Earlier this year, Oscar Gittemeier had applied to be the Teton County Library director. While researching the library during the hiring process, he turned to a now ubiquitous tool — social media.
He saw staff dressed in unicorn costumes, or giving bilingual readings (or both). He saw something that isn’t taught in library sciences programs: passion.
“Just the pure joy that is being expressed from staff, that’s lightning in a bottle,” he said. “To find that in staff, I mean, that’s everything.”
Gittemeier got the job. The same joy and skill he saw in the staff, the library board, which is tasked with hiring and overseeing the director, saw in him.
“Oscar’s positive, optimistic energy, creativity and broad experience regarding innovation distinguished himself from the other candidates,” Board Chairman Mark Hendrickson wrote in an email to the News&Guide.
Hailing from the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System in Georgia, Gittemeier brings a wealth of experience in creating programming. He held several titles during his 12 years with the Fulton County system, including adult outreach librarian and branch manager.
He takes the helm during a tumultuous period for the library, which has been closed to the public for months, operating instead through digital lending and curbside pickup. After weeks of discussion with staff and a couple of special board meetings, the library has a plan that could allow it to open the building as soon as late August (see sidebar).
One positive Gittemeier finds in the uncertainty of the pandemic is his staff members’ penchant for innovation. Even if the library board approves the reopening plan, some people still won’t feel comfortable visiting the stacks.
For them, library staff has created a “curated virtual browsing experience.”
“If you know you’re really interested in Westerns or mysteries or what have you,” Gittemeier said, “you let us know that, and we’ll actually walk the aisles with you digitally with an iPad, and we’ll pull things out and make recommendations for you.”
Working with a team that creates those types of innovations is part of what brought Gittemeier to Jackson. He uses a great deal of superlatives to describe the role of libraries in a community, and he sees dedication to that responsibility in Teton County.
The pandemic has made it difficult to provide libraries’ essential functions, he said. As part of the “foundation of democracy,” the institutions offer public space and information to whoever needs them, but with the doors closed, the library hasn’t been able to offer public space, even though many of its resources are available in digital forms.
In addition to the pandemic, Gittemeier is leading a library that has seen a high level of turnover in recent years, both in leadership and staff. He is the sixth director in the past four years, counting interim replacements, and that sort of upheaval makes creating staff culture nearly impossible.
“It’s really hard with that much turnover to have everyone have, not just their needs met, but their concerns listened to,” he said.
Since arriving in mid-July, he has been meeting with staff individually. He said he’s listening to their concerns and hoping to build something positive by incorporating their ideas and showing them the library can be a place they can work for a long time.
That kind of thinking is why the library board chose Gittemeier.
“Of course a strong culture is important to all of us … we can advise the director, but the director has the very important and key responsibility of directing culture,” Hendrickson wrote. “We believe Oscar is an ideal candidate to do such.”
Even though he has his work cut out for him, Gittemeier is happy to be in Jackson with a staff of dedicated people he feels ready to support.
“You have people that are deeply passionate about the work that they do,” he said. “Then all you’ve got to do is sort of channel that energy and make sure they have the resources they need to do really great, impactful work.”