NYLA Member Profile: Alex Gutelius

By Joel Friedman

placeholder imageNYLA Member Profile: Alex Gutelius, Library Director at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library
by Joel Friedman

To read more of Friedman's interview with Gutelius and learn more about her role at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library, click here.

Where did you grow up?
I’m from Canada. I grew up in Toronto. North York, specifically, which was more suburban then but is now considered part of the Toronto city sprawl. Toronto itself has about 2.5 million people, but the Greater Toronto Area has about 5.5 million. I did my undergraduate work at Carleton University in Ottawa, and I did my Master’s in Library and Information Science at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario.

At that time was it still a fairly traditional MLS program, or did it go into anything digital?
Back then we were just at the cusp of CD-ROM databases, so we had a little bit of computing, but I didn’t do any archival studies at all. They did offer that track, but that wasn’t really what I was interested in. I thought I would like to work in a special library, but I graduated from library school in 1990, just at the beginning of the last recession, and jobs were hard to come by. I applied for just about any job that became available, and I ended up getting a job in a public library. In hindsight, I wondered why I would want to work for a special library. I had been thinking of maybe working for a law firm or something cool like that downtown, but as a child I was a huge public library user. We had a small branch of the North York Public Library up the street from me, and my mother talks about me reading a book while walking home. I was a voracious reader from an early age. And then my junior high was right across the street from the public library. I didn’t take the bus. I’d walk to school—uphill both ways, as they say! I worked in my university library in a part-time job as an undergraduate, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do as a career. My undergraduate degree is in English and History. I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher. My father was a principal and my mother was a teacher—everyone in my family was a teacher. Then I started working in a library and I really liked it, so I thought, okay, I’ll go and do my master’s. They had a great program at the University of Western Ontario, where you could complete the master’s in twelve months. You could take longer to do it if you did co-op placement, or you could just do it straight through. So I did the one-year program and graduated in 1990 and got a job that fall. But digital initiatives were just in their infancy. There was a little bit of programming and theory-based curriculum, but not really that much at that time.

Where did you start your library career?
I started my professional career about 30 miles north of Toronto, in a very small public library called the East Gwillimbury Public Library, which is north of Newmarket, where I lived.

What brought you to the United States?
My husband is from New York State—Westchester County—although he was born in Montréal to American parents. He went to Carleton University in Ottawa also, so that's where we met. We spent the first 15 to 16 years of our marriage living in Toronto, and then I began looking for a new career opportunity. In Canada, a director is a level down from what we call director here. There the top position is called CEO. I was Director of Service Delivery for a seven-branch library just north of Toronto, the Vaughan Public Libraries. I had been with them for eight years, and I was looking for the next step up. And at the same time my husband had started a business that was for all intents and purposes based in the US, so we were looking for an opportunity to move.

A lot of people don’t realize that under the NAFTA agreement, librarian is one of those positions that allows you to move across the border with ease. When you apply for a library position, you don’t have to get a green card initially. You can go on what’s called a TN visa, which is very easy to obtain if you have a position offer. My husband kind of wanted to come back to the US, and this opportunity came up; from the investigation we did, it looked like a reasonable place—within driving distance of Toronto and Ottawa, where I still have family.

Not that I’d ever been to Clifton Park. I’d driven by, on our way to visit in Westchester, but that’s about it. They did a fairly wide search for the director position here, going beyond the New York borders. So I applied, did a telephone interview, came down for an in-person interview, and we were very impressed with the town. It was a good time to move from my own career perspective as well as from my husband’s business perspective, and also my children were young enough that we felt moving them wouldn’t be as disruptive as perhaps it would be later on. Interesting move, because moving from Toronto—a very large, very metropolitan city—to a small town was a huge change for me. It was a factor, and we thought about it, because my oldest daughter was in grade 3 at the time, and she was going to an extremely multicultural school, taking French immersion—so there were a lot of personal choices. I think in hindsight it’s been a fabulous move both on a professional and a personal level. Our three children are now in first grade, third grade, and seventh grade, right here in Clifton Park.

You said you read a lot. Who were some of your favorite writers as a child?
Definitely my favorite author as a child was Lucy Maud Montgomery—Anne of Green Gables. No question. That’s it. Full stop. A Canadian favorite. And I’m absolutely just a voracious fiction reader.

What are you reading now?
Let’s see, I read the latest Janet Evanovich not too long ago. I read a Stuart Woods, but I wasn’t all that thrilled with it. They’re all formulaic, but I found it was not as exciting as the last few.

Who are some of your favorite writers?
I read popular fiction—

Well, I’m a Lee Child fan, so—
Oh, absolutely. When he was here, I was so excited. We had him here in 2010, when he was in the area for the NYLA conference, and that was great. Anything that’s coming out in popular fiction is really for the most part what I’m reading. I did read all the books that were nominated for our Two Towns, One Book program: The Book Thief, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Peace Like a River. The Book Thief became the community’s choice, and so that’s what the towns of Clifton Park and Halfmoon are reading all this spring. We have a whole array of programs built around that book and its themes. I really enjoyed The Book Thief. Actually, I listened to that one as an audiobook, which was great, because it had the foreign accent—I really got the flavor of it. Anything that’s popular fiction, that’s the kind of stuff I read these days. Sometimes I read what my daughter reads, too. She’s twelve, and I like to keep up with her. She’s a huge fantasy reader.

It looks like the new state budget will finally not show a cut for libraries. It’s going to be nice to restore some of what was lost. I guess it’s the library systems rather than the libraries that are heavily state funded. Before I go to that, can you share how much of your budget is state aid?
We anticipate this year about $13,000 in state aid out of an annual budget of almost $4 million. Our expenditures last year were $3.9 million, so state aid is a small fraction.

So the bulk of your budget, by far, is provided by local tax levies.
Absolutely. But what we do get from the systems is that backbone support for things like delivery, which allows our patrons to look at our system-wide library catalog in a seamless manner. They don’t care if it’s our copy or Crandall’s [Glens Falls, NY] copy or Schenectady’s copy. They just place a hold on it and whichever one comes in, super duper—as long as it’s fast. And the delivery of those materials from branch to branch is supported with system money. I can’t remember what it is per piece, but it would be a large burden. If that were cut, we would have to consider how or even whether we would do delivery on our own. I doubt we could. We borrowed about 50,000 items last year on behalf of our patrons through interlibrary loan, and we lent about 30,000 items to other libraries. We would have to consider how we would deliver that service and at what cost. Is it something that we could continue to sustain at that level? We have 64 libraries that share in this system, and the patrons of all those libraries share the benefits.

Do they have library systems in Canada, like they have here in New York?
They do, although not at the same level. Here we’re part of SALS, the Southern Adirondack Library System. In the Toronto area, we had the Southern Ontario Library System. The support from the library system was not the same as it is here. The very small libraries might get more support, although since I left things may have changed a little bit. I know that one of the initiatives I was looking at there was province-wide e-book support, for the libraries that didn’t have it before. OverDrive is available on a province-wide level, and I think that’s administered through the library system. The systems did not provide nearly the support that they do here, though. But then the whole funding model is totally different in Ontario. That was a big thing, too, coming to a library where there’s a budget vote. That was not my experience in Canada. Not that we didn’t have our budget challenges, going to the city council and looking for money for the things we were doing. We were competing with the fire department and this department and that department, so that was just a different challenge.

Which professional societies do you belong to?
I’m a member of the American Library Association, the Public Library Association, and NYLA. And the library is also a member of those organizations.

What are the most important things that a state library association such as NYLA should focus on?
I think Michael Borges did a great job in terms of library advocacy at the state level, and I think that’s really important. As we look to be providing more services like e-service, I wonder whether the state should be playing a role in that. Could they be supporting public libraries on a statewide level? Sally Gillich, our Assistant Director for Technology, sits on a committee that’s looking at core competencies for digital literacy for the public, and NYLA is playing a role in that. I think those are the types of things that are important for them to do. It’s a moving target, because things are changing so fast, but that type of information is really important. They provided some tax cap information recently. That was very helpful.

For people who are currently in library school or thinking of going to library school, what advice do you have for someone who enjoys the public library and is wondering whether there will be jobs available for them when they get out?
I think there are some jobs available. We are a growing organization, but I don’t have a whole lot of staff positions. There are going to be retirements coming up, and that will create openings for new people.
I would tell a student in library school that what you’re learning is not necessarily going to be applicable tomorrow, because things are changing so fast. So if you’re choosing a career in libraries—or in public libraries, in particular—I think the number one thing is to be adaptable. It’s also very important to understand that you’re working with the public. Sometimes I think people forget that working with the public is what we’re about here. We are here to serve the public and to give the community the services and the products that they want from us. It may be different today than it will be tomorrow—well, it will be different. So, you need to recognize that you’re working for the public, and also recognize that things are going to change.

To read more about Gutelius, the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library and her role of Library Director, click here.

Joel Friedman is a writer, editor, and web content consultant (http://jfcontent.com). He served for a brief time in 2010 as Deputy Director at NYLA and is proud to be a member of both NYLA and his local Friends of the Library.