Cameron Asbell, who has built local funding and support for the Ohoopee Regional Library System over six years, including planning for the 21st century library renovations of the Vidalia Library, has been named Library Director of the Year.
“There are many outstanding directors and staff within Georgia public libraries, and I am honored to work with them,” said Cameron Asbell. “Their dedication and passion inspire me to do my best every day. A public library should be a place where everyone finds something of themselves and fosters a sense of belonging. It is the heart of the community it serves, and my goal every day is to make sure people know we are here for them. I am very fortunate to work with a wonderful staff, actively engaged Library Boards, Friends of the Library, and supportive communities that love and celebrate their library.”
When she became the director in 2016, the system was in a turbulent time. Board members had resigned, and several directors had left after brief intervals.
“On my first day as director, I walked into the building and thought it hadn’t opened yet,” said Asbell. “There were no patrons in there, and the lights were so dim, I didn’t realize they were on.” Staff had attached adhesive, motion-sensitive lights to the bookstacks just to see the titles. “On my second day, I had to put a tarp on the bookshelves to protect them from rain coming through the leaky roof. I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”
The community didn’t support its library, and it showed. One resident suggested that the best thing that could happen to the library was to bulldoze it and build a Starbucks so there would be something of value on the lot.
Asbell went with the library board to community leaders to talk about the library. “We were not well-received,” she said. “They kept saying things like, ‘the library makes promises and doesn’t keep them.’ I spent the next few years applying for every grant I could, making updates, and following through. We created a STEM room and received a grant to fix the lights. Then I would visit funder offices to tell them what we did. By now they knew my face. I worked to change the library’s culture. I would ask my staff, ‘What does it cost you to say yes?’”
She not only stabilized the library and restored the confidence of large donors, she also was a persistent advocate for renovations to meet the needs of the community and programming to encourage the community to come inside their local library.
“Cameron cultivated programming, increased visitor volume at the current facility, and gained the support of board members for big plans,” said nominator Sen. Blake Tillery. “Once all the puzzle pieces were assembled, Cameron announced a major new project – a complete rebuild and consolidation of the Vidalia Library and the Ladson Genealogy Library. The idea, discussed for about a decade and once started and failed, now received backing from patrons, donors, and all local governments because she understood how to devise and command a process.”
Today, the rebuild of the Vidalia-Toombs County Library is in its final stages. Cameron has not slowed down, though, and now is managing a fundraising campaign to extend the hours of the Nelle Brown Memorial Library in Lyons, Georgia.
“An organization does not make the paradigm shift we have seen at the Ohoopee Library System without a dedicated captain,” said Tillery. “Cameron Asbell has been that captain for this community. She has made multiple sacrifices personally to meet the local library’s budgets, maintain staff, and grow programs. Cameron has certainly made an impact on our community, and I know this organization would also benefit from recognizing such a true public servant.”
Asbell received additional nominations from library trustees, patrons, community leaders, staff, and volunteers.
“Cameron is a timeless warrior for the public library system,” said Brian Bishop, library trustee. “She does everything with enthusiasm and a smile on her face.”
The renovated Vidalia Library includes a teaching kitchen, Spark Lab for weekly kids’ programming, study rooms with smartboards, and movable shelves so the space can be adjusted as needs change.
“So many people in the community are excited about this project,” said Asbell. “Voters are telling our local legislators that the library is important and valuable, and they are listening.”
These days, on any given afternoon at the Vidalia Library, the building is full of local residents. Kids participate in STEM programming, read books, or try out the 3D printer, while adults use the free Wi-Fi to apply for jobs or stay connected. Tutors and their clients spread across tables in the main room. A local preacher writes his weekly sermons using one computer.
“To use a sports analogy, I feel like we have gone from last to first,” said Gary Campbell, member of the local Friends of the Library Group. “And Cameron has been instrumental in making this happen. Cameron is passionate about her work and is committed to excellence. And this passion shows up in her motivated and effective staff. And it also has shown up in the increased usage of our library during her tenure. As a community volunteer, I am once again proud of our library.”
Cameron Asbell began her library career as a library clerk at the UGA Library on the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College campus in Tifton. She continued at Statesboro Regional Public Library System as a part-time circulation clerk and worked her way up to the position of director of IT and Technical Services. She came to the Ohoopee Regional System in 2015 as the IT and Cataloging librarian and was hired as the regional director in 2016. In 2017, she completed the PINNACLE leadership training program and the Georgia Public Libraries Financial Management Certification program. She has bachelor’s degree in biology from Georgia Southern University and a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science from Valdosta State University as part of the Libraries Build Communities scholarship cohort.
A local celebration is being planned for April, with details to follow.