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Q+A with Pam Sandlian Smith

The public library that you once knew is becoming radically different as a result of Pam Sandlian Smith’s innovative and progressive view of library services. Regarded by some as an architect of dreams, Pam envisions libraries with fewer books and more space for collaboration and performances. She’s the creator of Anythink libraries, a new style of library – a place of unlimited imagination, where play inspires creativity and lifelong learning.

Pam will take the stage at TEDxMileHigh on Saturday, November 16th. We caught up with Pam in advance of her talk to ask her a few questions that many of you have been asking.

1. You never intended to become a librarian, so how did you land where you are today? What’s life like as a librarian?
I was going to be a “famous” writer. I started working as a children’s librarian and loved the work, then became a Library Director and the whimsy of children’s services influences my work as a Library Director. I can’t imagine a better career. Life as a librarian is filled with creativity and inventing projects and partnerships that can make a big impact on our community.

2. You have turned the old library system on its head, which has been met with great success. Tell us a bit about Anythink and how it’s different from other library systems.
We were the worst funded library system in Colorado for over 50 years; our libraries were in terrible shape, so much so that our community didn’t really use the library. After three failed attempts and with the threat of having to close branches, voters approved a mill levy increase. When I came on board as the Library Director in late 2007, we literally had to “fix” everything. We built four new libraries and renovated three. We had a unique opportunity to rethink libraries including space, service, people, philosophies. We work on an experience model, which centers on creating amazing libraries for people. Instead of making decisions based on books, we make all of our decisions based on creating opportunities for people to connect with ideas, or live their most fulfilling lives. We believe in READ, THINK, DO. Read something, think about it, do something. Invent your life first in your daydreams, then make a plan to make that life happen.

3. What do you consider to be your greatest challenge in getting people to fall in love with libraries?
People have perceptions of libraries that aren’t always accurate. That old fashioned stuffy, quiet, boring, governmental, beige library with a librarian telling you to be quiet is an anomaly. We were talking to a City Council person recently who said the last time he had been in a library was in high school. His mom dropped him off at the door and he walked right through the library and left through the rear exit. He said if he had a library like Anythink, he would spent time in the library.

4. What do you think the public library system will look like in 20 years?
Libraries and museums are borrowing ideas from each other. I think you are going to see fewer books and more space for people to collaborate with each other, create things and even have performances. I can see a library with a grand piano and lots of spaces for studios or workshops.

5. If you could revamp or strengthen a library system in another country, which would you choose and why?
I would choose Italy for a couple of reasons. The people and culture is very friendly and adaptable. We have friends in Tuscany. From my experience, public libraries in Italy are very old-fashioned spaces that could use a 21st century revamp. Second choice would be Africa because there is such a great disparity of resources and libraries can be a voice of hope.

6. You’ve been a strong proponent for early literacy programs. What one thing can everyone do to get kids excited about reading?
This one is simple: have lots of great books and read together as a family. Pile the dog, the cat, mom, dad and kids on the couch or bed and read your favorite books together every day.

7. Which book are you currently reading and what has it taught you?
I recently read “Bossypants” by Tina Fey. (Great airplane reading.) From Tina’s experiences, I remembered never to underestimate yourself or take yourself too seriously. She was/is this nerdy kid who had the audacity to put herself on the line, over and over again.

8. From where do you draw inspiration?
From everyday experiences – my life is one big adventure/experience. Then you have great stories to tell your friends and family. I think stories inspire us and hold us together either as a family or community.

9. Word has it that you enjoy cooking Italian dishes. Is there a particular dish you like to make? What’s your favorite Italian restaurant in Denver?
I have a favorite meatball recipe that is especially wonderful to cook for family Sunday night dinners. I also love baking crostatas – an Italian free form pie. Difranco’s is a small, delicious restaurant and deli that is fast becoming one of my favorites.

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