Education

Fifarek Takes Helm of Public Library System

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Dozens of shelves holding tens of thousands of books surrounded Aimee Fifarek at the Main Library of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County as she greeted well-wishers at a reception Thursday. Even so, libraries aren’t really about books, she said.

That observation might seem at odds with Fifarek’s surroundings and the perceptions of the general population — a large portion of which views libraries largely as repositories for bound volumes as well as periodicals. She took over as the public library’s executive director Dec. 29.

“Libraries are about connecting people with the information they need to achieve their goals,” Fifarek explained.

For several years, libraries were “very much print-focused, but in today’s digital age there are so many resources out there. The library can purchase resources on behalf of the community that individuals couldn’t afford on their own,” Fifarek said.

“Most importantly, our best resource is our staff,” she continued. People need guidance and support to finish “that last informational mile” to their next step in their careers or their education or just to fill their weekend entertainment needs.

“We do all of that and more. So regardless of what the format of the information that comes in, you’re going to want a friendly face to talk to when you have a question, and that’s what the library is here for,” she remarked.

Fifarek, who has had a 20-year career in libraries, previously was deputy director of information technology and digital initiatives at the Phoenix Public Library. She earned a master’s degree in English and in library and information science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“I was sure when I was going to college that I was going to be an English professor,” she recalled. “I was sitting in one of my critical classes thinking this career is not going to do anything for the community except make more people like me.” The university had “a great coordinated program” that allowed her to get her English degree and add the library science degree.

She started her career at Louisiana State University but migrated to public libraries when she concluded that “all the action was in public,” she said.

Fifarek was drawn to apply for the Youngstown-Mahoning County position by the progressive staff and the strategic plan it is implementing, which is “bringing the library into where it needs to be as the most helpful community resource,” she said. Ohio is known for “wonderful library funding,” she added.

“People here in Ohio really love their libraries. It’s great to be in a state where there’s so much support for library services.”

David Ritchie, president of the library’s board of trustees, said trustees were pleased with Fifarek’s experience and how she handles things.

“We were very fortunate to have her come on board, really, and we see it even more now since she’s been here,” he said.

Fifarek “hit the ground running” since her arrival, said Sue Merriman, who served as interim executive director. She has set up tours to visit the branch libraries and staff meetings. “She’s really thoughtful in her responses and in her thought process,” Merriman said. “I’m very excited to see what direction the library goes in next.”

The days since her arrival last Friday have been “a bit of a whirlwind,” Fifarek said, as she meets with staff to get to know how each branch functions.

Because her movers from Arizona got snowed in en route, the furniture for her new house in Canfield only arrived Wednesday night. She and her husband have “spent a lot of time in hotels and out shopping, so thanks to everybody who’s given us good recommendations,” she said.

Fifarek said much of her focus now is on preparing the new Michael Kusalaba Branch on the West Side for a planned early February opening. The library recently took possession of the Mahoning Avenue building and will begin moving furniture, books and other lending materials into the structure. Additionally, the system is working with Campbell City Schools to site a branch in the district’s proposed Activity Recreation Cultural Center.

The new executive director also is looking at a potential update or replacement of the library’s current strategic plan, as well as an upgrade to the Main Library, although she said it’s too soon to discuss specifics for that project.

“We’ve been focused on getting Michael Kusalaba [branch] open,” she said. “Once we do and get a little more progress on the Campbell school project, I think we’ll be able to start talking more about the Main.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.