By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
After seven years as the director of the Lee County Library, Jan Willis will step down at the end of the month to take a new job in Memphis. Willis has led the library though enormous growth over the years. The Daily Journal’s Emily Le Coz asked him to reflect on that growth, as well as the changes yet to come.
Q: What role does the Lee County Library currently play in the community, and how has that role changed in the years since you took over as director?
A: In 2011, the library matters more than ever before. We are now truly the center of lifelong learning for everyone who comes through our doors, from preschool to seniors. Looking for a job? We put people back to work. For job-seekers who have to compete in a world in which even job applications are all online, we are a lifeline, thanks to our free broadband Internet access and our ability to guide people into that world to become proficient at the skills needed for workplace literacy. Are you in school? We’re here to help. Students of all ages have that same free access to online information here, whether it’s at one of our computers or our free wi-fi for a personal laptop.
To me, the library embraces the advantages of technology while still offering our traditional services, and we deliver it all to people with old-fashioned courteous, personalized customer service that’s hard to find nowadays.
Q: What do you see as the library’s most pressing challenge as we look ahead to the future?
A: I think there are actually three. First, to gain community support to either (a) expand and dramatically update our 40-year-old library in Tupelo or (b) build a new library specifically designed for the needs of our 21st century users. Second, to increase funding on a regular basis from the county, city and state so that we can (a) have the libraries in our system that our communities deserve and (b) reward and retain our staff members with long-needed raises, because it is their work ethic and attitude that makes us indispensable to our communities. Third, to continue to expand our online information services to everyone so that the majority of our community, which does not have home Internet access, can compete in this world.
Q: What do you most regret about leaving the library at this time and why?
A: I’m very lucky. Instead of regrets, I will take away a lifetime of happy memories of this library, the people with whom I’ve worked here and in the Dixie Regional system, and all the people I’ve been lucky enough to serve since I started as a student page 35 years ago in 1976. I love what I do, and I found out early that helping others makes me happy and a better person. With the memories I’ll take with me to Memphis, I’ll also have a chance every single day at my new school setting to make that same connection with each student I meet. I get to make a difference to others by just doing what I love to do. You can’t beat that.