Though some may think of librarians as stern, bookish and bespectacled, this is not the case with Jan Riley, head of the Vashon Library. Even as she is set to retire this Friday, Riley has exemplified the new model librarian, devoted to public service, adept with the latest technology for information gathering and flexible.
“If you’re going to work in the library world, you have to be open to change,” Riley said.
And, in her 32 years at the library, Riley has seen more than her share of change. In 1983, the King County Library System opened the Vashon branch and Jan Riley joined the staff. She still remembers the early computer system the young library used, called Ulysis.
“You could replace a book in the time it took for a prompt to come up,” she said.
Fast forward to today’s newly renovated Vashon Library, where both the technology and the atmosphere have changed dramatically.
“It’s not so quiet now,” Riley said as she recently perused the library’s bright and open new building. “It’s moved from being a simple collection of information to more of a community center.”
At the library, there are now children’s programs that include youthful exuberance over storytelling and research; adult programs that incorporate music and, as Riley puts it, there’s more freedom; it’s a more welcoming place.
“We’re small, and everyone working here is well-educated and tech savvy,” Riley boasted. She praised the library staff, indicating that each employee is “really good” at something.
“I can delegate work here and never be concerned that it won’t be done well,” she added.
In fact, the county library system shifted its staffing model in 2010, appointing Riley to the new operations supervisor position, with responsibility over the building, payroll, financials and general operations. The new model frees staff librarians to focus on programming and the branch’s collections, a move that works well in concert with the shift in the library’s community role.
Marion Comaskey, another longtime library staffer, will assume Riley’s position when she retires. She was chosen from 10 applicants, and Riley spoke highly of her.
“Marion will be a fabulous supervisor,” Riley said.
Riley has enjoyed her job for all 32 years, she said, from when she started at the front desk to her current leadership role. It’s work she believes matters.
“It’s definitely public service,” she said. “Frankly, to me, libraries are socialism at its best. They provide open access to information for all.”
While technology has changed libraries and broadened information access, Riley added, the policies haven’t changed much. In fact, technological change supports the philosophies of intellectual freedom and open access to information on which libraries were built.
That philosophy is one that suited Riley, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and graduated from University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University graduate school with degrees in English literature. She and her husband migrated to the Seattle area and fell in love with Vashon Island in 1977. They eventually settled into their current home on Maury Island, which they’ve morphed into the small but prize-winning Maury Island Winery.
“I love the community here; it’s a wonderful mix of people. We’ve made great friends here,” Riley said. And she plans to stick around after her retirement.
But she’s not letting any grass grow under her feet as they beat a path out the library door. While Riley says she’ll miss seeing all the regular library visitors and the changes in their lives, as well as her staff members, she admits she’s ready to let go of the responsibility — the building and the deadlines. During retirement, she plans to work in the tasting room at the winery, play piano, take art classes and travel.
Riley’s sunny personality and warm presence will likely be missed at the Vashon Library. More than any other employee there, Riley has witnessed and participated in every change the branch has seen, even surviving the long temporary location at the IGA plaza while the new facility was under construction. The new building opened last year.
“I was so happy to move into the new building,” she said. “It’s calm, pretty and peaceful here. People love working by the big windows, and the study rooms are perfect for those who need quiet.”
She says she’s grateful to the community for her great run at the Vashon Library.
“I’ll remember most enjoying all the people, the community and my coworkers,” she said. “You can’t get bored here because you’re always learning.”
A retirement celebration for Jan Riley will be held from 2 to 6 p.m. Friday, July 31, at the Vashon Library.