away. Actually, it was the shot in the arm that we needed.” For the libraries, the coming of electronic media meant additional challenges and opportunities to offer more services.
When the Internet age began, library staff played a critical role in introducing technology, for example, how to use email, to people who did not know where to turn. Dawson said, “That was a real turning point for public libraries. No one knew who [would be the] trusted individual who would take responsibility for showing people how to use technology.” In the early days, the library staff helped users open email accounts and navigate the Internet.
Dawson said that in the pandemic libraries had to create curbside service for traditional users and virtual programming to serve online users and their children. During the pandemic, “folks were forced to learn how to use electronic materials.” The libraries also had to work quickly to come up with online programming for children during the pandemic. Now, library users are returning in person and Dawson said “our e-book usage is starting to drop off…and our hard copy material is starting to circulate again.”
Alexandria’s reading tastes run to fiction, particularly mysteries and romance novels. Dawson noted that Alexandria topped Amazon’s list of most well-read United States cities for several years before the pandemic but this ranking was based on book purchases. She said, “As we looked at our statistics, romances…still tend to be a top circulator for us.” Fantasy and sci-fi works, particularly those that form the basis for television programs, are also popular with certain groups.
When Dawson became Deputy Director, the libraries were not stocking urban fiction because of perceptions about the lack of an audience at some library branches. Dawson said that data on electronic book checkouts revealed that urban fiction, if purchased, would attract in-person library users. She said, “We had several staff members who were readers of that type of literature but they were not the [library’s] book purchasers. We took suggestions from that audience and we tracked the circulation. We were showing holds and then we knew that we needed to purchase that type of material.”
Dawson does not believe that there is such a thing as “guilty pleasure” reading—there is only reading. She said, “Anything that meets the information and recreation needs of a person, then, we want to help them.”
Dawson said that to take advantage of the full range of programs and services the library offers users need reliable internet access. She recalled cars in library parking lots during the pandemic with people using the library system’s Wi-Fi service. She said, “That was one of the reasons we started circulating Chromebooks and hot spots.” Dawson said that the library system “piggybacked” on Alexandria City Public Schools’ distribution of hot spot devices during the pandemic.
Dawson wants the libraries to be involved in the early stages of city planning. She said, “I have been trying to help the city understand that libraries are not just buildings. Whenever you look to improve things in communities, [the library] should be at the table.” In particular, Dawson pointed to the absence of library resources in the Eisenhower corridor.
When I became Director in 2008, by 2009 [I realized] that we needed a library presence every time the city invests in housing—those are families. We think about whether we need to put a school there, or a recreation center there, but we never think about libraries. Since that time, I have told all city managers, ‘These are our sister agencies—the library should come to mind. This is a quality of life issue.”
She noted that a library presence, not necessarily a branch, is needed in areas of the City with significant new development. Dawson would rely on a facilities assessment to determine exactly what is necessary, and where.
She said, “There needs to be a library presence whenever you think of building up these neighborhoods with families.” Dawson observed that there should be a library presence, which could be a kiosk, near the King Street Metro station.
The city’s current capital projects budget includes a facilities assessment for libraries in two years. Alexandria’s last major library project involved the renovation of the Duncan Branch Library in 2005. The Beatley Central Library opened in 2000.
Dawson acknowledged the movement in parts of Virginia, and nationally, to remove books from school libraries. She said, “There was a famous librarian who said, ‘a good public library has something to offend everyone.’ I use that as my mantra. We have processes in place so that a person is free to challenge something we have in the collection.” A book objection or challenge goes to a committee of staff that makes a recommendation to the Executive Director which is appealable to the Library Board.
Dawson noted that the publisher of the Dr. Seuss series of children’s books initiated a withdrawal of certain books and asked libraries to take those works off their shelves. She said that libraries reacted to this in different ways. Alexandria’s solution was to withdraw the books from general circulation but to keep reference sets of the books in two libraries.
Dawson said that one of the library’s strongest partners is the City’s Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS). She said, “We have a lot of patrons with housing challenges, food challenges, mental health challenges. DCHS helps us in a lot of ways to try to make sure that those individuals get services that we don’t provide.”
The libraries work with the school system on the ConnectEd program which enables every student to have a library card to pursue research but restricts the number of items to be checked out. The program is available even if a student has a block on his or her regular library card. The city’s Department of Recreation, Parks, and Cultural Activities works with the libraries to expand its summer reading programs.
Dawson cited the library’s Freegal Music system as an overlooked resource. Freegal Music allows library users to download and stream music from a wide catalog of sources without cost or legal responsibility.
With respect to new initiatives, Dawson said, “I would like to do more with ALIVE! We like to consider ourselves as a community hub and a great distribution center… We need to partner with them more so that their patron base is aware of the really wonderful things they can get from us.”
Dawson is a member of the Children, Youth and Family Collaborative Commission and is the city’s representative on the ACT Board. She wants the library to be more involved with Alexandria’s nonprofit organizations.
The libraries are supported primarily by the City of Alexandria with the Alexandria Library Foundation providing periodic grants. The foundation, a Spring2ACTion approved organization, is seeking to expand and hire a staff person and has approximately $400,000 in assets.
As communities change, we really have got to care about looking at ourselves through an equity lens…We need to make sure that hiring opportunities are advertised in as many places as possible to bring in a diverse pool because our library staff needs to look like its user base. Of course, we want to make sure our collections reflect folks who live in the community…We can’t be stagnant—we’ve got to be a bit nimble.
She said that library job application advertisements had been changed to emphasize the city’s diversity. Dawson said that her staff carefully follows the school system’s reporting of students’ most prominent native languages.
When the library was first asked whether it had books in Farsi it took time to figure out how to acquire them. She said, “In order to be a good public library, we need to care to make sure that a person is comfortable coming in or even just by word-of-mouth heard that it’s OK to go to that building when you [arrive in] a country that you don’t know or [you have moved] from a different state.”
Dawson described the challenges in creating and maintaining a diverse collection. Cataloging makes works searchable and replaceable; the original cataloging of books without English translations is detailed and time-consuming work. The library has two full-time employees who do original cataloging.
The library’s future challenges include what to do at the expiration of the city’s long-term lease of the land under the Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library on Queen Street. The land is leased from the Society of Friends and the lease expires in 2036.
Dawson’s conviction is that the Alexandria Library’s addressable market includes every resident of the city.