With each major milestone in Karen Bradley’s life, there was a new set of challenges.
She had her first child while she was still pursuing a master’s degree in library science. People used to stare at her and her baby in a stroller roaming the stacks of books in the SUNY Albany library. It was 1981 and such a sight was unusual for the time.
As a health sciences librarian in the 1980s, Bradley was responsible for establishing hospital libraries full of the latest medical textbooks for the health care staff. During this time she had two more children, the third needing treatment for health problems.
It was a lot to juggle. So when she decided to pursue the opening for a new director at Schenectady County Public Library last month, she had a lifetime of experience.
“I knew we were going to be facing big challenges when I accepted the job,” said Bradley. “We all were a pretty small organization and worked very closely together. And I knew that the county was facing a fiscal crisis. We had been aware of that here for a number of years.”
Bradley, 58, began her first day on the job three weeks ago. She replaced outgoing director Andy Kulmatiski at a time when the library system had just wrapped up a decade-long expansion and was about to face a new project: tightening library operations under a newly slashed budget.
The Schenectady County Legislature issued a directive to the library’s board of trustees last week to come up with a plan by May 1. It had just passed an amended 2013 budget that lowered the total county tax levy increase to 5.9 percent after public pressure to trim a proposed hike of 7.9 percent. With unfunded mandates making up a majority of the county budget, one of the few places left to trim was the library.
As director, Bradley will work closely with the board to come up with a new modus operandi for a library system that, along with the rest of the world, is changing rapidly in the face of modern technology.
The Legislature made about $521,000 in cuts at the library for 2013. The largest cut will be in funding for hourly workers, but will also affect spending on books, professional services and employee benefits. This year’s operating budget totaled $4.54 million. The budget for next year will drop to $4.18 million.
Just as the past decade at the library has been marked by a major $3.5 million expansion, the decade going forward will have its own signature: evolving to become more efficient and cost-effective in a community that relies on its library system.
And Bradley is now responsible for steering the ship.
Before she ended up here, Bradley spent her very early childhood growing up in Mechanicville with a father who loved books and an aunt who was her school librarian. When her dad pulled in the driveway after 11 p.m. from his night shift, Bradley would quickly turn out her lights, pull up her covers and switch on a flashlight so she could keep reading.
“I would help in the school library, too, stamping those old-fashioned cards in the back of the books,” she said. “So from the time I was really young, I just loved being in a library. I was just an avid reader. I always had a passion for books.”
That passion eventually translated into a work-study job at the library at the College of Saint Rose, where she majored in English. The experience clinched her decision to become a librarian, and she pursued her master’s of library science at what was then SUNY Albany’s School of Library and Information Sciences.
When she was nine months pregnant with her second child, the director at Albany Medical College’s Schaffer Library of Health Sciences called her to come in for an interview. Up to this point, Bradley had already juggled the child-school balance with her first daughter. Now, she was about to walk into an interview with a resume and a huge baby bump.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is something I really would love to do,’ ” she recalled. “But I said to the director over the phone, ‘I think there’s just one thing you need to know about me and that is that I’m nine months pregnant.’ I didn’t want to have her be surprised when I walked in the door.”
She started there when her daughter was 3 weeks old.
Before she arrived in Schenectady, though, Bradley would take 12 years off from being a librarian. Her third child had health problems, and she used the time to immerse herself in volunteer work.
Of course, she didn’t end up too far from a library. She served as Board of Education president for the Scotia-Glenville Central School District, where she worked in the school library for free.
In 1999, Bradley was ready to get back in the game. She started subbing at the Schenectady County Public Library, working her way up from a part-time librarian to a full-time librarian to the reference desk to the library’s program coordinator.
“That job was just about the best job I think there was in the whole county library system,” she said. “I had the opportunity to partner with many community organizations, so it was a way for me to learn more about what groups are doing in the community, and how we can partner with them on various initiatives.”
Esther Swanker admired Bradley for her grasp of community issues. As president of the board of trustees, Swanker was part of the committee to find Kulmatiski’s replacement. The committee had been through two groups of applicants before arriving at Bradley’s application.
“Karen was in the third group,” said Swanker, who has served on the board for 27 years. “And when we saw she was interested, we knew to move on that one.”
Swanker stepped down from her post around the time Kulmatiski retired as library director. They had overseen the expansion project and were ready for a change. The new board president, Cheryl Cufarti, will join Bradley as part of a team to take the library in a new direction. Cufarti could not be reached Wednesday.
She’s had three weeks on the job so far, and Bradley already has some tough choices.
Library staff has already been trimmed for many years now by attrition. So the staff and the board are working hard to identify areas to cut that affect the fewest people.
“The world is changing very rapidly and people’s needs are changing very rapidly and like all businesses, you have to examine every aspect of how you’re doing everything,” said Bradley. “We have tremendous staff that has already put forth so much effort over the years to absorb all of this and try to do things very efficiently. But when you talk about a cut like this, that’s much more significant. So the board is going to need very good data.”
Today, the board will begin a month-long project to gather public input on the central library and its 10 branches. They will be handing out surveys that ask what patrons use the library for and ideas for improvements they would like to see.
Afterward, the board will hold forums to gather more input on what the community needs as the library system undergoes restructuring.
“It’s a very big undertaking on a relatively short time line to have something completely ready for the county by May 1,” said Bradley.
“For me, as a new director coming in, it is a tremendous asset to know your community,” she said. “And I feel I know the needs of this community because we live in a very needy community. I feel as a team we’re going to be able to meet this challenge, but that it’s going to take a lot of heads coming together.”