When Lisa Rives Collens takes the reins as the next director of Schlow Centre Region Library this month, she’ll be facing a set of unprecedented challenges, as the library prepares to adjust to post-pandemic life.
Fortunately, the library and its dedicated staff have already proven they are well-equipped to adapt to changing circumstances.
Before COVID-19 gripped the country in March 2020, 800-1,000 people were visiting Schlow Library in-person each day. The pandemic forced the library to close its doors to the public, but that did not prevent the library from continuing to serve the community.
Collens, who currently serves as head of patron services, says, “It took us maybe a week or two, but we really just pivoted hard, and we gradually continue to figure out ways to offer more services safely.”
Some of those services include online programming such as virtual story times, door-side pickup of books and materials, extended WiFi service that covers a large swath of downtown State College, and scheduled computer appointments that allow people to enter the library on a limited basis to use their computers, even as the building remains closed to the public for browsing.
Collens believes that many of these changes could become permanent, as patrons have requested that things like online programming and door-side pickup continue. It’s the kind of feedback Collens is constantly seeking from the community.
“I think having those conversations is one of the most important things a library director does – really trying to talk to partners, talk to patrons, talk to people of all ages and all backgrounds, to get a feel for what the community needs,” she says. “I’m excited that I have had the chance as head of patron services to have those kinds of conversations, and I think that’s going to serve the library really well as I move into the director position.”
Collens has been with Schlow since 2008, having worked for the Centre County Library and Historical Museum, Penn State Libraries, and The Great Lakes Commission. She will be taking over for Catherine Alloway, who is retiring after 50 years in the library profession. Alloway has been the director of Schlow Library since 2011, when she succeeded Elizabeth Allen.
Collens credits both directors with preparing her well for what lies ahead.
“They really worked on creating an organizational culture that embraces change, where we’re constantly trying to reimagine services for our community,” she says.
Alloway has seen a lot of change in the library profession since she first worked as a summer intern at the Library of Congress in the 1970s.
“I really laugh when I think back to the late ’80s and early ’90s and how people predicted that libraries would become obsolete because of the internet. That has not at all been the case,” she says.
“Libraries have not only not become obsolete, they have learned to fill new community roles, as intellectual and artistic gathering spaces,” Alloway continues. “We’ve also become more customer-service oriented as a profession. We’re much more creative in our programming, and more welcoming to people of all ages and backgrounds. It has been a wonderful transition to behold.”
Whether through internet access or more “traditional” library services, Collens says, “One of the things that we really do well is serve as a trusted connecting point, connecting people to high-quality information. That’s a particularly big role we’re going to continue to play. … We really are a learning portal for our community.”
A big piece of that community is the State College Area School District, and Collens is particularly proud of the “Schlow-to-School” program, in which every SCASD student is given a library card and can have books and other materials delivered directly to them at school. It’s an example of the kind of partnership Collens believes will benefit the community greatly as it emerges from the pandemic.
“Everyone is going to go through a different recovery process – nonprofits, businesses, organizations of all types – and I think Schlow has a role to play in really helping all of those partners be able to move forward together, providing information and connectivity,” she says. “That’s something I’m really excited about. Even in recovery, we’ve got a big role to play.”
As library director, Collens will report to the Schlow Library Board of Trustees, as well as to the executive director of the Centre Region Council of Governments and its General Forum. She will oversee a staff of 51, approximately 100 volunteers, and an annual $2.5 million budget. Apart from the daunting task of safely leading the library into its post-pandemic existence, another challenge facing Collens is maintaining a 16-year-old, well-used building. This entails dealing with unglamorous details such as elevator and HVAC updates, as well as converting space to meet everchanging community needs.
“Before COVID, we were hearing loud and clear from the community that they wanted small group spaces in the building,” she says. “Will that still be the need post-COVID? We don’t know for sure, but making sure that this physical building and our services continue to evolve and change as our community changes is absolutely going to be one of the biggest challenges facing any library director moving forward.”
Collens earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan, and her master of library and information science degree from Wayne State University, but has embraced Happy Valley as her home. She says working for the Centre County Library and Historical Museum and taking part in Leadership Centre County in 2014 have given her a deep appreciation of the county as a whole.
“Those experiences gave me such a good foundation. I feel like I really know the library, the staff, and the community, and I am committed to our county’s growth and development,” she says. “It’s a library that I love, it’s a community that I love, and it’s such an honor to be able to serve.”
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.