Get To Know CSL: Nicolle Davies on Libraries and Librarianship

This chapter of Get To Know the Colorado State Library (CSL) is a conversation with none other than the State Librarian herself, Nicolle Ingui Davies. Prior to joining CSL in early 2019, Nicolle served as the Executive Director of Charleston Public Library and before that was the Executive Director of Arapahoe Libraries. Prior to transitioning into a career in libraries, Nicolle had a career in television news production and public relations before realizing her true calling was in libraries. Nicolle holds a BA in Journalism, a Master’s in Public Administration, and an MLIS, and she has been the recipient of numerous awards for her service in libraries; notably, she was named Library Journal’s Librarian of the Year in 2016, for her “special skills at communicating with community members in and outside of the library,”…“her leadership in building and developing a committed and passionate staff dedicated to patron service,” and “her unequivocal belief that libraries are essential services, not just ‘nice’ assets, and the best medium to achieve an informed citizenry.”

Nicolle Davies, Colorado’s State Librarian

Mike: Can I start by asking what are some of your earliest memories and impressions about this space we call the library?

Nicolle: My first library memory is of Bemis Public Library in Littleton. I would go there for story time and summer reading. When I was growing up, they had this old original wagon from the early days of Colorado. I remember the children’s area being so special as a kid. I can remember when Koelbel Library opened and thinking it was the most beautiful place when we studied there as teenagers. I had never seen a library so beautiful. I remember the smell of the library – I think all of us in libraries love that smell.

M: I always felt like libraries were awesome places, almost like sacred spaces. Is that something you experienced?

N: I remember going to Bemis Public Library in high school and I feel like we got in trouble a lot because we were too loud or rambunctious. It’s funny, because I have a deference for the symbolism of the library, but I would say that conversely, it’s so comfortable, the library is almost like an extension of a living room for me. And that is something I’ve tried to emulate in the spaces that I helped create – I always try to make them accessible. Let me give you an example from when I was at Arapahoe Libraries. In the 1970s, there was this huge trend in public and government buildings to have multiple services co-housed together, in order to maximize tax dollars. The Sheridan Public Library was housed in Sheridan High School, so there was a public entrance and a school entrance. Aside from the security issues this presented, most people when they leave High School never want to go back again, and we were saying, hey, public, come traipse across this high school campus to use your library. For years, we saw that this wasn’t serving the public or the students well. Finally, we were able to build a stand-alone library in Sheridan, and I remember thinking that for the demographics that used that library at the time, what we were building may be the prettiest space they visited on a regular basis.  I wanted to make sure that the space was really beautiful, but also really livable and not intimidating, that patrons could come in and feel like this was their space. For me, I have a lot of reverence for the symbolism in our public libraries, but I never wanted people to feel like they didn’t belong.

M: I can see what you mean, that the awe that I was talking about may actually be prohibitive for some folks.

N: And that the library for me has always symbolized the greatest level of equity in our society. It’s where everybody is welcome and we want everybody to be treated with the same respect and dignity, no matter what your background is. That’s a very rare thing. And the day that I feel like that has changed is the day I should no longer work in libraries. To me, it’s the ultimate equalizer, and that’s still what I get excited about when talking about libraries.

M: A quote from Library Journal’s feature from 2016 when you were named Librarian of the Year:

“What inspires me is that the public library is one of the few places of equality left in our country. When you enter a public library, in theory at least, everybody is treated equally…. I don’t think you can find that in many places in 2015.”

Where do you think libraries stand on that question of equity now, five or six years later?

N: I still think we have that in the fabric of what we do, and the majority of us have been and always will be committed to that. But in the last few years – just talking about libraries, not the world events – I think we’ve had a reckoning, realizing that our past wasn’t always as equitable as it should have been. I think for a long time many of us took for granted the fact that literally everyone was welcome in the library – well, in parts of the country, that wasn’t always the case. There were white-only libraries. Segregation had huge impacts that I wasn’t aware of in the profession. I think the last few years, for me at least, has shined a light on the less pleasant parts of our history, and there are many things to learn from when we weren’t doing it right. I’ve been in Libraryland for 17 years, and in that time, we have been living a more equitable experience, but the last few years have educated me around where we weren’t living that. Fast forward to today, we haven’t done a great job in terms of being more inclusive in recruiting. I don’t know that we’ve thought enough about intentionally diversifying staff, having our staff represent the patrons – the communities – we serve. There’s a ton of work to do on that front. When I was in Charleston, we participated in the Public Library Association’s Inclusive Internship initiative, which allowed us to have high school interns from diverse backgrounds, so that they might think about library science as they went onto college or beyond. There have been some good initiatives that have been going on – such as the Spectrum Scholarship program – but there’s still so much work we need to do in terms of diversifying the field. It’s interesting because I don’t know that we have stepped back to recognize there’s a disconnect between what we believe and diversity in our staff.

M: It seems to me that libraries are at least willing to reevaluate their practices, perhaps more so than other sectors. I’m thinking about the pandemic as well, in that libraries have had to respond to this huge change in how they serve patrons, and even if you go further back and look at the rise of electronic content, libraries seem to have a lot of flexibility in responding to change. Why is this? Or am I wrong?

N: No, I don’t think you are wrong. When I left public relations, I had a client call me and say, “What are you doing? You’re going to work in a field that is dying!” They even used the term “dinosaur.” I think the idea of reinventing isn’t a new thing we’ve been thinking about. I think if you’re doing librarianship well, you’re looking at your community and responding to its needs and constantly tweaking and pivoting. That’s why I always say when you do a survey of the public, you can’t ask, “What do you love about your library? What do you wish you could change?” because people don’t know how to answer that. You have to ask, “What are the problems in your community? And, how can we help you in facing those problems?” Or, “What are the gaps in your community?” and let us respond to those gaps. The library has to be more attuned to what is happening in the community, culturally. I think at the heart of what makes librarians good at that is, for most people, it’s a call to service, or simply a calling. You find yourself wanting to serve the public, and so you’re constantly reevaluating what the public needs and how to meet that need. At the heart of it, it’s service – wanting to help – and it’s about access to information. Information can break down barriers, or change poverty cycles, or help someone’s life take a turn for the positive. Access is huge and information is powerful.

M: I’m thinking about our values at CSL (and you’ve just named two of them): Access, Service, Education, and Integrity. Which value, if you had to pick one, is dearest to your own heart?

N: Probably service. Access is so powerful too, and almost synonymous with breaking down barriers. That’s a space that libraries live in really beautifully. It’s funny, because when I first came into libraries, I was a director of communications, and I remember thinking first of all, It’s going to be so easy to get attention because everybody loves libraries. But I wasn’t expecting all of the challenges that libraries face. And so, when we talk about access and breaking down barriers, not everybody wants barriers broken down, and not everybody wants people to have access. There can be pushback – such as being told what should be in our collection. I always loved that expression I’ve heard over the years, that is, if a public library is doing it well, they should have something to offend everybody in their collection. You’re never going to satisfy everybody.

M: How have your previous experiences in working in library leadership informed your work in CSL, for example, your time at Charleston?

N: I was so in love with my staff at Charleston. The staff were so kind, and so good. I felt like in some ways I was there on a healing mission because they didn’t seem to know how good they were, and nobody had stopped to say, “I love you, you’re doing an awesome job, and thank you for doing all that you do.” It was a very broken situation when I got down there. I feel like I was down there to fix the buildings and fix the service model, and to say, “You guys are extraordinary, you’re really good at what you do, and this is really important service.”

M: I did want to talk about our latest historic newspapers project. As you know, we are working with OUT FRONT Magazine to digitize a portion of the archives, beginning with the first issue on April 2, 1976, through to June of 1991, and hoping to do more soon. What does this project mean for you, and does it relate to CSL’s core values?

N: This project is capturing a piece of Colorado history, which I always get jazzed about and is one of the reasons why I love the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. OUT FRONT is a part of the history of our state, and I think it is important to recognize and give space for different populations. It’s part of our total story, so it’s great to have another piece of that story captured in a way that generations can go back and look at that history being told in a moment in time. I’m really excited about the fact that we’re doing this, and I would love to have as much diversity in our collection in telling our state’s story. In terms of our values, there’s definitely educational and accessibility components. This piece of our history might never have been shared otherwise in traditional history.

M: A fun question: which book’s world would you most like to visit?

N: Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.

M: Who or what gives you inspiration?

N: I’m really smitten with my kids. And they are inspiring to me. I’m excited about what their generation is capable of. They are growing up in a way that is so accepting and inclusive. Watching the inauguration with the kids, my 9-year-old asked me, “Mama, can I be vice president someday?” and I said, “Yes, baby.” And she asked, “Mama, can I be president one day?” and I said, “Yes, baby.” And I can say that for the first time with true conviction. My inspiration comes from figures like Gandhi and his method of peacefully making change, coupled with watching my kids navigate the world, so unencumbered with their love for everyone else and filled with curiosity.

M: What do you like about your work at CSL?

N: I get to work with librarians in all of the different areas of librarianship. I came from a public library background, which I’ll always be super smitten with, and I have gained a lot of appreciation for the challenges in higher educational libraries and school libraries. What I love is that it’s all-encompassing in terms of who we support around the state. I see them as opportunities to welcome new populations and really be intentional about what we’re doing in those spaces.

M: How have you been able to cope with maintaining a healthy work/life balance during the pandemic? What keeps you going?

N: What keeps me going is knowing that this isn’t forever. I’ve never been able to work from home, so I’ve tried to really appreciate the gift of that, and the gift of a 45 second commute! You know I’m a total dog nut and I get to be with my three dogs everyday. I’ve really tried to stay in the present knowing that this is a moment in time. My coping mechanism – I haven’t really told anybody about this yet. Early on during COVID, I was watching a lot of Netflix, and after a while I felt like I couldn’t keep binge watching stuff because my brain was turning to mush. So, I went to school and I got my 200 hour yoga certification and I’m almost done with my 300 hour yoga certification, so I will have a total of 500 hours. I’ll probably never teach, but it was fun for me to go back to school.

M: That’s awesome – congratulations! I think I’m still stuck in the Netflix phase…Ok, last question: what is an achievement you’re proud of?

N: I feel like I’ve left the places where I’ve been better than how I found them. I’ve tried to really empower staff. What gets me super excited is my passion for growing and empowering staff, because if the staff is loving their work, the patron benefits from that. I really do love people. We’re so silly fortunate because we attract amazing people to this profession. The best people I’ve ever worked with come from libraries.

 

Michael Peever