Q&A with the new King County Library System executive director

“It’s really about providing that space to reimagine who you are,” said Heidi Daniel.

Heidi Daniel, who assumed the position of executive director at the King County Library System in March, sat down to talk about what ignited her love for the library, her career leading up to this role, her new ventures in the Pacific Northwest, and insight on her favorite books genres.

Q: You told the Baltimore Magazine that your early passion for reading came from your parents reading to you and accompanying them to the library. You explained that while you could not afford books of your own to further your education, the library created that “level playing field.” How do the experiences from your childhood help you maintain a perspective of what a successful library system looks like?

HD: My first experiences with libraries made them — for me — a place that was a main access point. I was able to access materials, books and resources that I wouldn’t have access to at home.

It became this place of possibility for me. It was a place where my parents, who hadn’t gone to college, could take me, and I could sort of self-direct learning and learn to love learning. For me, it was a place where I could just have a space to imagine and think, and nothing was required of me financially. I didn’t have to have any sort of social status. It was this really great place to explore who I could be and who I wanted to be and reimagine my future.

So, that’s what I’ve strived to provide in every library system I’ve worked in, all the different departments I’ve worked in and libraries that I’ve led. I’ve tried to make it a place open to the community that puts access first so that we’re removing barriers for people accessing the resources they need or want to use. I always think of other kids like me, who maybe use [the library] as their sort of lifeline, or adults coming into the community who need a new place to be, a place to learn or to become part of the community.

That’s what public libraries can do really well. Obviously, we have books, digital resources, computers, and all those things that are our core business. But it’s really about providing that space to reimagine who you are, who communities could be and empowering people to grow.

Q: How has working in Oklahoma City, Houston, Youngstown and Baltimore, and holding titles as president, CEO and executive director, helped you understand what is needed to create a well-rounded library system with engaged community members?

HD: I think one of the things I’ve valued most in my career, having been in multiple places, is the adaptability and flexibility you develop in getting to know different communities. I mean, Houston is a very different community than Youngstown, which is a different community than Baltimore, and which is very different than the Pacific Northwest. So you sort of develop this ability to become really adaptable, flexible and open to how communities run and function. One of the things that I’ve developed, that I think has been one of my strengths, is the ability to listen to communities, try to understand what the aspirations are for each community, and have my library system reflect those aspirations and provide the resources to make those aspirations a reality. The question isn’t just about how the community can use the library system. It’s also about how the library system reflects what the communities are trying to achieve and what they need in those moments.

Q: While KCLS exceeds in areas — such as being the third in the world for digital checkouts — what are some areas of improvement you would like to focus on at KCLS?

HD: Right now, I’m really in that learning and exploration phase where I’m visiting all the branches. I don’t know what changes or what direction we’re going to be moving in. However, my goal is for it to be a community-responsive library system that focuses on equity and empowerment and stays true to the values that the King County Library System has already expressed, and to center that in our communities and move the system forward that way.

For example, to really serve the multilingual communities that seem to be in King County … it may look like listening to what those needs are and reflecting on our world languages collection, figuring out what exactly connectivity needs are in, say, Carnation, or listening to the communities and figuring out how our libraries respond to those aspirations. Then, you know, making sure we have efficient processes in place to be the best stewards of the resources and taxpayer dollars.

Q: What aspects of the Pacific Northwest are you most eager to explore, given that your career has been predominantly in the Eastern region of the country?

HD: So, I’m coming with my two kids, my husband, my mom and my two dogs. So the whole circus came to the West Coast with us. I’m really looking forward to being outdoors a lot more. I run, so I’m looking forward to all the gorgeous scenery. Also, my husband and I are already planning all our hikes. We’ve got a whole itinerary that we’re looking forward to doing. Then, of course, the food. Every region has such great, interesting food, so I plan to eat my way around King County as well. The Pacific Northwest has a totally different feel and vibe, so I’m really looking forward to adapting to that, as opposed to an East Coast feel. I think it’s going to be a nice change of pace. Also, coffee. I love coffee, and what better place to be than here? I’m going to drink all the coffee, eat all the food and do all the hikes.

Q: How has the style or type of books you read changed throughout your life?

HD: The way I’ve read has definitely changed over the years. I have always been predominantly a fiction reader, which I still am, but I have diversified the types of fiction I read as I’ve gotten older. I love including diverse voices that are different than my own experience. It’s a great way to travel into somebody else’s life experience through reading. Also, in the last 10 years, I’ve started to incorporate more nonfiction. I really like leadership books and self-help, self-exploration books, but also current events and history. One time I read a book about sweat, and it’s great to just dig into a topic and learn about the history of something like exercise and why people sweat. So, I’ve found as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really dug into those more esoteric nonfiction books as well as topics that I might not have thought to think about.