New library director focused on safety, service, and civics

In late August, Hennepin County welcomed Chad Helton to lead Minnesota’s largest public library system. With the effects of COVID-19 upending every norm, Mr. Helton’s arrival has been anything but routine.

“I never imagined I’d meet so many people on video calls,” said Helton. “I’m the kind of guy who would rather be introducing myself to the community at a grocery store or a neighborhood event.”

Mr. Helton’s arrival comes at a time when libraries are managing tectonic shifts in how they provide service. Hennepin County Library’s online services, eBooks, and digital resources have provided an uninterrupted lifeline to the public throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Access to the physical collection and library computers have been a more recent reboot of in-person service.

“Safety first, second, and third. That means fewer staff in buildings, and as a result, some processes will take more time,” says Helton. “If we’re going to be successful in sustaining these services, it’ll take everyone’s help. Masks, limited capacities, lots of patience, and a little grace will go a long way.”

Beyond the ongoing public health challenges, Mr. Helton says the 2020 election cycle has reinforced his belief that libraries have a responsibility to support civic literacy. He is gathering a team of library staff to develop year-round programming and services to help equip an energized electorate.

“The library is positioned to provide non-partisan resources to help voters understand every box on the ballot,” said Helton. “Everyone knows the president, but how many of us can describe the job of the state auditor or the school board? We want our residents to understand more about their local government and how exercising your civic duty can make an impact at home.”

Prior to joining Hennepin County, Mr. Helton served as director of branch services for Los Angeles Public Library. “There are a lot of similarities between L.A. and Hennepin County,” he says. “Both span a service area of more than 500 square miles, with dozens of libraries built over the last century.” A lot can change in 100 years, and as communities grow, the new director sees opportunity for the big picture and the small details.

“We serve one community with many differences,” Helton explains. “Over the next year, we’ll be taking on a serious effort in strategic planning. What services do our residents value the most and where can we better support them?” At the end of the day, Helton is confident in the path ahead. “We have incredible staff and dedicated leaders. With input from our community, we’ll be right were we need to be.”