By Darren Lum
New CEO of the Haliburton County Public Library Chris Stephenson is following his heart home.
Stephenson was most recently the branch head librarian at the downtown Kelowna branch of the Okanagan Regional Library and previous to that was the CEO and head librarian of the Bancroft Pulblic Library.
He holds a bachelor of arts from McMaster University, graduating in 1997. When he wanted a career change, he returned to where his heart was all along. He returned to school to earn his master of library and information studies in 2015.
Stephenson is happy to be home and is committed to a long-term stay in the Highlands, stepping in for interim-CEO Anna Babluck.
“I have a commitment to staying and seeing through a strategic plan like the one we’re creating and I wanted to be closer to my family. It’s satisfying two desires: I’m back in my hometown area and, really, every librarian is looking for their forever home and I’ve been kind of bouncing around to various communities, getting experience for a purpose with the intention of coming home. It’s like a homecoming for me. I made this choice very purposefully … I start to make decisions based on more long-term thinking and that’s why I’m here,” he said.
There’s been about two years when he wasn’t able to see his parents, so this career decision also helps him have far more regular contact with his recently retired parents when compared to when he lived out West.
Stephenson officially started on Wednesday the Sept. 22, but his passion and love for libraries really started when he was young.
The library has always served as a place where he could escape and he rediscovered the same qualities as an adult while facing burnout from working as a scenic carpenter in the film industry in Vancouver.
“To be honest, I started to spend time where I felt the best and that was always the library. A place I had always been going since I was a kid and actually worked at my home town library, Carnegie Library when I was 16, running the children’s programs,” he said.
He adds during his undergrad at McMaster, he worked at five campus libraries.
Libraries represent a safe place for everyone where there is a sense of community, he said.
“You can hear children’s voices and families coming and going and that there is a lot going on,” he said. “I got a real education about how libraries had changed even in the 10 years since I started going to school. It just brought back a flood of happy memories and I realized this was a place for me.”
Stephenson had never thought of it as a place for a career, but saw an opportunity for change.
“Then I realized, this work that I had been doing for a decade I hadn’t really taken it seriously as a career. There were a lot more men going to the library school then ever before,” he said. “I was the second oldest in my class [at 38].”
During this time when he was visiting the library, he befriended a librarian and socialized with her friends, who had all just graduated from library sciences and shared their love for library work, which inspired Stephenson to return to school.
“All their enthusiasm and passion really rubbed off on me and I heard about the great things that were happening in the early-2000s and before I knew it they were helping me apply to school because they only take 32 a cohort [each semester], so I didn’t get in on my first application, but I stuck with it,” he said.
After the pandemic, he said it was difficult to remain connected with this family, particularly his parents, who hadn’t seen for close to two years.
Stephenson said he has been either coming to the Highlands or passing through it ever since he was child and includes trips to the Haliburton Forest where his parents leased land. He notes his uncle is in Bancroft and his sister bought property in Dorset. Coming from the mountains, he knew that would be something he would miss and said the Highlands here is a close Ontario facsimile.
Stephenson said he was happy to learn the HCPL had a Drag Storytime, featuring drag queen, Plumlicious, as part of the Minden Pride week of events this summer.
Back in 2019, he and head of youth services Ashley Machum were part of a storm of controversy when his Kelowna Branch held a similar event, the Drag Queen Story Hour.
It led to national headlines with CBC’s The Doc Project: How a B.C. library’s Drag Queen Story Hour turned into a nationwide fight for intellectual freedom.
The Drag Queen Story Hour led to a fight between the library board, librarians, drag queens, politicians and parents about what role libraries have in the community and if drag queens fit in such public places.
The event was and remains the most well-attended story time at the library with 160 people attending.
Despite a lack of protest of the event, it still prompted the ORL CEO Don Nettleton to call the event “controversial” and “potentially divisive” in a memo, which was posted online. Although there was positive and negative reactions to the memo from the Kelowna community, libraries across Canada condemned the memo. The library board met and came up with recommendations, which included enabling branch personnel the freedom to provide programming as they see is relevant to their community and acknowledging parents have the choice to participate or not. Nettleton, who received sensitivity training, would later send out an apology email.
The effort led to his library peers awarding him and Machum with the BC Legislative Champion of Intellectual Freedom Award.
He appreciates fulfilling the idea that the library is a place for everyone.
Libraries over the decades have evolved and have become a community hub to service all walks of people and is an inclusive place.
“We’re not your grandmother’s library,” he said. “But really the library that I run wherever I go is dependent on the needs and the desires of the community, so I get this feedback loop going by establishing relationships and I want to create the library that that village or community needs. So, I am very open when you say what’s the message for the community? I want them to know that we want to hear from them and what they’d like to see happen in their libraries is really crucial, especially now that we’re planning strategic plan for the future.”