I have never read the book A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, but I feel that I am currently living my version of that title as the Executive Director of the Bristol Public Library. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” but most of the time, it’s simply amazing. I’m thrilled to work for the Bristol Public library system and to be part of a team of dedicated library professionals serving the citizens of two states.
Let me start by saying that before accepting this job, I spent nine years as Branch Manager of the Glade Spring Branch Library, a branch of the Washington County Public Library System in Washington County, Virginia. Prior to that, I started my library career as Teen Librarian for the Bristol Public Library System when I was fresh out of college. It wasn’t the job I had trained for, but I quickly discovered that librarianship was my calling.
This is all to let you know that while my experience as Branch Manager prepared me for many components of the administrative and managerial aspects of the Director position, most everything has been a learning experience for me. It is hard for me to know how much of the difficulty is unique to being answerable to two states and two cities, and how much is just the everyday problems of any library director. I have nothing to compare it to.
To give you some background, Bristol Public Library’s Main Branch is located at 701 Goode Street directly behind the aptly named State Street, which serves as the dividing line between Virginia and Tennessee. Although we are physically located on the Virginia side, we proudly serve both the City of Bristol, Virginia, and the City of Bristol, Tennessee. The famous Bristol sign crosses the street between the two states and proclaims that Bristol is “A Good Place to Live.” We also have the Avoca Branch Library, which is located down the road on the Tennessee side of town at 1550 Volunteer Parkway.
Standing over a photograph to demonstrate, the author straddles the line of Bristol, Virginia, and Bristol, Tennessee.
The Bristol Public Library is jointly owned by Bristol, Virginia, and Bristol, Tennessee. In fact, we were the first jointly owned property of the two cities. While both sides are to provide equal funding, there has been much discussion about the value of, say, maintenance and repair, snow removal, landscaping, etc. It is an ongoing challenge to determine responsibility for certain services and it is part of my duty as Executive Director to try and bring together the two City Managers to hammer out some of these details. I have been fortunate when approaching them individually for assistance in maintaining this fantastic facility, but the logistics of getting both to the same table have so far eluded me. I’m not going to stop trying, however!
While most Library Directors report to one Board of Supervisors or one City Council, I consistently report to both. I give quarterly reports at both the Virginia and Tennessee City Council meetings to update them on the success of the library, whether it is programming, circulation, and/or other statistical information and updates to our facility. These updates are essential to keep both City Councils informed about how their support directly affects our community and why the library is so vital to both cities.
The Bristol community benefits significantly from the library’s support from two states. For example, when Congress offered the $1.9 trillion relief package due to the impact of Covid-19, libraries and museums (via the Institute of Museum and Library Services) had access to $200 million through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant. With this assistance, we received a grant from both Virginia and Tennessee because we serve the citizens of both states. This type of scenario always involves more administrative work, but it is certainly worth it. We also have the expertise of librarians from two states to draw from, both at the local and the state level.
The other side of the coin is that we have to report to two cities and two states. Sometimes the standards differ, and in that case we always have to reach the higher standard. For example, if Tennessee required professional staff to have 25 hours of Continuing Education per year and Virginia required 24 hours, then we would meet the 25-hour standard. We have to gather more statistics for most of our endeavors, because the two states sometimes have different criteria. It can be a struggle to keep track of exactly what each state requires.
Ultimately, I do not mind working with two states and two City Councils. I find it to be challenging, unique, and even sometimes entertaining, but always rewarding. Because it’s not about the politics (even though a great deal of that exists), it’s about the people we serve—they are the reason for service, and they are the means to the end of all that “extra” work. My philosophy is that I’ll do whatever it takes to serve the community, no matter how many states I work with. It is my job to make it a priority for the cities, too, and I can only do that with the exceptional, competent, and brilliant staff that I work alongside. It’s a constant team effort.
-Tonia Kestner, Executive Director, Bristol Public Library