Melanie Huggins is always quick to offer help to patrons at the library, but usually ends up steering them to a librarian.
Truth is, Huggins said, she’s really not a very good librarian anymore.
Instead, she’s CEO of one of the biggest and most popular nonprofits in Columbia, with a staff of 400 people spread over 11 libraries, a $24 million annual budget – and resounding public support for a systemwide expansion that gets underway next year.
Huggins, who came home in 2009 to become director of the Richland Library, may not be familiar to people who stop by the landmark library to get help looking for work, try their hand at filmmaking or just check out a book.
But those who work with her say she’s an innovator who is expanding the library’s reach and relevance.
Huggins, 44, grew up in West Columbia. She landed a job at the library the first time after getting a bachelor’s degree in studio art at Winthrop University – and waiting tables for three years.
The job in the children’s room of the then-new library along Columbia’s Assembly Street would change her direction. She quickly enrolled as a graduate student in library science, going on to work in Charlotte and St. Paul, Minn.
Huggins began studying library science at a time when computer technology wasn’t even a part of the coursework. “We were talking about how to change light bulbs in overhead projectors,” she said.
But her tenure has been marked by enthusiasm for a changing mission.
When Huggins was interviewing for the job four years ago, board chairman Bob Gahagan said he asked a longtime administrator if there was anything about Huggins that was bothersome.
“She said, ‘Well, she did tell us that libraries are not just about books,’” said Gahagan, a former IBM executive who is now a consultant in educational technology.
Within months of being hired, Huggins landed a $500,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to establish a job center that has expanded into much of the third floor of the downtown library. It now has 51 computers and classes led by librarians and career coaches on such topics as establishing an online presence for job searches and one-on-one opportunities to brush up on interview skills. It has served thousands of people in the past three years.
When Susan Benton visited the Columbia library as head of the Urban Libraries Council, she was impressed to see mannequins clothed in business attire, serving as an example for how to dress for a job interview.
Now Huggins, as chairwoman of the board of directors for Urban Libraries, a think tank on library programming and technology, is working with publishers to get affordable ebooks for public libraries.
“She’s very smart. She’s an excellent communicator and she’s great at building relationships,” Benton said. “It’s everything you would want in a leader at this point in time in our communities.”
Huggins is known for collaborating with other local organizations – from the Columbia Housing Authority to the Nickelodeon movie theater and the United Way. Partnerships help share resources and save money.
“She’s great at connecting the dots,” said Tony Tallent, the library’s director of literacy and learning, a position Huggins created.
Huggins has engaged research librarians – some of the smartest people in town – to develop the library’s reputation as a problem-solving organization, Tallent said.
“Melanie has a really good and keen eye and ear for doing the right thing, because she thinks about people first,” he said. “It’s not about products. It’s not about rules. It’s, ‘What can I do to help this person who’s in front of me.’”
The result has been a pre-kindergarten reading program at the Gonzales Garden housing complex; a mini-library of children’s books at the EdVenture children’s museum; and the expansion of Wi-Fi access from the library to the Columbia Museum of Art.
The Nickelodeon, an art movie house on nearby Main Street, holds classes at the library with high school students creating and editing documentary films, while library staff comes to the theater armed with their equipment to hold workshops on stop-motion animation, Nickelodeon director Andy Smith said.
“I, over the last couple of years, have come to see the library as the leading nonprofit organization in town,” Smith said. “They seem to have an eye for innovation.”
Mac Bennett, director of the United Way, said 20 to 25 people who work at the library – including the director – volunteer in a tutoring program dedicated to boosting the reading skills of children before they reach fourth grade.
“I don’t think she looks at libraries as being books and stacks as much as she looks at libraries being a way to provide resources,” he said. “It really is a breath of fresh air.”
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.