Library leader still 'steady hand' after 30 years

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

Clayton County Library System Director Carol Stewart has been overseeing the county's libraries since before the library system even existed.

Shortly after Stewart was hired by the county's library board in 1980, to run its four library branches, she received orders from the board to break the county away from the Griffin-based Flint River Regional Library System.

At the time, Clayton County had branches in Jonesboro, Forest Park, Riverdale, and Morrow, but it was part of a larger system in which the decisions were being made outside of the county. Stewart was a county coordinator within the regional library system, which also included Henry, Fayette and Spalding counties. She had came from the DeKalb County Library System, where she had been a senior librarian at two branches for two-and-a-half years.

"They [the library board members] were not pleased with the services we were receiving from the [regional] library system," Stewart said. "They didn't feel like we were being served well when the decisions concerning our library branches were being made in Griffin."

A year after Stewart arrived in Clayton, the county's library system was born, and she became the first, and so far, the only person to serve as its director. Earlier this month, Stewart celebrated 30 years of running libraries in Clayton County. The occasion was marked on March 3, with a reception thrown at the Clayton County Library System's headquarters branch by the Clayton County Friends of the Library support group.

"She's had a very steady hand on the library system over the years," said Clayton County Friends of the Library President Brenda Mitchell, on Friday. "We have one of the best library system's in the state because of her leadership."

Before working in metropolitan Atlanta libraries, Stewart was a librarian in Memphis, Tenn., from 1973-1977. A native of Florida, she earned a bachelor's degree in English from Florida Atlantic University in 1971, and a master's degree in library science from Florida State University in 1973.

Mitchell said Stewart has been responsible for building up the county's library system, not only by breaking it out of the Flint River Regional Library System, but by also overseeing the construction of four branch locations. The system is made up of six branches.

According to Stewart, her first major accomplishment, after creating the Clayton County Library System, was overseeing the planning and construction of a new branch, the headquarters branch, which opened in 1988. "We needed a central, headquarters library branch," she said. "It made so much sense to have a larger, centrally located headquarters library, so you could have such a deeper collection of books. Rather than just having two or three books on a subject at each library branch, you can have six or seven books on that subject at the headquarters branch, and two or three books at the other branches.

"So, that was a huge, huge deal when we opened the headquarters branch," she added.

Stewart said she subsequently also planned and oversaw construction of replacement branches in Morrow (which opened on Maddox Road, in 1991), and Riverdale (which opened on Valley Hill Road, in 1997). She later oversaw the establishment of a Lovejoy branch, which opened in 2005. She is now planning the construction of a Forest Park replacement branch, which she expects to open in the fall of 2011.

Essentially, within a few years, the Jonesboro branch, located at the corner of Lee and Smith streets, will be the only library facility in Clayton County that was not built on Stewart's watch.

"She's had a great vision, and she's implemented that vision exceptionally well," Brenda Mitchell said.

Marilyn Mitchell (no relation to Brenda Mitchell), who has been on the Clayton County Library Board for the last 15 years, called Stewart "a wonderful asset to the library system," because of her constant desire to expand the library system. "Carol has just always wanted to extend it to every person in the county," she said.

Stewart admitted several of the branches opened on her watch are unconventional in design, sometimes resembling modern art with lots of windows and slanted roofs, but she said that was wanted when she approved their designs. The county's two oldest library buildings, Forest Park and Jonesboro are not always recognized as libraries, she said.

Stewart said some people have told her they thought the Jonesboro branch looked like a bank, instead of a library. The look of a library, she said, should "make a statement" and invite people inside, out of curiosity about the design.

"I wanted to have a distinctive library that was memorable, and would catch peoples' attention, so they would ask ‘What is that?' Stewart said.

Stewart has also overseen growth in the amount of materials available to the people of Clayton County during the last 30 years. She said the books and materials collection within Clayton County libraries has gone from approximately 170,000 items in 1980, to 477,420 items this year.

That includes new technology in the libraries, particularly computers. There were no computers used in libraries, at the time. Card catalogues were still being used to keep track of books. When a person checked out a book, a photographic image of the individual's library card, and a check-out card from the book had to be made, she said.

In the early 1980's, however, computers began to appear in Clayton County libraries, although they were for staff use only. The first public computers were introduced in the libraries in1996, with the Internet coming to the library's branches at the same time.

"It was dial-up, so we had all of these phone lines, because you had to have one phone line for each computer," Stewart said.

Now, the library system has 148 computers, and wireless Internet service, available for the public to use.

Despite leading the county's libraries for 30 years, Stewart said she does not see retirement on the horizon, yet. She still enjoys providing what she sees as an important service to the community. "It's something I think is such a positive component of government service," she said. "I have no intentions to retire anytime soon."