Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones
As a little child growing up in New Jersey, Valerie Bell fell in love with two sets of twins, easy for her to do, since she herself is a twin. The twins she loved were Bert and Nan and Flossie and Freddie. But the Bobbsey Twins books were small potatoes compared to the Nancy Drew mysteries her sister was reading. So Valerie, the youngest in a family of readers, decided that she, too, could tackle more challenging works. She walked to the library regularly and read more and more books.
Her love affair with books as a child in Egg Harbor Township never ended. She majored in political science and history as an undergraduate at William Penn University in Iowa, fulfilling her mother’s wish that she leave New Jersey and see the world beyond. After college, she came home and worked in the casinos in Atlantic City for a couple of years, then earned a master’s degree in library science from St. John’s University in New York, intending to work as a researcher for CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
“But that didn’t work out as I expected,” she says. “The rush-hour subway convinced me I didn’t want to live in New York.”
Life intervened, opportunities arose, and here Bell is in Athens, the new director of the Athens Regional Library System. She succeeds long-time director Kathy Ames, who retired last year after 33 years of service. She remains the first, and only, librarian in her family.
Bell comes to Clarke County from Ocean County, NJ, where she spent 29 years in a library system with a $38 million budget and 21 branches. By contrast, the five-county Athens Regional Library System has a 2016 budget of $3.7 million. In New Jersey, Bell began her career as a library branch manager and eventually moved up to become the assistant system director. During disastrous Hurricane Sandy in 2013, which ravaged Ocean County, Bell saw firsthand how critical libraries are to a community’s health: Librarians distributed books to shelters, conducted story hours for children, arranged public information sessions and compiled resource books to help homeowners.
She was attracted to Athens, she says, because she wanted to be closer to her 94-year-old mother in Lithonia, a formidable woman who continues to keep Bell and her three siblings in line. After she met and found she really liked the library staff and the library board, she wanted the job, and they wanted her. She’s one of those people you like instantly—charming, witty and totally dedicated. And she’s still an avid reader. She now owns a Nook and counts among her favorite works Jane Eyre and Their Eyes Were Watching God, plus the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon.
When Bell first set foot in a library, she found the books she needed by perusing a card catalog. Now, of course, almost every library has computerized its collection records and has online capabilities for recommending books, reserving books and renewing books. “Computers have changed everything,” she says, “Social media has changed how we get our message out.”
But now, as then, libraries remain community centers, places for patrons to meet and greet, find new books and old favorites, connect with the staff and each other and look online for jobs. “How well the community thrives is based on how well the library thrives,” Bell says. “We turn away no one; we help everyone who walks in the door.”
In addition to finding books, at Athens-Clarke County’s main library today—among other activities—patrons can apply for a passport, attend a music performance, take children to story time, check out a ukulele, find a new movie or audio book, print a resume, attend a book launch or lecture, learn to read, join a book discussion group, watch a puppet show, learn how to use computer software, get tutored in English and find help with homework.
“If you love libraries, you generally love your community,” Bell says. “And when you help the library, you help your community. We really do serve everyone.”
The new director says that while she wants to continue the good works and projects began by library officials years ago, she also wants to launch an advocacy campaign to raise awareness for the system. “You really can get it all at the library,” Bell says. “Information, literacy and entertainment. I want to make sure people know that.”