San Luis Obispo County Library Director Christopher Barnickel doesn’t fit into most librarian stereotypes. He’s male, he’s only 37 years old, he’s married to a ballet dancer, he loves to ride his motorcycle, and he doesn’t even wear glasses. At his core, though, Barnickel is passionate about public service and literacy—and he has big plans for the SLO County library system. In an interview with New Times, Barnickel discussed the intersection of print books and technology, the relationship between libraries and the homeless population, and much more.
NEW TIMES What inspired you to come out here from Kansas City, where you went to college and worked previously?
BARNICKEL My wife and I came to Cambria on vacation 10 years ago, and we fell in love with the Central Coast. Eventually, we decided that we wanted to live here. I saw the job posting [for the Assistant Library Director position], and I applied. I jokingly told Brian Reynolds [former director] that I wanted his job when I was interviewing, and he said, “You can throw your name into the pool, because I’ll be retiring soon.” There was no succession plan, it just happened that way after I was hired.
NEW TIMES You were assistant library director from February 2013 until the Board of Supervisors hired you to fill Brian’s spot on Nov. 7. Brian was library director here for more than 20 years, so is it intimidating to try to fill his shoes?
BARNICKEL No, I wouldn’t say it’s intimidating to try to fill his shoes. Brian left great things to build upon, but I have my own plans as well. I’m not filling a vacuum—we still have our excellent staff in place.
NEW TIMES What are your plans for the SLO County library system?
BARNICKEL Well, I have quite a few. For starters, I want to institute a better customer service model with more accessible hours, eliminate our $1 hold fee, and create a “floating collection” for the system where the marketplace determines what’s at a particular location. We have 15 branches here in the county, some of which are in remote locations with a small footprint. They have limited access, so I want to make the turnover of materials more consistent, which is easier to accomplish with technology. We’re paying a lot of money right now to move items back and forth between locations, and that’s not fully necessary. In a “floating collection” system, the community might have a bent for particular materials, and the marketplace determines what’s on the shelf.
NEW TIMES What are some of the major challenges for the system?
BARNICKEL One of the challenges is getting away from blanket solutions and customizing to communities’ individual needs. We need to be making sure that we’re balancing the needs of the general population with a limited budget. We may have 15 branches, but we only have an $8.5 million annual budget and 70.5 full-time-equivalent employees. Another challenge is the balance between providing what’s popular versus what we feel would better serve the community. Classics vs. pulp fiction or Tolstoy vs. Evanovich; so to speak. The last thing I’d say is a challenge is being open for the appropriate hours. It doesn’t help people if the library is open when they don’t need it to be. We’re going to be re-evaluating the most useful hours for our various branches in the coming months.
NEW TIMES How can libraries stay relevant in an era of diminished in-print, physical reading—when everyone always has an eye on their phones, computers, or tablets?
BARNICKEL Well, I think libraries are more human-based than these new technologies, even though the technologies are fantastic in their own right. A lot of people talk about digital vs. analog, and I’d say we at the library now provide the digital while still embracing the analog. The analog at libraries—whether that’s chatting with a librarian, children’s story time, joining one of our book clubs, or just human interaction—is very important, it’s free, and everyone is welcome. I think that’s unique in the community and in our times. We’re a place for dialogue and gathering, and we provide things that aren’t easily consumed—we don’t want to compete with Amazon or Netflix. The digital world is full of noise, and libraries can guide you to an individual signal. We want the library to be a third place, in addition to home and work, where people can congregate.
NEW TIMES Obviously, libraries are a valuable resource for homeless communities all around the nation. How do you remain sympathetic to homeless library users while also being sensitive to people who might not want to have libraries dominated by the homeless?
BARNICKEL That’s a great question, and it’s definitely an issue we grapple with quite a bit. I would say we provide a welcoming and safe environment. So, as long as you’re not interfering with the experience of others around you, you’re welcome in the library. That said, when we have body odor issues or if somebody is being loud or intimidating, we do handle those issues immediately. We work toward eliminating the stigma that comes with homelessness and mental illness, but not at the expense of those who share the library space. It’s definitely a challenge.
NEW TIMES To finish on a weird note, how do you feel about common library stereotypes or misconceptions?
BARNICKEL Well, there are a lot of them, whether it’s thinking we’re going to send you to the poor house with fines, that only women with their hair in buns can be librarians, that all libraries have to be perfectly silent, or we’re only a place for boring, old people. I think they’re funny, personally. I totally take my job seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously. I don’t even have enough hair on my head to make a bun! We librarians like to have fun and break conventional molds.
Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at [email protected].