Columbus, Ohio


January 2004 Cover Story

Sarah Mackey: Speaking volumes

Northside branch librarian receives NY Times Librarian Award


Meredith Wilson didn't do librarians any favors when he created "Marian the Librarian" for his 1960s hit musical "The Music Man." Reserved, prim, and oh-so-proper, Marian perpetuated the stereotype of librarians as people without a sense of humor and decidedly lacking the ability to have fun (until Harold Hill wandered into her life, of course.)

Enter Sarah Mackey, Marian's 21st-century counterpart. Mackey - who works as manager and youth services librarian at the Northside branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, 1423 N. High St.-is Marian's polar opposite. She's open, fun, friendly, professional of course - and she knows how to throw a pretty mean tea party, complete with storybook characters as guests.

OhÉand Mackey also happens to be one of the New York Times picks for their "2003 Librarian Awards." The Times presented her with a plaque marking the honor at a special recognition in New York City on Dec. 16, 2003. For the legion of friends unable to attend the event, however, there was the full-page announcement in the Arts section of the Dec. 16, 2003 New York Times.

"These awards are given to public librarians who have demonstrated outstanding public service," the announcement said. "In 2003, The Times received enthusiastic nominations of exceptional candidates from 46 states."

Only 27 librarians from 14 states were ultimately selected for The Times awards, and the names of each of the honored librarians were printed in The Times in bold. There, in the second column of names, the fourth name up from the bottom was "Sarah Mackey, Columbus Metropolitan Library, Northside Branch, Columbus, Ohio."

"It was a thrill, and a complete surprise," says Mackey about the award.

Meg Adams, a Northside library patron and member of the Friends of the Library, had worked with the Northside staff to complete the paperwork required to nominate Mackey. The nominee says she didn't learn until the paperwork was ready to send that she was in the running for The Times Librarian Awards.

"When I found out, I remember thinking, 'Oh, that's nice,' but I never thought it would go anywhere, or that I'd actually be chosen," says Mackey.

Yet none of the staff members who work with her at the Northside Library were surprised that Sarah was selected by The Times esteemed judges panel

"Sarah is devoted to the neighborhood, and to the children. She's even gone door to door in the neighborhood, handing out library applications," says Northside staff member Susan Thomas. "And when the children are here for storytime, she tells them, 'Tell your mom and dad to come see me at the library.' She's always working to bring people here."

And when they do come, they're impressed by the attitude they find.

"Sarah's really worked on creating a customer-service approach here," says Jamil Thomas (no relation to Susan Thomas.) "She is a big part of this community; she reaches out to every individual, and has shaped everyone's attitude here. This branch is so open and willing to help, and Sarah's been responsible for creating that."

Josh Tirey adds that Mackey's greatest strength is as an innovator. "She's not afraid to try new things," he says. She redesigned the young adult area so that it draws that age group in, while making it specifically for them. And little touches, like adding a fish tank to the reading area, makes the library seem more homelike and accessible.

Still, says John Tetzloff, she's passionate about her job, and the library's mission.

Volume I: The early years

Yet, strangely enough, Mackey grew up without much experience with libraries. Her family's tobacco farm in Glendale, Kentucky, was 15 miles from the nearest library, so she depended on visits to her school library to feed her growing appetite for books. "The library visits were the highlight of my school days," she says. "I loved to read, and still do." These days, in fact, it's not unusual to find Mackey reading eight or nine books at the same time. (For more information on Mackey's reading habits, see related story, "Portrait of a Librarian.")

Believing that she might one day like to teach, however, Mackey took her undergraduate degree in English at Centre College of Kentucky, a small, liberal arts school in Danville. But books continued to sound their siren call, and she soon found herself in a master's degree program in library science at the University of Kentucky. She graduated from there in 1995, and by 1996, Mackey had moved to Columbus, and was working as assistant manager and youth services librarian at the Northside branch.

"The library job is perfect for me," says Mackey. "It is less structured than a teaching job would have been, so I have more freedom in my day, and more freedom to create programs for the children."

Volume II: Reading in schools

But make no mistake - Mackey spends almost as much time these days at school as she might have done as a teacher. Each year, Mackey, along with Maggie Baxter, her youth services assistant, log in more than 300 visits to neighborhood elementary and middle schools, preschools, and Head Start programs. That's about 30 visits a month.

"It's important to get children interested in reading and in the library while they're still young," says Mackey. "Through them, we can also reach their parents."

Mackey's infectious enthusiasm for books would be enough to turn any child into a book lover, but her library programs are so innovative and - yes, fun - that even the most devout non-readers soon find themselves enthralled.

"Sometimes we act out the books," she says. Like a theater director, she casts children in the role of the book's characters, and lets them act out the story, using their own words - and whatever props might be on hand. "It's like a skit, or mini play," she says. Other times, flannel books help the children visualize the story. The library staff brings along characters they've created from flannel, as well as a flannel board. As Mackey reads a folk or fairy tale, the children will help tell the story by placing the characters on the flannel board. "That's especially nice for visual learners," says Mackey.

She's also been known to host a tea party or two when school groups visit the library. "The staff here is great. They'll dress up as characters from different books and help me perform the stories for the kids. We had a Mad Hatter's tea party that was a lot of fun." says Mackey.

Mackey is glad that her seven-year tenure at the Northside branch has made her a familiar face to the children who visit the library. "The consistency gives them a certain comfort level," Mackey explains. "They know there will be someone here they know and can talk to."

But as Mackey points out, that doesn't just hold true for her. "Our entire staff has a reputation for customer service," she says.

Volume III: Northside diversity

Northside's customer base is among the most diverse in the city, and that makes every customer interaction there a little different, Mackey explains. Its staff can be dealing with a university professor in one instant, then the next they're working with one of the clients from the Community Housing Network, a city program that helps find housing for homeless individuals. CHN is one of Northside's outreach efforts. The program's clients can sign up at Northside for a library card and gain immediate access to the rich resources the Columbus Metropolitan Library system has to offer.

And there is no question that today's library system has become more user-friendly. Libraries like Northside are processing new material faster than ever, so customers can now check out books while they're still on best-seller lists; and DVDs that are just months away from their theater runs.

"We've also installed a new self-check out machine that is easier to use. It keeps customers from having to stand in long lines at the circulation desk," says Mackey.

As a result, customer visits are increasing at Northside, and are likely to continue to increase in the future.

But just to make sure, Northside (and Mackey) are actively circulating throughout the community. In addition to sponsoring a booth the last four years at Comfest, the annual summer festival in Goodale Park, it also participates in the Short North Business Association and works in cooperation with the University District Organization.

Volume IV: The future

Will Mackey move on to bigger and better libraries now that she's earned herself a national award?

Not a chance, says Mackey. "The community needs consistency, and besides, I love what I do. Northside is such a wonderful place to work. The staff is so friendly and supportive, and they're so professional. I couldn't do what I do without them."

She goes even further "The Times Librarian Award is really for all of us at Northside," she says. "We all share the same vision. It's a title I think we've all earned."


Portrait of a Librarian

Sarah Mackey, manager and youth services librarian at the Northside branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, has been named one of the recipients of the 2003 New York Times Librarian Awards. The following answers, provided by Mackey, offer further insight into this book lover, educator, and customer-service professional.

Q: If you could choose any author, living or dead, to write your biography, who would you want on the job?

A: Karen Hesse. I love her writing. It's so poetic. She writes historical fiction, and I've been impressed with the thorough research she does of her subjects. She also knows how to get into the heart and mind of a character.


Q: Where is your favorite place to read?

A: I'd have to say my kitchen table. It's really a comfortable place, and where I usually go when I have some time to read.


Q: If you were stranded on a desert island, what one book would you want to make sure you had with you?

A: From a practical standpoint, I'd probably say an encyclopedia or a dictionary. That way, you'd always be learning something new. But from a sheer entertainment standpoint, I'd take along A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck. The book is about a couple of kids who live in Chicago, but who visit their grandmother in the country on an annual basis. The grandmother is one of those spunky characters you wish you knew in real life. She's honest and wise and funny and not afraid to push the envelope.


Q: What book do you find yourself recommending over and over?

A: I'd say High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver. It's a book that features a variety of essays on subjects dealing with life, the environment and personal development. There is something for everyone.


Q: How do you mark your place in a book?

A: Actually, I use the receipt I receive from the library's circulation desk.


Q: If you could be any character in a book, who would you be?

A: The grandmother in A Long Way from Chicago.


Q: How many books do you own in your personal library?

A: About 300, but I'm finding that I'm not buying as many books these days as I used to. I still buy fiction books, but because my non-fiction interests vary so much, I find it's better to check out those books from the library.


Q: What book are you reading now?

A: Usually, I read about eight or nine books at a time, but among the books I'm reading now are a remodeling book, A Cool Moonlight by Angela Johnson, and Wasteland by Francesca Lia Block.