WILLIAMSBURG — Betsy Fowler, the Williamsburg Regional Library Director who recently announced her plan to retire at the end of the year, reflected on her long career and the changes she has seen in that time.
Fowler loved books from a young age, coming from a family of readers. She remembered as a child, her mother used to take her to storytime at the library — located right by her childhood home in Manassas — and how she’d walk every day to the library and get a book.
“I didn’t really think about becoming a librarian until I was out of college and I had had a paid federal internship at the National Archive,” Fowler recalled. “I had majored in history and art history and I needed a temporary job. There was an ad in the newspaper for a bookmobile driver and I thought, well, I can do that temporarily.”
Once she had the job, she found she loved working in the library.
Caught up in what she found to be a compelling form of public service, she stayed with the library for 28 years. She became the manager of a small branch of the library after a few months driving the bookmobile, and then, as the suburban D.C. library system began to rapidly grow, became the Coordinator of Branch Services. It was there she began to hone her skills and experience to become a director.
“It’s not always easy but it’s endlessly fascinating,” Fowler said. “You get the opportunity to work with a lot of different people on a lot of different types of projects. Libraries have continued to evolve rapidly over the last few decades and the public service part of the job stays the same but the application has changed.”
Fowler began her career with card catalogs and date stamps used for due dates. Nothing was automated and computers weren’t utilized in the library before the internet.
“Prior to [the internet] we were where everyone came to get information on everything,” Fowler explained. “If you were going to pick out a dog breed, if you were getting a divorce, if you were landscaping your house, if you were doing a history on Westward expansion —you came to the library.”
“We would do so many reference questions on Saturdays that we would wear sneakers and run and try to have six or seven different people around the building and go back and forth to help them, so it was very intensive provision of information,” she added.
With the introduction of the Internet, the library shifted to a place that helped people who didn’t have access to the Internet get access. Bill Gates gave grants for public libraries to have public computers for the first time, allowing them to help people access information in different ways.
“Now it’s a lot more focused on community building, creating content, and connecting people and providing a civic space,” Fowler said. “Information is still part of that, but it has really shifted in different ways in terms of how we provide information equity.”
“Now it’s evolved even further, with things like providing the renovated children’s room, and just providing a place for families to learn and grow in ways that encompass books but that’s not all it encompasses. It includes hands-on learning, makerspaces, and children’s museum types of spaces. So it’s all types of learning and not just reading,” Fowler continued.
Fowler’s favorite books are “To Kill a Mocking Bird” and “The Great Gatsby.” Both have lines that have come back to her later in life. She’s most looking forward to getting to spend more time with loved ones in her retirement.
Fowler spent the last six years at the helm of WRL. As she plans for retirement, the library is continuing to raise funds to move forward with a natural landscape playground. It is also working on plans for a new library building in Williamsburg, and while a design has yet to be decided on, the space is still being prepared and updating according to needs. And a new recording and podcast studio is being installed in James City County Library thanks to a Friends of the Library grant.
“We’ve been able to do a lot of things the last several years,” Fowler said of the library’s more recent activities. “Even though the pandemic was kind of a major interruption, it was also a time of innovation in terms of developing services as a result.”
When Fowler arrived, she saw that the library had a very strong foundation and was historically well-used, well-supported, and well-financed. She noted the value of volunteer help and the dedication of the library staff.
“This library is a creation of this entire community,” Fowler states. “Whether it’s through tax dollars or volunteer hours or supplemental donations — they’ve put a lot of investment in this library and I think that’s why this is such a fine library system.”
“I’m really grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to come here and work and work with a lot of wonderful people and meet a lot of people. It’s been a wonderful time.”
For more information about the Williamsburg Regional Library and what it offers, visit its official webpage.