Karla Trout grew up in a house without books.
When she first became a library director in late 2001, her own library card was expired.
Not only was she without library work experience, she hadn’t spent much time at all in libraries until she got to college.
She wasn’t even someone who read for pleasure.
Now, after nearly two decades in library management, Trout became the executive director of the Library System of Lancaster County on Jan. 2.
She took the place of Bonnie Young, who retired last year.
Previously, as the Palmyra Public Library’s director for 14 years, Trout oversaw the library’s move into a new building.
Most recently the director of the Adams County Library System for 2 1/2 years, Trout, 51, now oversees an organization that unifies and supports Lancaster County’s 17 library locations (plus the Bookmobile).
Among her duties are overseeing the library system staff and acting as an advocate at the county, state and federal level for the member libraries.
At the library system’s office on Colonial Village Lane, we sat down with Trout earlier this week — which happens to be National Library Week —to ask her about her background, her job and the challenges libraries face today.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How is the library system set up for Lancaster County?
There are basically two types of library systems in Pennsylvania — federated and consolidated. Dauphin County is a consolidated system. It has a single board of directors and it is a single library with branches that are at multiple locations.
Federated library systems — Lancaster County’s is one — are made up of individual independent organizations that have their own boards of directors, have their own executive director. But they agree, together, to be a library system, for qualifying for state aid, to share computer systems and delivery systems.
We do consolidated cataloging of materials for all the libraries. We support all the technology (for the libraries). We provide some human resources support and training. And we funnel both state and county money to the libraries.
And we provide some direct services — the Bookmobile, and an early learning school-readiness vehicle called the Be READy Rover (which provides programs and books) to home-based day care centers.
And we have a youth services person who puts together some programming for kids and coordinates the Summer Reading Program.
How did you get into library work?
I always like to say I stumbled and fell into it.
I have an associate’s degree in business administration and my bachelor’s degree is in human resource management.
I worked in health care management for a lot of years. And I had been downsized out of my job, managing a surgical practice, so for about three years I did consulting work.
The Palmyra Public Library was looking for a new library director (in 2001). They interviewed me, and said, “you don’t have any library experience, but we really like you.”
I said, “I’ll go do this for a period of time.” I wanted to give back to my own community.
I went in, I asked a lot of dumb questions and I rolled up my sleeves. And I said to the staff, “OK. I’m here to learn. Teach me what you do.” And they did. I stayed for 14 years.
And I found a love for libraries that has been long-standing. And the next year, I was able to enroll in ... and complete my master’s degree in library and information science (in 2005) at Clarion University and the rest, as they say, is history.
What is your library background?
I never had a love for libraries as a kid, because I had never been to libraries as a kid. I grew up in rural western Pennsylvania, and we didn’t have any libraries nearby. And my family wasn’t a family of readers. My parents were doers, and sitting down and reading a book was something they couldn’t figure out how to take time to do.
I was never read to as a child. I don’t ever once remember a book being read to me. And we didn’t have books in our house. I think we had an old set of encyclopedias from the year I was born ... and one story book.
I was a bright kid, thankfully. But I went into first grade at a major disadvantage, and was put in the remedial reading class. In second grade ... my school was smart enough to say, “Let’s take all the kids who we think have aptitude and put them all together.” By the end of second grade, I was at the same reading level as my class.
What was your early experience with public libraries?
I remember walking into a public library after I graduated from high school. I felt incredibly intimidated. I didn’t understand the filing system. I stayed for about five minutes. I never even looked at a book.
My mom never had a library card, because she was afraid. I recognize that. That’s something that I probably bring uniquely to librarianship, is that people can be afraid of libraries. They can feel intimidated. And they don’t need to be, because librarians are about the friendliest people there are.
When did you start to love books?
I was actually in my master’s program before I found a love for reading. I was taking a young adult literature class.
I remember reading this book, by (Pennsylvania author) Suzanne Fisher Staples, called “Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind.”
It was a book about the Pakistani desert and this nomad family who sold their daughter into marriage. And I just remember envisioning the camel’s bracelets that jingled on their legs so they wouldn’t lose the camels in a windstorm.
My life was changed by that book, and the fact that I was transported to the Pakistani desert in a way I didn’t know was possible. That was the beginning for me of this love for reading, and understanding what a book can do for you.
What kind of books do you like to read?
“Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind” is (still) my favorite book. I have become friends with (the author), and have told her how much her book changed my life. I like to read a lot of books that men love to read, particularly books like (those by) Clive Cussler, the historical military fiction. I love Harlan Coben and the deep suspense that he writes.
And I like mysteries. I like Lisa Scottoline. She’s a Pennsylvania author, as well. She has a series she has written about an all-female law firm in Philadelphia. It throws in a good mystery virtually every time.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing libraries?
Number one is money. Money makes the world go round in many ways.
And the perception still exists that libraries may not be relevant in the current age because of the internet. And that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think libraries are more relevant than ever.
In this current day and age, when you can get information anywhere, getting authoritative information is what libraries are so good at.
We’re information experts. We have people who are educated and who understand the difference between Googling something and getting 3 million hits and picking the first one and going to an authoritative source, where the information is vetted and you can trust it.
In this world of fake news, more than ever, you need someone who can tell you, “I know for a fact that this is true.”
The truth is that library use is the highest it’s ever been in history. Millennials are really embracing libraries. They are a group of people who have grown up in this world where we are isolated from one another. Loneliness is a big issue. So they embrace this thing I like to call alone together. You’re at the library, and maybe you’re doing a solitary activity, but there are other people around, and you don’t feel so isolated. They’re free gathering places.
(Another challenge is) the aging out of our library staffing population. We’re in a real transition time when a lot of people are starting to retire. It’s finding good people who are able to come and work for what we can afford to pay them.
Why should people support libraries?
There are very few places left in this world where you can go somewhere and it doesn’t matter what your economic status is. It doesn’t matter what your background is or what your family origin is. You can be accepted and you will get the same level of service, no matter what you have to offer.
Libraries are that one institution that levels the playing field for everyone. We’re the great protectors of intellectual freedom. We’re there to provide the balanced perspective ... on both sides of an issue. We like to think of ourselves, to a degree, as the protectors of democracy.