A life’s work: Sugden spends decades supporting public libraries
By Heather Graves
BROWN COUNTY – Sarah Sugden, executive director of the Brown County Library, barely misses a beat when she tells you what the two most important things in life are – her family and public libraries.
“I’m a nerd, and I love it,” she said. “I love libraries. It’s my life’s work.”
Dedicating her entire working life to libraries, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who loves public libraries and provides as much to the community as this Maine-transplant.
“I’ve been here for almost four years,” she said. “We came here for this wonderful job opportunity that I have.”
Sugden grew up in Waterville, Maine – one of five kids.
“I laugh that I married a southerner,” she said. “My husband is from the Boston area. Being from Maine, everything is southern.”
Growing up in Waterville, a mill town on the west bank of the Kennebec River, Sugden said Green Bay has many similarities to her hometown.
“I think that there’s a lot of similarities in that they are places that understand the value of hard work,” she said. “Part of that is just what it takes to survive the winters.”
Sugden graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in history.
She earned her master’s degree in library and information science from Simmons College.
Over the past 30 years, Sugden has worked in libraries in various locations and capacities.
Before coming to Brown County, Sugden worked as a media center specialist at Newton-Conover High School in Newton, North Carolina, a senior librarian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a librarian at the Phoenix Public Library and as library director at the Waterville Public Library.
“I’ve been working in libraries for so long – working in 10 libraries in six different states, the academic libraries, school libraries, public libraries,” she said. “I really value being humble. So it’s sometimes hard to be like, ‘I’m an expert in my field.’ But the truth is, I have pretty extensive knowledge about libraries and how they function and their roles. And there have been some really wonderful experiences that have helped me along the way.”
As director of the Brown County Library system, Sugden oversees a system serving 260,000 residents with a $7.4 million annual operating budget, nine locations and a bookmobile outreach service.
A lifelong passion
Libraries have always been a part of Sugden’s life.
“I’m lucky that I have a mother and a step-mother who took me to libraries faithfully every week (growing up),” she said.
Starting out young, Sugden’s first job was in the library in her hometown of Waterville at the age of 14.
“I started as a volunteer,” she said. “My older sister was working in the library. I looked up to her, so I started volunteering at the library. When she left to go get more money working as a waitress, I was a good worker, so they hired me.”
Sugden said her teen years at the Waterville Library sparked a lifelong passion leading her down a career path made for her.
Throughout college, she worked as a library circulation assistant at Dartmouth, and took a full-time job as a librarian in Phoenix right out of grad school.
For the next several years, Sugden worked within the direct public service aspect of libraries.
She said the jump to library administration in 2005 was made consciously.
“As you continue to learn, you learn what those best practices are,” she said. “You certainly learn the influence of leadership and sort of the ways in which an organization can be steered by that. So making that jump showed me even more ways in which I can be of service.”
Sugden said her duties vary on a daily basis.
“I have said before that some of my job is sales – sharing with the community members the impact and benefits of this collective public investment, that the public libraries even exist,” she said. “I think it’s awesome.”
Sugden said the focus of her work over the past four years, since she’s been here, has been on the assessment of the community organization unit – “developing an understanding of the community’s needs, their aspirations, opportunities, and then how all those pieces work together.”
Over the past four years, Sugden has been the driving force behind much of the growth in the Brown County Library system.
“There are nine locations, so we have a number of stakeholders,” she said. “And all county residents are stakeholders in the library.”
Big idea, plans and projects
Under her leadership, Sugden has spearheaded several initiatives and projects, including:
• The creation of the library’s new mission statement, vision statement and values and also helping to launch a new, more user-friendly website.
• The development of a new brand and visual identity for the library.
• A naming rights initiative created to raise funds for capital projects.
• Working with multiple stakeholders to guide several library improvements currently underway.
• Establishing biannual collection inventory.
Sugden said each library is unique, as are the people they serve.
“The spaces are so important, because the spaces sort of give birth to or open doors into different things,” she said.
The Brown County Library system has several projects currently in the works – including the construction of the new East Branch Library location, the renovation of the Central Library’s lower level and the revitalization of the Denmark and Pulaski branches.
“I feel so lucky that God seemed to save (all the projects) for me,” she said. “Some of these projects have been in discussion for almost more than two decades, and included a really thoughtful, thorough process with community conversations and dialogue about what is the right stuff.”
Sugden said Brown County doesn’t just want good libraries, “we want great libraries,” and the investment to ensure community members of all ages and backgrounds have access to information and resources is what drives all those connections.
“I think the real juice and opportunity of libraries is to be able to leverage those resources and wonderful staff power through partnerships and collaboration to really tackle some of those broader community challenges,” she said. “Libraries are not passive sort of entities. They can’t be if you really want to get your money’s worth.”
Sugden said reading is not only the key to the life our kids deserve, it is also an important tool for their futures.
“That’s really powerful and wonderful,” she said. “And it is an honor to serve humans. I’m so luck to be able to do this work.
Sugden said she hopes the community has confidence in the ways in which the library is moving forward.
“I think a lot about that in terms of competence and leadership and how that influences folks,” she said. “The community should have confidence. We have everything we need here in Brown County to make something really special.”