Robin Hepher is the CEO of the Chinook Arch Regional Library System, which supports a network of cooperating libraries in mostly rural southwestern Alberta. He’ll tell you that the best things in life aren’t things. Except coffee. Is coffee a thing? And bicycles. The best things in life are coffee and bicycles.
Describe yourself in three words.
Optimist, humanist, cyclist.
What’s an average day at your library?
Working with 33 independent libraries and 41 municipal members means that there really is no average day. Because public libraries tend to find themselves on the front line of whatever issue the community is facing, you never know what kind of question or concern might crop up. Libraries are inherently political animals, since they are created by governments, governed by boards, funded by taxes, and used by humans! It’s messy, it’s complex, but also highly rewarding.
What was the first job you ever had?
My first real job was shelving books at my local public library. I was 14. It was a lot of fun. A library is a great place for a teenager with a still-plastic brain: you learn so much, as if by osmosis. I credit my persistent knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System to those years I spent in the stacks.
What was your first position in the library or information field?
See above, I guess. Eventually I moved up to the check-out desk, and finally the information desk. These jobs paid my way through my first few years of university. Then I left libraries for awhile, and spent a good chunk of my 20s working in bicycle shops. I’m a WCBI Level III certified bicycle mechanic, for what it’s worth. Eventually, with a baby on the way, I needed something more stable, so I went back to school and got my MLIS.
How do you stay up to date in your field?
These days, my main source of information is my colleagues and my staff. Since taking on the role of CEO, I find that most of my energy goes into day-to-day operations, and there’s less time to absorb what’s going on in the wider library world. Thankfully we have great staff that keep their ears to the ground and are keen to try new things.
What is your favourite part of library, archive, or information services work?
Working with rural public libraries especially, you meet all kinds of fascinating people. One thing I’ve noticed about public libraries is that no matter where people fall on the political spectrum, almost everyone agrees that libraries are a great benefit to communities and to society as a whole. In a world that appears to be increasingly polarized, it’s refreshing to work in a space where most everyone finds common ground.
What are you reading or watching right now?
I’m re-reading (for the third time this summer) Mountains and Rivers Without End by Gary Snyder. It’s a long poem, written over a period of almost 40 years, from 1956 to 1995. It’s the kind of book you can read again and again, and each time something new jumps out. It’s become my new “desert island” book.
If you didn’t work in information sciences, what do you think you’d be doing?
I’d be living in a cordwood shack in the Kootenays, raising chickens and bees, building musical instruments and/or timber-frame houses on the side.
What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
The importance of networking has been pressed upon me by many, but I find the concept vaguely mercenary: this idea that I need to pad my Rolodex with business cards, in case I should ever need something from someone. I prefer to build genuine relationships based on common interests. There are so many cool people out there, doing amazing things. Everyone has a story to tell: be curious, ask questions. Some of my favourite projects and partnerships have sprung organically from the friendships I’ve formed in the library community and beyond.
What is the coolest thing in your office or on your desk?
I park my bicycle in my office, so that’s definitely the coolest thing. The bicycle is the best human invention to date.
What makes you passionate about library work?
My current job has given me great insight into the world of public libraries, and just how much incredible work is being done out there – especially in rural and remote communities, where the library is often the last remaining public service/space. The library plays a critical role in any community, and all too often the work is done by people (predominantly women) who are paid very poorly and whose efforts go unrecognized by funders and local government. There’s so much advocacy work to be done if rural libraries are to survive, let alone thrive. That’s what keeps me going: I want thriving libraries everywhere.
Why do you think library work is important?
The public library, more than any other modern institution, exists explicitly in the public interest. The library belongs to the people: it’s a thoroughly democratic institution, and must stay that way. In an era when so many democratic institutions are under attack (including the electoral system itself), it’s important that everyone involved in libraries (librarians, library staff, trustees, elected officials, and citizens at large) fight to maintain the principles of democracy, intellectual freedom, freedom of expression that librarians have long defended.