John Spears has never been a stereotypical librarian. He’s outgoing, doesn’t read fiction and was turned down for a job at his high school library.
It wasn’t until college that Spears developed a passion for libraries and how they serve the community. Now, as executive director of the Pikes Peak Library District, 42-year-old Spears oversees 14 libraries that serve more than 600,000 people.
Spears told the Business Journal he sees great opportunities at PPLD and plans to keep his career going as long as libraries are relevant to their communities.
Tell us about your background.
Most of my life has been spent in the Midwest; it was in Chicago and St. Louis where I began my career as a librarian. I grew up in Libertyville, Ill., and attended the University of Illinois. I received a bachelor’s degree in music and a master’s in library information science.
How did you end up leading PPLD?
The Pikes Peak Library District asked me if I’d be interested in applying to the executive director position here and I said no. But then I started looking into what this district and Colorado Springs is — being urban, suburban and rural — and I was interested. I don’t know if people realize how diverse this region truly is.
What made you want to be a librarian?
I wasn’t one of the people who woke up when I was 6 years old and said, ‘Give me a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, some comfy shoes and make me a librarian.’
It wasn’t until I started working at a music library in college when I realized the neat opportunities working at a library. Libraries are an essential public good. While a lot people think it’s a place to check out the latest best-sellers or a program, people can use libraries for anything they want. The people define what we are, not us. We help citizens start businesses and are here to give them the tools to hopefully better themselves and the community.
What areas do you want to focus on as executive director?
A lot of people see the library as just a place to house books. Libraries are becoming more of a place where people come to create the stuff that goes on the shelf. We have 14 libraries in the district, and every one of them is unique. Hopefully every location reflects the neighborhood it’s in. Libraries are becoming places of creation. Whether it’s on their Twitter or Facebook accounts, we’ve gone from a consumer society to a “prosumer” society where we’re all creating content that’s being distributed. People can go to Library 21c and use its recording studio and record an album. On our website, you can check out local music you’re not going to find at a record store or on iTunes. That’s the role a library can have: Harvesting and capturing all the content that’s created within its own community and making it available.
Another focus is seeing what the issues are in this community and letting the library be a neutral public space to discuss them. We’re in a presidential election year and there are a lot of issues people want to talk about. People are very passionate about these issues, but increasingly, people are living in their own echo chambers. The library can give the community breathing room to have those discussions and hopefully talk with others who don’t necessarily think the way that they do.
What challenges are libraries facing?
People always ask, ‘Is the library still relevant?’ We have millions of people walk through these doors every year and we check out millions of items. It’s interesting people are still asking that question because when you walk through the door at one of our libraries, it doesn’t look like a place that’s going to shut down. You walk into a place that is still an active part of the community. We are adapting, changing, and people are seeing that. Libraries now are much more responsive, positive and an outward-focused.
One of the challenges is balancing what everyone wants us to be. There are still a lot of people who want to come in, use that quiet space and know that all of the books are going to be on the shelf. Then there are others who think libraries need to charge boldly into the future and provide only electronic content.
A fundamental belief of librarianship is to remain neutral and open to everyone. People will challenge material they feel is inappropriate at the library, and while we want to reflect the mores of the community, we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t also try to push beyond them and make sure we have materials that make people question their beliefs.
We’re also going to invite everyone into our facility, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
What was the last good book you read?
I’m reading a book on failure called “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck. The book talks about adopting a mindset that is more open to failure, everything that is a process and learning through it. It has sections on parenting, sports, business and relationships. It’s a fascinating book.