When Tonya Kennon’s fiancé accepted a local position in the intelligence community, she set out to find a new job on the East Coast that would let her expand on her career — which was serving as a library director on the West Coast.
The approach that was being practiced by outgoing Howard County Library System president and CEO Valerie Gross — known as “Libraries = Education” — stood out to Kennon as she decided where to apply.
Now, the 47-year-old Southern California native finds herself directing Howard County’s library system, one that is not unlike the one she left behind in her hometown of Riverside.
So, how does Kennon plan to balance continuity with innovation to put her own stamp on a library system many people already view as top-notch?
“When I was doing research on this position, and also during the interview process, the question of what was in line here with my own beliefs came up,” said Kennon, who is renting a home in Harper’s Choice with her fiancé, Anthony Aikens.
She said the county system’s philosophy aligns so well with her own belief in libraries’ power to transform lives that she isn’t planning “an upheaval.”
Instead, she will “continue to build on what’s already in place, which is absolutely thriving and responsive,” in part by directing more attention to shaping learners for the jobs of tomorrow through the library’s HiTech classes and events.
Kennon inherits a library system that is on the verge of completing a seven-year, $100 million expansion and renovation project of all six branches and its administrative headquarters. The project will account for 142,000 square feet of additional space when it wraps up this year.
The project kicked off with the $29 million Miller Branch Library and Historical Center, which opened in December 2011 in Ellicott City. The $33 million Elkridge Branch Library and DIY Education Center opened in March, leaving the small renovation effort underway at the Glenwood Branch Library as the final phase of the systemwide project.
A library budget of $20.9 million for fiscal year 2019 — a $628,000 increase over the current budget — was included in the $1.6 billion request presented by County Executive Allan Kittleman to the County Council on April 20, three days before Kennon reported to work.
However, Kennon did testify at a county budget hearing on April 25, her third day on the job, said Louise Riemer, who also spoke at the public session as chairwoman of the library’s seven-member board of trustees.
“Tonya came at a good time as she’ll be in on the ground floor with a brand new budget,” said Riemer, a 27-year county library employee who retired in 1996 as head of outreach services under longtime library chief Marvin Thomas.
Riemer said Kennon “just shone for me” during the lengthy selection process that began last year with a pool of 26 potential candidates.
“Tonya is down-to-earth and open to suggestions,” Riemer said. “There’s also a sense that she’ll hold the fort for now.”
The Riverside Public Library that Kennon led for seven years serves a city of 314,000 with a main library and seven branches. That’s comparable to the six facilities that serve 321,000 Howard County residents, according to a July 2017 population estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Kennon said her new job has a familiar feel, but that wasn’t what attracted her to the position.
“The vision of the library, board and staff — that’s what was appealing,” she said.
Kennon spent the day last Tuesday getting more closely acquainted with staff members at the library system’s annual Professional Development Day, during which all branches were closed to the public.
She planned to share stories with them about her life, including that she has a fraternal twin sister named Tanya. And yes, she said with a laugh, life was — and still is — complicated when your twin’s name is only one letter different from your own.
Kennon also said she is a big NBA fan who follows the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors, loves jazz, and is looking for a women’s book club to join.
One of her favorite stories involves her first library job when she was a senior at Rubidoux High School in Riverside.
“I was a library page, so I put books away,” she said. “But I got to see the transformation of community members [who regularly used the library] and found that every day there was a different day.
“I began thinking to myself that I really want to be a part of this,” she recalled, “and that feeling never went away.”
Today, Kennon favors a concept called Asset-Based Community Development, which focuses on multiplying the assets within a community instead of working to correct deficiencies.
Applying the concept to libraries makes a lot of sense, Kennon said, since they are what she calls “bumping places” — community locations where people bump into one another.
“Some of this is already underway here, but I want to find out more about resources,” she said.
Kennon also emphasized the positive economic impact a good library system has on a community.
“Libraries give a great return for our tax dollars by benefiting and uplifting residents, and they’re not going away with the advent of the internet,” she said.
“It’s long been said that libraries are the people’s university, and that’s what this [library system] is.”