Dena Little
Dena Little
Western Wayne News Podcast
<a href="">Dena Little</a>

In this episode of the Western Wayne News Podcast, Morrisson-Reeves Library director Dena Little talks with Kate Jetmore about what led her to become a librarian, the ways in which libraries are community centers, and how access to books and information can shape our community life together.


Kate Jetmore: My guest today is Dena Little. Dena comes to Morrison-Reeves Library from the Arlington Public Library in Virginia, where she served in leadership roles for the past five years. Most recently as assistant division chief, she also spent five years in library management in Ohio Public Library Systems after working as a shelter and a youth librarian. Her strengths include project management, staff development, strategic and outcomes planning, and analytical evaluation.

Her early impressions of Richmond and Wayne County have been the friendly and welcoming community, and the value that the community holds for the library and its legacy in Richmond. After many years of living around the world and the US, she’s looking forward to settling in and making Wayne County her home. Welcome, Dena. Thanks so much for sitting down with me today.

Dena Little: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Kate Jetmore: Libraries have always been among the most special places in my life. From my earliest memories of the school library at Garrison Elementary and Ms. Montgomery to Morrison-Reeves itself, where my mom used to take me every Saturday to get new books. That space, which is the library and that figure who’s the librarian, have always played a key role for me and I’m sure for many other people. So I’m curious, what was it about the work that drew you into this profession?

Dena Little: Yeah. Libraries have always played an important role in my life as well, although I’ll say librarianship as a career didn’t even come to my attention until I was a young adult. I actually shared here in the interview process for Morrison-Reeves about what I call my library origin story, and I think a lot of people have a library origin story. Mine is when I was young, I had a unstable upbringing, I would say, and I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and she was a little bit on the poor side. She lived off of social security, lived in a retirement community, and I would stay with her there and she didn’t have money to entertain us or that type of thing, so we would go to the library. That was our outlet. We would go maybe once a week or once every couple of weeks.

And I remember this setting. I remember what it looked like and felt like and just feeling like it was some stability in an unstable world, and this was way back in the day when it was Judy Bloom. That was the option for young readers, and once I exhausted her, I remember sneaking over to the adult section and getting Stephen King books and that, but that was the start of my connection with libraries and then as a young adult going to the library independently. It was actually the first trip I took when I got my driver’s license was to a library. It was just always in the background.

But it really wasn’t until I was in college. I had a close friend who was in the same degree program, and he was sharing with me that he was going to go to library school, and I said, “What’s library school? What are you talking about?” Yeah. It opened my whole world to another possibility, so I did a little research, which of course, librarian, that’s the fun part and realized just how much it really connected for me.

I really just love everything that a library stands for and everything that a library just provides. They’re such an important and crucial ailment of democracy. It’s access to information, access to resources, helping people connect with things that they need in order to get along and being able to help lead that and help provide that and connect with the community is really amazing, and I’ve been fortunate and lucky to have fallen into this path.

Kate Jetmore: Can you say more about the role that libraries play in a healthy democracy? I’m curious about that comment.

Dena Little: Yeah, absolutely. It doesn’t matter who you are, but you can have access to information. That seems like something that we as Americans, we take advantage of and take for granted in a sense. Not everybody in this world has that ability to access information. Not to be political, but that is something that is unique to us that we can just you don’t have to have a lot of money. You don’t even have to necessarily live here. You can just come to the library if you need to get on the internet. If you need access to a book, you can do that here in the library. There’s nobody at the door carding you or determining who you are. You can walk in and get the information that you need, and if you don’t know how to, we’re here for you, what the staff are here to do to help connect you.

Kate Jetmore: It almost sounds like you’re saying it’s a human right.

Dena Little: Absolutely. Absolutely. If you don’t know about something, we can help you. If you’re trying to figure out more about your own history or more about your country’s history, or more about politics, or more about anything that you want to be more informed about, you can access that through the library either directly or we can find it for you.

I think I feel like this a little bit more recently, just in the process of moving and buying a house and just how challenging some of those hurdles can be, knowing that I have the resources and the knowledge to find these things simply because of my career field. Not everybody has that. Not everybody has the resources to find the connections or they may not have had the experience. We can do that. We can help people. Yeah.

Kate Jetmore: I’d love to pick your brain a little bit about the challenges that you face as the new director at Morrisson-Reeves when it comes to getting people to walk through the library doors. What you’ve just referenced is all the people who feel comfortable walking through the doors. What about the people who don’t know what you offer or they do, but they think, “I don’t know, I’ve never been to a library.” Or, “I don’t see people who look like me inside the library.” How do you face that challenge?

Dena Little: That is, I would say, the biggest challenge right now.

Kate Jetmore: Really?

Dena Little: Yeah, absolutely. I’m just learning still about Morrisson-Reeves, but I will share an experience that I had in Arlington, a Virginia, it’s in the DC metropolitan area, so it’s very diverse. There’s something like 80 different languages and dialects spoken there. It’s a very, very international community, and one of the biggest challenges that I was introduced to is people who are new to the country who might be scared of a government entity. A library to them represents a government entity, and maybe they’re not here legally, they don’t feel like they can use the library, and it’s like, “No, we really are not the gatekeepers to that. That is not what we’re here for.”

And I was really surprised by that. It hadn’t even entered into my own personal experience coming from Ohio, and it was really challenging. We had, at one particular location I was at for a short period of time, there was an adult school across the street and most of the students there were new to America, and just getting them to that point where they’re comfortable recognizing, this is what a library is here for, and recognizing that, like I said, we’re not here guarding the space and we’re not asking for ID at the door. Anybody can come.

Kate Jetmore: And how do you do that in a practical sense?

Dena Little: It’s all grassroots. You connect with people, you speak to depending on where’s the largest groups of people. Is it church? Is it a community center? Where is it? I remember this was years ago. Is it actually an Ohio library? I actually was able to connect with the school and got an interpreter because many of the students that were new, their parents were here for just a couple years. Most of them were from China, and to be able to connect with them and say, “No, this is what we have for you. This is what the library can do for you.” We actually got an interpreter and I came, spoke at the school to say, “Hey, it was specifically for the parents to come and learn.” That seems to be the best way. It’s just literally just connecting with people directly, but it is so challenging.

Even just last week, where I was not important, right? But somebody I was speaking to, we got on the topic of eBooks and she said, “Oh, let me tell you about Audible.” And I was like, “Actually, let me tell you about the library.” And I’m just amazed still how many people just don’t aware of everything that the library provides and it’s here, it’s accessible, it’s for you, it’s for everybody in this community. So that is such a challenge is teaching people, getting people to know what it is that we do. We do more than books these days. You can check out Cornhole, you can check out a cake pan. You can get so much stuff now at the library.

Kate Jetmore: Well, I’m so glad that we can provide you with this platform. Would you like to choose two or three of your favorite services that the library currently offers that you’re excited to tell people about?

Dena Little: Oh, absolutely. I would say for a thing that you could, for entertainment purposes, speaking about eBooks and ED audiobooks, we have Libby. It’s part of Overdrive System, but Libby is the app that you can download. You just need a library card, you can download magazines, audiobooks, eBooks, and it’s a huge collection. You don’t have to pay for it. It’s already part of the services that you get with your library card.

And I’d like to speak more a little bit about it later, but some of the services that we offer here, we have an Ask A Lawyer program. It’s a pro bono service that we provide here at the library. It’s an amazing collaboration. There’s a lot of grassrootsy types of things that we do here for folks that maybe don’t have the resources or necessarily aren’t ready for that leap, and they just want to learn a little bit more. Yeah.

Kate Jetmore: Right. Well, going back to what you said about… I know you were talking about a different geographical area of the United States. You weren’t talking about Morrisson-Reeves, but are there any Spanish language services offered at Morrison-Reeves?

Dena Little: Yeah, we’re exploring that right now. That’s actually something we’re just starting to talk about. Actually just last week, speaking to a staff member that is doing some community outreach at the Dwyer Center and trying to incorporate some Spanish into our flyers and connecting like that. I’ve lived overseas as well, and being a not native speaker to where you’re at sometimes just having something you can read in your language is all you need to connect. So looking and exploring to just have information in other languages I think is going to be crucial. Yeah.

Kate Jetmore: Yeah, absolutely. My Spanish is really good after 21 years in Spain, and I work as a translator, but when I am relaxing at the end of the day, I only read in English because it’s just such a comforting place to be in your head, and that’s what a mother tongue is. It’s not the English language, it’s your mother tongue. So whatever your mother tongue is, that’s where you want to rest and console yourself. So I love hearing that that is one of the things you’re exploring.

And speaking of exploring and growth, and evolution, libraries have changed so much over the years and they’ve just expanded into something that is far beyond a place where books live and are lent out and kept their community centers, their makerspaces, people go there to use the internet. I’d love to hear you talk about the role Morrison-Reeves is currently playing in 2023, and how it compares to the role that it played 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago.

Dena Little: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that grassroots bit I was speaking about earlier is where it’s at. I’m seeing, just in general, libraries have evolved so much in the last 10, 20 years, and I think what I’m seeing… And what Morrison-Reeves has done really successfully is identified where is the accessibility challenges for the community and how can the library be a part of that, and how can the library partner with the ASCO lawyer or working with ARP for free tax services.

Those are really grassrootsy. How can we connect people immediately to the services that they need? You talked about makerspace, and I think the challenge is sometimes libraries want to jump on that trend, whatever it is, makerspace, modular spaces. I’ve seen recording studios, this type of thing. Libraries aren’t just about books and programs any longer. You almost have to start thinking of it like, it’s like a business model. What is the community need? What is the return on investment or whether two people interested, or is there really a large volume of folks in the community looking for something that they can’t find anywhere else?

I’ve seen makerspaces fall flat. You seen them do be amazing because maybe they’re actually satisfying a very specific need. So I think Morrisson-Reeves has been really smart in trying to capture what is that thing. So right now, spaces is a need. We have small spaces for one or two people. We have medium size conference room with smart TV, we have a larger room, the bar room for larger groups and programs, and that type of thing. I think that’s been where a lot of the focus has been. And then those connections, type of connections, like the lawyer service and that. We’re actually jumping into a strategic planning process for the 2023 to 2028 time period. Just started last week. There’s going to be-

Kate Jetmore: That’s exciting.

Dena Little: It is so exciting. I think it’s great time for jumping on board because I really want to hear from the community, what is next? What’s next for the library? What’s next for us with the community?

Kate Jetmore: Well, and my big question hearing you talk is if a library used to be a building with books where you could go and have access to books, access to knowledge, and even take those books home with you, and from what you’ve said in this conversation, and I totally see this and agree with you, a library is much more than that now.

Dena Little: Absolutely.

Kate Jetmore: How would you define a library now?

Dena Little: That’s interesting. It’s so unique, and I think it’s not necessarily a community center, but it’s an accessibility center, honestly. I think that’s the best way to describe it because when I think community center, I think recreational. And it’s not the world of shush anymore, but obviously there is a academic mindset to this space where you are going to learn and get information, but it’s an accessibility center. You’re going there to connect.

Kate Jetmore: I also hear you wanting to use the word community, even if it isn’t a quote, unquote, “Community center.” So what role does the library play in a community?

Dena Little: No, that’s a great question. I think it’s a little bit about finding what is unique, all the unique things about the community and digging those up, and exposing them. What is it unique about Richmond’s history that we can bring to the surface? What is it about pockets in the community that we can bring to the surface and figure out what it is that’s special about that and teach one another and learn from one another and figure out that that’s the piece of community that I think is really unique to every library is like, what can we celebrate? What can we discover?

Kate Jetmore: Yeah. Yeah. I started this conversation by talking about all my warm memories from when I was a kid, Morrison-Reeves, at my elementary school, and then going on into my life as well, warm memories of a whole series of libraries. But I’ll tell you what was never on my mind, any of the times I visited any of these libraries was who was paying for it? Where does the money come from? As you look to the future in your new role, what kind of funding models do you think will be seen?

Dena Little: I agree with you 100%. That was not something I even thought about when I went into library school or became a librarian. It wasn’t until I was managing that. I started being more aware. It was more relevant to what I was doing. What’s really interesting is I’ve worked in libraries in three different states and the funding structure is different, and by what state you go and work in. Some states are a little bit more unstable than others. I think Indiana is fortunate. You at least have an idea of what’s happening, whereas in, for example, Ohio, some of the funding is a little bit up and down depending on what’s going on in the government.

So I’d say as far as future of funding, larger libraries are looking at things like actually hiring staff that are just focused on grants or fundraising. I think that’s going to be important as time goes by. And it’s not necessarily that the funding that we receive has changed so drastically. It’s that the library is diversifying so much that what we are investing in is just more expensive. Technology is more expensive. The things that we are trying to resource for the community is more expensive, so we are having to get a little bit creative. Grants are something that we’re looking at. Some libraries are looking at commercial enterprise, having coffee shops in the library. I’ve seen that be very successful. It’s like that Barnes and Noble model of people like to hang out in the library. Well, here’s an opportunity to make a little cash on this side.

Well, one other area, which I think is fantastic and I could definitely see here in Richmond is collaboration. This was a few years ago in Ohio, but we recognized that we were spending money on the same resources, the databases that the school was, why are we doing this? Even though we’re two different government units, why are we both spending the same money on the same thing? So we dumped it all into the same pot and it made sense, it made business sense. So those type of opportunities I think are going to be really smart for us and just libraries in general as time goes on.

Kate Jetmore: And especially in a community the size of Richmond. Looking at the example that you just gave collaboration with schools, there is a manageable number of schools in Richmond where people can actually have meetings about this and actually wrap their head around what does it look like practically to collaborate on that level. So I think that’s a great idea.

Dena Little: Another thing that I’m just starting to learn about, so it’s very early days, is there’s materials consortium in the State of Indiana. It’s called Evergreen. We are not a part of that consortium at this time. Many of the East Central Indiana libraries are, we’re one of the few that aren’t. So the idea is that patrons have access to every library’s collections that is part of that consortium. What a great way of saving money and space. There’s a finite amount of space on our shelves, but what if we had access to hundreds of thousands of more books? So those are the types of opportunities that libraries are looking for. How do we share resources?

Kate Jetmore: And what would that look like? Would it be like people with cars or would it be the mail mean? How would you get your materials physically from library to library?

Dena Little: Yeah, it’s a courier system, so there’s a delivery. I believe it’s not every single day of the week, but depending on what the schedule is, it’s a little bit different. And I think the challenges for us specifically are where a one location library, libraries with branches are already used to that idea of sharing materials. So the workflow would be completely different. The volume of materials handling would be very different. So it isn’t just about, “Hey, let’s open our doors to this idea. There’s a lot to be discussed about the logistics of it. It’s not impossible.”

And then, of course, the community, is that something the community is looking for? Because if we were to invest in the time that it would take, and just going down that avenue, is the community want more resources more than what we have on our shelves? Yeah, it’s definitely out there and something to consider.

Kate Jetmore: Well, Dena, this has been a great opportunity to meet you, to hear about what the library is doing and what the library plans to do, which is really exciting. And I just want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today and also take the opportunity to encourage all our listeners to drop by the library, and see what it’s all about.

Dena Little: Oh, thank you, Kate, I really appreciate the time. And yes, please, everybody come to the library. We want you come on through our doors.

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