Two candidates for chief librarian of Seattle Public Library will undergo public interviews this week.

Finalists Tom Fay, the current interim director and chief librarian of the public library system and Chad Helton, director of Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, will have public forums on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, to determine who will lead Seattle’s libraries.

The top candidate, who will be selected by the board of trustees in late February or early March, will replace Marcellus Turner, who left Seattle’s top library role at the beginning of 2021, and will oversee more than 600 employees.

After posting the position — which most recently paid a little over $216,000 — in September, the board’s appointed Search Advisory Committee identified six first-round candidates based on submitted materials, and advanced the final two candidates for the board’s consideration, according to spokesperson Laura Gentry.

“The executive director has responsibility for the comprehensive vision, direction, growth, effectiveness, stewardship, operational management, and sustainability of the library system,” Gentry said Tuesday. “The executive director reports to the board of trustees and leads a team of division directors responsible for library programs and services, administrative services, human resources, and institutional and strategic advancement. The executive director is responsible for the overall professional development, management, and leadership for the 650 employees and many dedicated volunteers at the library.”

While Gentry said the board has no policy outlining specific qualifications for the director position, the job posting for the position called for a graduate degree in library sciences and a number of specific leadership qualities.

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The interviews will be held on Wednesday (Tom Fay) and Thursday (Chad Helton) from 4:30-6 p.m. Watch the forums at spl.org.

Tom Fay

Fay has been with Seattle Public Library since 2015, when he joined as director of library programs and services, and has been serving as interim executive director and chief librarian for a year since his predecessor left the role.

Before coming to Seattle, Fay spent more than 30 years working in Nevada libraries, starting as a page, and serving in various other roles across different regions of Nevada, ranging from director of Las Vegas-Clark County Library District and working at the Nevada State Library and Archives.

Now, Fay wants to keep the job permanently to further access and equity in the library system.

“I want to further the work I have and we have been doing in the time I’ve been here to make the library more equitable and more accessible, now and in the future,” Fay said Tuesday.

Specifically, Fay said he wants to help foster equity across the library system through things like implicit bias training, but also focus on equitable distribution of resources and of programs.

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To do that, he says the library has to make hard decisions, like the recent reorganization of the city’s mobile preschool and day care service, which was redistributed to cater toward free and low cost early learning programs and those with higher concentrations of students receiving subsidies.

“We had to explain it to staff and to the mayor and to City Council, because a small number of people were going to lose service, but we did it based on the actual numbers of students on supplemental programs, and that showed the need to reroute some of the resources,” Fay said. “And it’s that kind of work that can help make sure the library is a place for everyone to get what they need.”

Fay also said he is focused on the future, noting that he would like to shift strategic planning across the library system to a 10-year cycle to “prepare for what might actually be reality.”

“You’re not predicting it, you’re just looking at what are possible or plausible futures that are out there,” Fay said of his “foresight” approach.

“We want to be ahead of that. So if there’s less chaos, less reaction and more of a driving to a future that we want to create.”

If Fay is not chosen to keep the position, he says he will work to help the new director transition, and may continue to serve in his previous role.

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“I don’t see myself walking out anytime soon. But, you know, there’s always other opportunities out there and in the Pacific Northwest,” he said, noting that he doesn’t know Helton well enough to gauge how the two would work together.

Chad Helton

Helton was a college dropout at the University of North Carolina when he took a job delivering books on campus for the school library.

“It was a 40-hour job with no insurance, but I needed something,” Helton said Tuesday.

While on the job, Helton ran into a former professor who encouraged him to enroll and finish his degree. From there, Helton studied to be a librarian, later getting a master’s degree in public administration.

“He said to me, ‘it’s not my responsibility to change your life, but it is my responsibility to provide you with the opportunity for you to change your life,'” Helton said of his late professor. “And he said to me that libraries could be my opportunity. And I’ve tried to use that work to create similar opportunities.”

Helton has worked in executive roles of several library systems across California and has been director of Hennepin County libraries in Minneapolis since 2020. In the new role, Helton has learned the importance of a neutral and accessible library.

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“I accepted the Hennepin County role the day Mr. Floyd was killed,” Helton said, referring to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which prompted a summer of civil unrest nationwide.

“I realized during that and COVID just how valuable libraries can be and what our role is in the community,” he said, noting that one of the county’s libraries was vandaized during the unrest, incurring smashed windows and a fire.

Helton says he believes libraries should be neutral breeding grounds for education and access points for other public services to reach all members of the community, regardless of their perspectives.

He says his interest in Seattle Public Library stemmed from the system’s handling of a controversial group’s request to meet at the library, which was ultimately approved.

“My view of the library is really having unfettered access for individuals and giving them the ability to choose what information or what path they want to take, and making sure that we keep it to where people will have the ability to come inside,” Helton said.

“Anything shy of hate speech, we should be letting them come in and learn, whether or not we agree.”

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To encourage better access to that education, Helton said he will focus on outreach to the community, with goals like getting all middle and high school students library cards and encouraging other public services to use the library for outreach.

“I really view education as the great equalizer. And I believe that libraries are really in a place where we’re able to do that, we’re able to supplement people’s educational opportunities,” Helton said.

“And I view it as a space where we’re able to facilitate other city departments, other county departments and other state departments that want to come in and address some of these issues that we see in our community, like homelessness,” he added.

Helton has been criticized by some in Hennepin after moving to Los Angeles last summer, though the permanent move was approved by the county.

Though Seattle Public Libraries does not have any rule prohibiting out of state work, according to spokesperson Gentry, Helton says he would move to Seattle if he were picked for the chief librarian position.

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