Meet State Librarian, Jennifer Nelson!
Published: April 30, 2014
Before I became the director of State Library Services, aka the state librarian, I spent the bulk of my career as a librarian at the downtown Minneapolis Public Library, working in a number of different areas—fee-based research, reference librarian in business, science and technology, children’s librarian, electronic resources librarian, immigrant resources coordinator and more.
A theme that runs throughout my work has been finding ways that libraries can help people improve their lives—whether it is offering story times for preschoolers, developing rich media workshops for teens, helping entrepreneurs with limited education start businesses, supporting library staff in developing new skills, helping people that lack English language skills learn to use technology, or connecting people with life changing resources at the library and in the community.
What drew you to a career in libraries?
I was looking for a career that would combine my interest in research and information with my interest in working with people. Kind of a perfect fit. I started in libraries before the Internet was introduced. At that time, there was a tremendous need for reference librarians who could ferret out information on obscure (and not so obscure) topics, and for libraries that held deep collections on every imaginable topic.
You can imagine what it was like trying to find the selling price of a used car without the Internet, or the phone number of a school in a different state, or where you could purchase shoes by a favorite designer. Before the Internet, the library was the go-to place for much of what people can now find on the Web. It’s been really fun to watch the transition of libraries from information provider to community gathering space.
Tell us about an influential moment—either a piece of advice, a class, an experience—that has shaped you as a librarian?
When I was a children’s librarian, a mom came in with her child. She was proud to announce that it was her child’s second birthday and at her annual checkup, the pediatrician told her it was time to start reading to her child. So she came straight to the library to find books. I was taken aback that the mom hadn’t yet read to her child, and yet encouraged that she followed through on the doctor’s advice. The moment was an important reminder that we can’t take anything for granted—the best of intentions can’t replace sound knowledge. As librarians our job is to reach out, and reach out again and again and again, to people who can benefit from what we have to offer for learning and life. More than 25 years later, I still think about this mom and hope that she continued to connect her child with books and reading. I’ve taken the experience with me through the years, always asking myself if I’m making unwarranted assumptions about what people know, or don’t know, to ensure that I’m being as clear and as helpful as possible.
How can libraries assist students in getting a great education in Minnesota?
Libraries have an important role to play in helping students in Minnesota get a great education. In many communities, libraries offer the only free access to the Internet and the online resources that students need to complete school assignments.
Many libraries offer tutoring or homework assistance that provide individualized support for specific learning needs. Some offer spaces for collaborative learning in technology (i.e., maker spaces). Of course, libraries also offer access to books that support learning and book clubs that help kids to develop a love of reading, which is foundational to a great education.
Providing a safe space for volunteering and community engagement, libraries also offer caring staff, skilled in working with students. Finally, they offer opportunities to explore all kinds of interests, learn new skills and be more connected to the community.
Tell me something interesting about yourself not many people know.
I do some volunteer and advocacy work in the area of disability awareness, particularly around athletes with disabilities. My passion stems from raising a son, Chuck, who has a rare neurological disorder. Chuck has been involved in wheelchair sports since he was seven years old and is a member of the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Team.
My favorite experience in my whole entire life was walking into the stadium in London for their first game of the 2012 London Paralympics with all 11,000 seats filled. That game was against Great Britain so the roar was deafening. And I kept thinking: how cool is this? I raise a child with a disability to live life to the fullest and here he is, competing on the world stage in front of thousands. The team went on to win a Bronze medal and is now training for Rio 2016. So you can often find me on the sidelines watching as the athletes “smash stereotypes, one hit at a time.”