New Library Director Plans For Community-Focused Expansion

Photo credit: Andy Cripe

A little over six months ago, Ashlee Chavez was selected by the city of Corvallis to run the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library. Although Chavez is relatively young – in her early 30’s – she has tremendous work experience, having worked in a wide variety of library posts throughout her entire career. As the library eyes a massive expansion, Chavez is not deterred. With high aspirations in hand, she is eager to lead the Corvallis system into a new era.

Chavez is succeeding Caroline Rawls, who served as library director for 18 years. Before coming to Corvallis, Chavez worked at public libraries in Phoenix, Lompoc and most recently, San Antonio. Growing up as a military brat, Chavez was used to moving around, but is now married with a young daughter, and intends to plant her family’s roots in Corvallis.

She recalls her previous position at the San Antonio Public Library was where she “really learned to be a good manager.” There, she was in charge of four floors of the six-story central library, overseeing a total of 40 staff members and five assistant managers. But with a one-hour commute each way and a grueling 60-hour work week, Chavez yearned for the small-town community that she remembered from her time in California.

Chavez jumped at the Corvallis job opening because she saw a community that embraced access to education and technology. She felt it was a place that genuinely valued and supported the library, which she had not always seen in elsewhere.

Big Plans for the Future
Even though Corvallis has a relatively small library system, it has challenges that many well-used municipal places encounter. Many areas of the library are so successful that they have met capacity. Meeting room and story-time space is limited. There is a need for an enclosed lab for instruction.

Part of the recent space study that was conducted by Hacker Architects of Portland was to assess these spatial constraints and where capital improvements could be best directed. The library hasn’t been renovated in more than 25 years.

The recent “Complete the Block” campaign raised $600,000 to buy the remaining privately-owned Fenner office building adjacent to the library. In one proposal, the space study recommends demolishing the Fenner building, and expanding the library building and underground parking. Another proposes an outdoor space. Chavez explains that none of these plans are set in stone, but they are general recommendations to facilitate the discussion of how to move forward. Chavez anticipates some public input meetings and further discourse about the expansion in the upcoming calendar year.

An Ear On the Ground
From her past experiences, Chavez has a good grasp of listening to the community members and users of the library for feedback. Finding books for young kids, for example, is not always straightforward. The trick is to not “guess what they want, but ask what they want,” she explains.

The library has a strong relationship with the Corvallis School District from which to build. The Book Box pilot program delivers reading materials to teachers in the district. Each box is curated to cater to the particular reading level of each class.

More than anything, Chavez is on a mission to break down barriers for library patrons. She and her staff seek to attract those who traditionally have been disconnected from the library. One such group is the “new adult” group, or the 18-30 age bracket. Working from the first year of a five-year strategic plan, Chavez looks to expand innovative technologies and improve the current maker space, which features virtual reality and 3D printers.

The library also has to stay relevant technologically, but keeping up with trends can be costly. Some publishers charge hefty licensing fees, particularly for digital media, which limits what a library can carry. In that sense, the library focuses on a variety of materials from traditional paperback to audio books.

With some 44 full-time and 56 part-time employees – plus more than 250 volunteers – the library staff works diligently as a multi-purpose venue for learning and community engagement. For Chavez, the public library is the ultimate community space. It is a “safe space” for everyone. Regardless of what direction the library decides to take in expansion, the future looks bright, and Chavez is excited to be able to take part in shaping it.  

By Chris McDowell