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Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 12, 2019 10 months ago

Ready for the next chapter: Sarabeth Kalajian reflects on career with Sarasota County libraries

Kalajian's career spans 35 years, though it began with a chance encounter.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

When most people picture a librarian, the image of an older woman with pursed lips and a well-practiced forefinger springs to mind.

In Sarasota County, however, librarygoers are greeted with smiling faces and helpful hands, a demeanor that some say stems from the woman who has run the operation for the past 13 years.

Sarabeth Kalajian, director of Sarasota County Libraries and Historical Resources, will retire at the end of the month after 35 years with the Sarasota County library system.

Friends and colleagues say her knowledge, passion and enthusiasm for libraries has helped the Sarasota County system see so many accomplishments.

“She has such a persistence and determination about her, and she does it all with a smile on her face and never an angry word,” said Library Foundation

Executive Director Sue Seiter. “That’s how she’s been able to affect so much change — with a smile on her face and steel in her back.”

But Kalajian wasn’t always at the top of the library system. She worked her way up after falling into library work by chance.

Kalajian started her career in journalism at a television station in Champaign, Ill., and eventually managed the radio and TV stations at the University of Evansville. While she was there, Kalajian was able to take free classes and began working toward a master’s degree in education with an emphasis on reading theory and school media services.

Soon after, Kalajian got a job as an adjunct professor for the University of South Florida and moved to Sarasota, where a serendipitous encounter led to her start in library work.

“I was having some work done on my car and was talking to the person sitting next to me who was waiting, getting her car fixed,” Kalajian said, smiling at the memory. “She was talking about a vacancy at the Venice Public Library, and I thought: ‘Well, I’ve never worked in public libraries before. That might be interesting.’ So I applied.”

Kalajian got her first job working in the children’s department in 1984 in creating programming and coordinating with the local schools. She then moved to the then-new Selby Library in 1998, where, from her desk, she could watch children “stop and stare in awe” at the aquarium.

In 2002, Kalajian became the manager of the Fruitville Library, and in 2006, she stepped into the role of director of libraries and historical resources.

“At first I though, ‘Oh, I’ll try this out for a few years and see how I like it.’ Well, you know, it’s 30 years later, and I’m still here,’ she said with a chuckle.

Throughout her tenure, the library saw a digitization of resources, the installment of a Library Foundation in 2012 and the addition of four libraries. She worked through turbulence, such as Sunday closures for all libraries and the discovery of mold in the Venice Public Library, which led to the opening of the William H. Jervey, Jr. Venice Public Library. Additionally, two libraries — Selby and Jacaranda — will again offer Sunday hours starting in January 2020.

One of her favorite accomplishments, however, remains the opening of the Fruitville Library and the creation of its community reading garden.

Children can enjoy reading and exploring in a cabin in the gardens at the Fruitville Library.

“I think one can easily say there’s still a really interesting community dynamic out there with ranchers and fruit groves. We had people from all different groups help make that project happen,” she said. “All the things that people see today in the garden are a result of this incredible collaboration.”

Another of her favorites is 

Another of her favorites is also one of Seiter’s favorites: the installment of creation stations in each library. 

Seiter said Kalajian’s will to bring the stations to Sarasota and her tenacity in approaching donors is what made them possible.

“She just holds an audience in her hand. She has such a lovely manner as well as being so knowledgable,” Seiter said. “Even after 30-plus years, she’s so enthusiastic about libraries and their potential to help create a better life for each person who uses them.” 

County administrator Jonathan Lewis said that although Kalajian has accomplished much in terms of buildings and initiatives, what impresses him most about her is the care and effort she puts into staff development.

Each year, Kalajian shuts down  library operations for one day to host a staff

development day.

“She carries the idea that the employees who work for us and who we get to work with are the really important asset that we’re dealing with,” Lewis said. “If we take care of that part of it, and we’re giving them the right experiential development, and we care about them and who they are, then it’s going to be a lot easier for them to care about the community.”

Although she’s in her last few weeks on the job, Kalajian isn’t slowing down. Before she leaves, she’s focused on helping the new director transition into the role, meeting with the County Commission over funding and implementing a new student library card. 

Although Kalajian said she would miss the staff, she is excited for the next chapter. Her immediate plans? Catching up on yard work, traveling to New England to see family and, of course, reading.

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