Schenectady

Beginning a new chapter: Schenectady County Library System executive director set to retire

Schenectady County Library System Director Karen Bradley, set to retire after 21 years with the library, 10 as director, in the children’s section at the Karen B. Johnson Library in Schenectady on April 20.
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Schenectady County Library System Director Karen Bradley, set to retire after 21 years with the library, 10 as director, in the children’s section at the Karen B. Johnson Library in Schenectady on April 20.

SCHENECTADY – As renovations are coming to a close at the Glenville Branch Library, Karen Bradley’s time spent working for the Schenectady County Library system is coming full circle. 

Before Bradley began working for the county library system in 1999, she sat on a committee to determine renovations for the Glenville branch, which broke ground in July 1989.

“I had a perm back then,” Bradley recalled recently, laughing as she remembered how her Daisy Girl Scout Troop helped that day. 

Thirty-three years later, Bradley is retiring Friday as the library system’s executive director, having overseen the latest round of renovations at the Glenville branch as one of her final major efforts.

“Never in my wildest imagination when I did that and volunteered did I ever imagine that some day I was going to be the director of this county library system and now see the renovation of that library,” she said sitting inside the Swanker Room at the Karen B. Johnson Library on April 22. 

Bradley, who has both a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of Saint Rose and a master’s degree in library science from the University at Albany, started working for the county in the winter of 1999 as a substitute librarian. She eventually became full time and then, in October 2012, following the retirement of Andrew Kulmatiski, she took over as director.

During her tenure at the helm of the system, Bradley has worked through the closure of one branch and openings of two others, renovations of all the other branches, the COVID-19 pandemic and, most recently, the elimination of late fines for past-due materials. 

One doors closes, two open

A little over a year into the director position, Bradley had to deal with one of her first major tests of her career – the closure of the Hamilton Hill branch, which was also home to the literacy center. 

Bradley knew the neighborhood needed a library and set out to find a new location. Eventually, in 2016, the county opened the Phyllis Bornt Branch and Literacy Center on State Street.

“In a neighborhood that often loses services and rarely benefits from investment, Karen made certain that didn’t happen when it came to literacy,” said Kaela Wallman, the Youth Services Librarian for the county. “She spent many nights and weekends at community meetings to survey and listen to what residents wanted from their library. The list of community partner relationships she built and stories she heard would stretch around Schenectady many times.” 

Bradley calls the opening of the Bornt Branch one of her biggest accomplishments. 

“It was just an incredible success story,” Bradley said. “It was beyond anything we ever could have imagined.”

She said it helped ignite more improvements for the long-struggling Hamilton Hill and Vale neighborhoods. The impact of the Bornt Branch also set in motion plans to build the Mont Pleasant location, which opened in May 2019. 

Looking back now, the closure of the Hamilton Hill branch and, in turn, openings of two new locations were just a couple of the challenges Bradley has faced. The most recent obstacle was when the libraries shut down and then shifted gears during the onset of the pandemic in 2020.

The pandemic

Somewhere in the bottom of a drawer, county Legislator Gary Hughes still has the hand-sewn Schenectady Strong facemask Bradley made for him during the pandemic. Bradley, amongst all the other tasks she took on during the pandemic, began sewing masks to raise funds for COVID-19 relief. 

When Hughes tried to pay her, she refused, noting that it was the least she could do since he over the years helped the community in many ways.

“She’s just like that,” Hughes said. 

He said Bradley took on whatever came her way – no questions asked. 

When the pandemic hit, the county closed the libraries, but rather than sending all the staff home, the county asked them to step in and help. So Bradley said she got on the phone to whoever she could and asked them to hear out what the county had to say. 

That’s how many of the library system’s staffers became contact tracers, helped with food giveaways and then eventually helped with the vaccine pods, including having the first one at the main branch in downtown Schenectady.

“She just was so gung-ho on that, she just got right into that,” Hughes said.

It was much like what the library staff do during the day, Bradley said.

“We have calls here all day, every day,” she said. “People need everything, like ‘Can you do my taxes for me?’ You name it, we get calls for it.”

In some cases, people recognized the library staff person’s voice.  

“You felt like you were doing something and helping people and it’s what we do every day,” she said. “We’re about breaking down barriers.” 

Breaking barriers

Providing access to services and programs has been a continuing goal of Bradley’s throughout her career. One way she has continued to do that is through various programs the library has offered or taken part in, such as having staff trained in the Bridges out of Poverty Program through the City Mission and Schenectady Foundation. 

The program training enables people to understand the barriers that people from under-resourced backgrounds face and what can be done to break down barriers and enable them to get to sustainable lives, according to the Schenectady Foundation website. 

The most recent roadblock the library took down was late fines for past-due materials. That began April 1. 

The system has about 12,000 cardholders who have a balance of $5 or greater in fines. That represents about 26% of all cardholders, officials said.

The balances effectively bar them from borrowing materials or using computers and can be a literacy barrier, officials said. Officials also cited studies that showed that patrons overall are more likely to return borrowed books and materials when late fines aren’t assessed.

“She is really just a tireless advocate in anything the community needs,” said Legislator Sara Mae Pratt, the chairperson of the Education and Libraries Committee. “I just know that she cares so deeply about the health and safety and just overall happiness of our community and ensuring that everyone has the ability to thrive and pursue their goals and build connections through the library system.” 

That is now part of Bradley’s lasting legacy, Pratt said. 

“For me that’s one of the greatest joys in leaving my position is barriers that have been broken,” Bradley said. “It was a lot of work on everyone’s part.”

What’s next

Upon retirement Bradley said she’s going to take a little time to relax and spend time with family. 

“The work of the pandemic, it really did just take a toll,” she said. “I’m going to be 68 years old. It was intense and exhausting.” 

Bradley said she’s looking forward to spending more time with her husband, who retired four years ago, and her four grandchildren – two who live locally and the other two who live in Massachusetts. 

With more free time, Bradley will also be able to do something more often that she really loves: read. Bradley said she likes to read a lot of historical fiction and crime novels.

She’ll also have time to get back into some of the TV shows she started during the pandemic, like the PBS series “Call the Midwife.”

“I just found it very soothing mentally,” she said about watching the series. “It was kind of like this escape.” 

Bradley said she will miss her colleagues and seeing the impact that libraries make on people’s lives first hand. 

But once she’s ready, Bradley said she’s certain she’ll be back to serving the public in some fashion – perhaps volunteering for a local organization or two.

“The greatest privilege of my life really has been being a public servant and being able to serve the community and working for Schenectady County,” she said. 

Bradley was the recipient of this year’s Outstanding Librarian Award for the Capital Region by the state Legislature on Monday. The award follows a long list of accolades Bradley has received.

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