Persons of Interest: A Place for Everyone
Jason LeDuc- director, Dothan Houston County Library System
story by Taylor Wheeler
It’s an ordinary Tuesday morning in downtown Dothan, and a group has already assembled outside the Dothan Houston County Library front doors, waiting for the 10am opening time. It’s an eclectic group—moms with toddlers, adults with armfuls of books, teens wearing earbuds and surfing their phones. An hour later, the parking lot will be almost full, and patrons inside will be reading, filling out job applications online, studying, borrowing library laptops, e-readers and of course, books. But wait, wasn’t the Internet supposed to bring about the demise of the public library? Absolutely not, says Dothan Houston County Library System director Jason LeDuc. “This perception that library use is going down is entirely wrong,” he says. “Library use is going up.”
If anyone is in the position to know, it’s Jason. His life has almost literally revolved around libraries, and his vast and cosmopolitan experience in multiple markets is sure to be an incredible asset to the Dothan Houston County Library System. But how does a library guru from Canada who’s worked in big markets like Brooklyn, Chicago and Los Angeles wind up in the Wiregrass? “A lot of dominoes have fallen to get me to Alabama,” he says.
As the child of an academic father, Jason was encouraged from a young age to appreciate books and education. “The library was a key institution growing up,” he says. His library career actually began at the tender age of 14 at his hometown library in Windsor, Ontario. As a teenager, he wasn’t really looking for work—he was just being a good friend, as his best pal was applying to work at the library and wanted moral support. “When you’re 14, there are only two things an employer is looking for—accuracy and speed,” says Jason. He excelled at both, placing first out of an interview group of 30 in the application test. He got the job and continued working until graduating from high school.
He also worked at the campus library during his time at the University of Toronto, but after graduation with a degree in European history, he wondered what was next. “I didn’t want to be a professor or a lawyer,” says Jason. Instead, he looked again to the library—and also in a southerly direction. “Every Canadian wants to escape to Florida,” he jokes, but Florida State University had an impressive library science graduate program and so that’s where Jason earned his masters in library science.
“My first professional job was in Brooklyn in 1995,” says Jason, working his way up from managing the library’s teen section to a spot in administration. “Working there was fantastic,” he says. “It was a very big learning experience for me, both personally and professionally.” After seven years in Brooklyn, he went back north and worked for four years in a suburban Toronto library. At that same time, seven cities in Toronto merged into one, “which means seven libraries merged,” he says, and Jason helped the library system navigate that big change.
Then Jason’s former boss from Brooklyn called with a job opportunity working for the Urban Library Council, headquartered at the time in Chicago, where he “developed library programs and events for urban populations,” he says. Then Jason was hired to the private sector, working as director of sales for a library technology software company. “I got to travel to libraries all over the world,” says Jason, with home bases in Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles. But what Jason ultimately wanted in his career was to be was director of a library system. So when the opening for director for the Dothan Houston County Library System came open, he applied and was offered the job. “The opportunity was very attractive,” he says. “The library has big support from the community, and I saw that it was just the right size and type of community that my experience could benefit.”
Canadians and southerners have at least one thing in common—friendliness—and so Jason eagerly anticipated his return to the South. “Every time I came to the south, I liked it a little more,” says Jason. “This community has been so welcoming. I was very much impressed with the overall hospitality.” And even though he comes from a very urban library background, “this town is surprisingly bigger than it seems,” he says. “It’s a very unique hub that seems very similar to where I’ve worked in the past.”
It’s one month into Jason’s tenure, and he is “very much in observation mode,” he says. “I can’t just simply deliver library services as I see them, I have to work backward from community needs.” He is in the process of linking with community partners all over the area to see exactly what those community needs are and how the library can provide them. Jason is also focused on bringing the library’s profile into the community “beyond the building,” he says. “The library has changed—it’s not just a physical space, it’s also a virtual space.”
And that brings us back to the not-so-declining library. “Library use is going up,” reiterates Jason. “The formats may be changing, but in terms of actual foot and web traffic, it’s actually increasing every year.” And people are not just checking out books anymore—they are borrowing library e-readers to read online magazine subscriptions, borrowing laptops to create work presentations, taking advantage of quiet study rooms, using the resources in the small business center, visiting the hedgehog in the children’s room, attending community programs, and so much more. “Our library is being used in different ways by a diverse population.” says Jason.
Communities are also seeing the economic benefits of the public library. “Education is very important to economic development and libraries are important to education,” says Jason, and therefore a strong library only adds to an area’s economic development. “Libraries add up to $5 of benefit in the community for every $1 spent on the library,” he says. He adds that the Dothan area has already made the connection that investing in the library leads to a better community, as Dothan was recently awarded a national honor by the Library Journal for their commitment to the community and it’s library.
“I see a library that is vibrant, a library that is an essential part of Wiregrass life,” says Jason of the Dothan Houston County Library System’s future. “The future of libraries looks incredibly strong,” he adds. “The library is the Wiregrass’ living room, a place where anyone is welcome. It’s part of the American fabric.”
For more information on the Dothan Houston County Library, visit www.dhcls.org or stop by either location at 445 North Oates Street and 535 Recreation Drive.