Tennessee native to lead library

Published 5:43 pm Tuesday, December 8, 2020

A self-professed bookworm from Tennessee will lead the Blackwater Regional Library starting in January.

Ben Neal is from the Knoxville area, and his education and career brought him to Hampton Roads a few years ago. His opportunity to lead is a homecoming of sorts, as he previously managed the regional library’s Smithfield branch before moving to his current position at Portsmouth’s main library.

Now he’ll lead an organization with about 40 full and part-time employees, nine branches and a Bookmobile. The regional library serves the counties of Isle of Wight, Surry, Southampton and Sussex and the city of Franklin.

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Neal said libraries in smaller communities serve a role not just as informational resources and places to connect to the internet but as all-around cultural and recreation centers, where the community connects, engages and relaxes.

“I get this question a lot: why do you need a library when you can go to Dunkin’ Donuts with your laptop and use their wi-fi?” Neal said. The problem with that, he explained, is that assumption presumes everyone has reliable, fast internet access, a device to access the web and the willingness and ability to go somewhere where they might have to pay for a meal for wi-fi access.

“I grew up in a small town in Tennessee, so the Western Tidewater area is a place that feels very familiar to me, even though I didn’t grow up here,” Neal said. Regardless of where you live, libraries are more relevant than ever, especially in the COVID-19 era, he added.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Neal noted that the Blackwater libraries have been offering drive-in events, virtual storytimes broadcast on social media and grab-and-go craft bags that kids and families can take home to enjoy.

When the pandemic emerged this spring, the regional library system was closed from mid-March through mid-June, interim library director Bonnie Lauver said. Upon reopening, the library implemented a preparedness and response plan to keep patrons and staff safe during the coronavirus. The library is currently open for regular hours of operation with social distancing and enhanced cleaning measures. Visitors to the library who are age 5 and up are asked to wear a mask.

“While the library is operating at a somewhat normal capacity, we are not offering in-house programs and our meeting rooms are closed. Take and make craft activities, Storytime to Go, and STEAM kits are offered throughout the system to continue the tradition of education and recreation the library is so well known for,” Lauver said. “We feel these activities are important to our patrons and offer some stress relief during this time of isolation.”

Neal echoed that sentiment.

“While we still provide the traditional library services — free books, DVDs, research materials — what we do and what we offer is a lot more than the accumulation of our collections,” he said. “Libraries play an important role in the social infrastructure of any community, providing experiences and socialization. Of course, that’s a little bit more challenging right now.”

Lauver has been with the library for 23 years. She was previously assistant director and will resume that position once Neal starts his job next month. Neal lauded previous director Jenny Bakos, who stepped down last year, for building a great foundation of programs and service to the community. Lauver,  “as interim director, has done a tireless job as well, so I feel like I’m stepping into a wonderful situation,” he said.

The Blackwater Regional Library Board of Trustees unanimously chose him for the position. Neal received a master’s degree in library science in 2011 from Indiana University Bloomington. In addition to Portsmouth and Smithfield, Neal has also worked in public libraries in Tennessee and South Carolina.

Away from work, Neal said he enjoys farmers markets and outdoor walks. Windsor Castle Park, he said, is one of his favorite places to visit. Neal also said he’s very passionate about mental health awareness.

“I really enjoy helping people and that’s always been very important,” he said, as is “treating people on a very human level and doing things the right way.”

Although the libraries are open, Neal said he understands that everyone may not feel comfortable coming inside. “So we’re still offering curbside services for people who feel more comfortable with us bringing [items] out to their car.”

Looking ahead at what the library plans to offer in the future, “we’re always going to be experimenting with different ways to provide those services and to adapt those services. Some of those will be more successful than others, but we’ll always be trying to reach people and make it work for them,” Neal said.