Almost 40 Years in Libraries: Meet Interim Chief Librarian Tom Fay

As you may know, The Seattle Public Library has a high-profile job vacancy right now: Chief Librarian.

When Marcellus Turner – who led the Library for almost 10 years of distinguished service – left that role earlier this year to helm Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, The Seattle Public Library’s Board of Trustees initiated a national search for our next Chief Librarian. The position profile is posted on our website and the search for our next Chief is well underway, with a selection expected early in 2022. (Read more about the search process on our website.)

In the meantime, we wanted you to get to know our interim Chief Librarian, Tom Fay, who stepped into the role on April 1 from his regular position as director of Library Programs and Services.

“My local library was a constant in my life”- Interim Chief Librarian Tom Fay

How did you get into Library work?

I moved from Las Vegas to a small rural community in Nevada when I was 11 and grew up in that little town. My local library was a constant in my life. I loved to read. I used to do odd jobs and construction as a teenager. About the time I turned 16, the town librarian asked me if I wanted to work in the library in the late afternoon and evening. I would make $3.25 per hour as a page. At that time, I was working construction jobs and we were generally done by 2 p.m. due to the heat in the summers. So, I was pretty excited about a job with air conditioning in a part of the country where summer days ranged from 105 to 120 degrees. That was 38 years ago. I spent over 30 years in Nevada libraries ranging from the largest system to the State Library. When I retired from Las Vegas-Clark County Library as the Chief Operating Officer/Deputy Director, my wife and I had looked at either Seattle or Denver as places that we might like to live and explore in our next phase of life. Happily I was offered the position of Director of Library Programs and Services at this Library and started in July 2015.

What are you most proud of in terms of how the Library has navigated the pandemic and its related challenges?

Our Library staff’s ability to adapt to the conditions imposed by the pandemic. Even with all the stress of the pandemic in both their personal and work lives, the quality of their customer service has never diminished, and this is a testament of their commitment, passion and compassion in providing Library services to Seattle residents.

What ways have you found to motivate yourself during this unprecedented time?

The pandemic has created a sense of isolation. While many of us may adapt to that, others in our families may really struggle with that. So, I start my day talking with my wife and texting or calling my daughter, who just started college. This reminds me to put family first and to leave something for the end of my day so that I can actually be present. As far as work, I really focus on the creativity, adaptability and great customer service that our staff is exhibiting on a daily basis. Not only do I see it when I’m onsite, but I hear about it from patrons when they send in kudos to the Chief Librarian.

Are there changes to Library work during the pandemic that you hope to see continue?

During the pandemic, like many other organizations, we started offering virtual programming, and transformed most of our physical programs such as story times, author programs, job workshops and classes into online events. As we re-introduce in-person Library programs, I’m sure that we’ll continue to explore virtual programming and how, in some cases, it can allow more equitable access and bigger audiences. We are also exploring other ways of making Library services available in new ways, such as pickup lockers – which allow patrons to collect their holds while the Library is closed – that we will pilot soon at a couple of locations.

During the pandemic, we also worked closely with many community partners on projects like distributing physical books to children. These kinds of partnerships are critical to our goal of enriching lives and building community, and keeping equity at the heart of our work. The efforts of our staff in this regard is noteworthy. Whatever the challenges, they never gave up on getting physical materials in patrons’ hands or information services to them in unique and safe ways.

What’s brought you joy lately?

Stopping by our reopened libraries and seeing patrons once again happily browsing and checking out books, reading together with their kids, using the computers to find jobs or just catch up on email, and seeing our Library staff working so hard to serve our patrons in person again.

Reading has been such a solace and escape for patrons and staff alike during the pandemic. What are a couple of titles you’ve read or listened to that have been helpful to you?

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (which was our Seattle Reads book this year) both had a big impact. I also read a lot of history:

On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides and A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell are two of my favorites.

And I read a lot of Sci-Fi.


What are one or two of your favorite under-the-radar services at The Seattle Public Library?

There are so many. Your Next Five was started many years ago and is a patron favorite. Our librarians do an incredible job expanding our patrons’ joy of reading, and also expanded this idea to the service Your Next Skill, which offers customized learning plans. Most recently our workforce development program, Your Next Job was created during the pandemic and marshals the resources of three library systems and several community partners to help people find employment and increase job skills. With school back in session, I’ve got to mention our free online tutoring service,, which offers one-on-one tutoring seven days a week in three languages.

Kids and families are still recovering from a very inconsistent and problematic year of learning, so services like this are just one more tool to recovery. And I have to give a shout-out to our volunteers: in non-COVID times hundreds of volunteers make programs such as Homework Help happen, and while we have not been able to invite them back in, they stay engaged with us and ready to lend a hand once we can return to in person programming.

Earlier this year, you hung out at the Central Library with an owl. Is that the most unusual companion you’ve had at a library?

For my time at The Seattle Public Library, the owl opportunity – which also resulted in this one-of-a-kind virtual story time — was probably the most unique, although I have met a number of other animals in libraries over the years, including birds, lemurs, raccoons and alpacas (my daughter’s favorite animal).

Oh, and Madagascar hissing beetles… those were interesting. OK, maybe a bit creepy. I’ve been in libraries a long time, so I’ve had lots of unusual tasks or experiences in 38 years. I’ve met presidents, celebrities, artists, authors and so many more over the course of my career and I’m thankful for all the experiences. I’m also incredibly fortunate to work with really smart, creative and innovative people every day in libraries.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to the Library’s patrons now that all our Library locations are reopened?

I am so grateful for our patrons’ patience, support and flexibility as we embarked on the ultimate learning adventure of how to safely operate a Library during a pandemic. Every day brings fresh challenges and joys, and we are looking forward to the “next normal” and know that you are, too.

~ posted by communications