Joan Airoldi didn't want a party or any other big to-do when she retired Friday, Jan. 4, from her decade-long position as head of the Whatcom County Library System.
"It's not about me," she said Wednesday while sitting in her office on Northwest Drive. "It's about the future and the library."
Airoldi has helped form that future since starting as library director for the county system in 2002.
As for her future after the library, Airoldi said she's looking forward to volunteering and giving back to the community - including serving on the board of Whatcom Literacy Council. But beyond that, well, that will have to wait. She's been too busy.
"I honestly don't know what to say because I'm totally and completely focused on trying to have a smooth transition for the library and to complete the major items on my to-do list," Airoldi said. "That's what I'm focused on. That's as far as I've gone at this point."
As for her no-party request, including that any money that would have been spent on such a celebration or gifts and cards instead go to the Whatcom County Library Foundation, "That's Joan all over," said Catherine Sarette, Children's Services coordinator for WCLS.
"She's a modest person. She's all about giving to the library. She's all about giving to the community through the library," Sarette added.
In fact, it was Airoldi who provided the seed money for the foundation. In 2005, she was awarded a $25,000 First Amendment Award by the PEN/Newman Foundation for intellectual freedom. She donated all of it to the foundation.
That award stemmed from the library system successfully fighting an FBI request for the names of all patrons who had checked out a book about Osama bin Laden, in which someone had written a quote from bin Laden in the margins. Airoldi and board of trustees argued that the request infringed upon readers' First Amendment rights and would have a chilling effect on patrons' borrowing practices.
Looking back, Airoldi said she doesn't want to "bad-mouth the FBI," but she was proud that the library stood up for privacy within the scope of the law.
The search is on to find a new library director. A committee will meet next week to narrow the list of 39 candidates to decide who will be interviewed. A new library director could start by April. Meanwhile, two library employees will share interim director duties.
The Whatcom County Library System has 160-plus employees and an annual budget of about $7 million. It provides services through nine branch libraries outside of Bellingham, a bookmobile, homebound services, outreach and its website.
Airoldi began her duties in Whatcom County on Oct. 1, 2002, after eight years as director of the eight-county, 29-branch Northern Waters Library Service system in Wisconsin.
She is paid $110,652 annually.
"I'm very, very sorry she's leaving. I hope we get someone equally brilliant. She goes the extra mile," Sarette said.
Ask Airoldi for her greatest accomplishment as library director and she'll reply thoughtfully: "I would say it was building trust with the staff and encouraging them to have the stamina to survive all the changes through recognizing that we have to learn every day in order to do the best job we can for the people of Whatcom County."
Her greatest challenge? "Making sure to always hire the right people. If you hire the right people, everything else will be just fine."
Among the efforts she's proud of are Talk Time at a number of branches to allow participants to learn and practice English; Whatcom READS!, which encourages all county residents to read the same book and create a countywide book club experience; as well as the continuing collaboration with Bellingham Public Library.
Airoldi also takes note of the new North Fork Community Library, and efforts to build or renovate libraries in Ferndale, Sudden Valley, Point Roberts, Lummi Island and Blaine - all made possible through community partnerships.
Such efforts earned praise from Deb Lambert, chairwoman of the library system's Board of Trustees.
"What I really appreciated about Joan is she really looks toward the good and the future of the whole organization," Lambert said. "She's a people person. She's a systems person. She wants to make sure that our library will succeed and meet the needs of the public and, of course, our employees into the future."
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