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February 05, 2024

Grey Highlands new chief librarian cares about strengthening communities

Eleni Hughes

BY JOHN BUTLER — What makes an exceptional librarian? Eleni Hughes, Grey Highlands Public Library’s new Chief Executive Officer and Chief Librarian, says that a desire to know and understand people is more important than the love of books. She also says a good librarian helps create spaces and opportunities where everyone is welcome and able to participate — an essential aptitude in our increasingly diverse society. As the daughter of a Greek-born father and a mother of Greek heritage, Eleni has seen first-hand the good that emerges from melding diversity and inclusion. She also believes that a librarian should possess the passion and skills necessary to help individuals and organizations to work together to build community.

People. Community. Education. These are the three drivers of Eleni’s career. She took on the role as Grey Highlands’ Chief Librarian in December 2023. “Eleni brings to Grey Highlands a high level of leadership competence, and a track record of team-driven innovation,” said Library Board Chair Stewart Halliday in announcing her appointment.

Teaching was Eleni’s first foray into the world of knowledge dissemination. After earning a teaching degree, she taught as a supply teacher for the school board in her home town of Windsor. She greatly admired the teaching profession, but she felt her own path would lead her to teach beyond school system boundaries. Unsure of her next step, she bought and managed a coffee shop in Windsor with a clientele largely 65 and older. This entrepreneurial experience convinced her that serving and helping people in their own community settings was what she wanted to do. One of her customers suggested to her that work as a librarian would likely meet her need to weave education, people-service and community service together.

A conversation with a school librarian convinced her that her customer’s suggestion made sense. Starting in 2004, she pursued a two year library science master’s degree at Wayne State University in nearby Detroit, balancing this with the birth of her first child and the creation of an innovative business with her husband, selling environmentally friendly products. ‘I learned pretty quickly that I was good at multitasking” said Eleni with a smile, “a skill that has helped me greatly in my library work.”

For the next six years after this education, Eleni worked as a librarian with the Windsor Public Library, followed by a stint with the Kitchener Public Library and, starting in 2013, ten years with the Guelph Public Library.

Eleni says a highlight of her career so far has been management of the Guelph Library’s community bookmobile service that provides library services in a wide range of community settings including long-term care facilities, children’s summer camps, daycare centres and community events. Creating and sustaining the partnerships that made these “out there” services possible was immensely rewarding, says Eleni. “Working in the community and with the community goes hand in hand with working for the community” she says.

Eleni also says her time as a team leader at the Windsor Library taught her the power of libraries when they are embedded in the community. In that position she set up a part-time branch in a low income housing complex and witnessed families, and especially children, become much more engaged in library activities than they had been able to before the branch opened. “It was because the Windsor Pubic Library went fine-free that families on limited incomes felt comfortable using the library’s resources” says Eleni.

When asked to predict the future of libraries, Eleni says they will always change as society changes, making libraries among our most responsive social resources. As social gaps appear, libraries will continue to bridge the gaps. Eleni cites literacy competence, and creating citizen access to information technologies and training, as only two of many examples of social bridging that libraries will carry into their future. She continues to believe in the power of the written word and thinks that books will remain at the core of libraries’ educational and recreational mandates, but libraries will give even greater emphasis in the future to their role as free and accessible community spaces.

Eleni looks forward to moving from the Guelph area to Grey Highlands with her husband and their daughter and son, both teenagers. In addition to the challenges of managing a three-branch library system, this area appeals to Eleni’s love of the environment — an area where she and her family can readily pursue their interest in jogging, hiking, camping and kayaking.

Her favourite book? At the top of Eleni’s list is Water for Elephants, a meticulously researched 2006 novel by Vancouver-born author Sara Gruen, set in a second-rate travelling circus during the Great Depression. It’s a love story, and also a story about caring, learning and teaching within a unique community of kindred souls on the move.

Not a surprising choice, given Eleni’s commitment to caring community life.

 


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