For me, it’s virtually impossible not to think about libraries when I think about Women’s History Month. Almost like clockwork, libraries sprang up in our country after the end of the Revolutionary War but not before “literary salons” reigned supreme in 17th and 18th century Europe, the earliest of which were established in the early 1600s.
At a time when women were prohibited from formal education, it was these salons that offered them a platform for discussing literature, politics, art, and more. It was these beacons of culture and knowledge that empowered women and gifted them the freedom to form their own opinions about life and the world at large. Little did anyone know then that nearly 300 years later, starting in 1900, women would officially begin to dominate the field of librarianship and those numbers would only ever climb from there.
According to a 2021 study performed by the Department for Professional Employees, a coalition of more than 24 national unions, women make up 83.2% of all librarians and 77.5% of all library technicians and assistants. In the nearly 6 years I’ve worked in libraries in a wide variety of roles, I have had the unique pleasure of working for and with women who have inspired me endlessly and challenged me to become the best version of myself, both professionally and personally. Many of these women are women I work with today at Harris County Public Library.
As Women's History Month comes to a close, I reached out to and interviewed four women within HCPL who I believe wholeheartedly embody what it means to be a leader, a change-maker, and even more, a woman who supports the work and success of other women.
Without further ado, please enjoy HCPL staff spotlights for Jasmine Washington, Elyssa (E) Peterson, Nikki Shaw, and Cheyanne Young!
Name: Jasmine Washington
Job Title: Children’s Library Specialist
Firstly, please tell me a bit about your career thus far with HCPL. What have been some of your crowning achievements? Who were the women leaders in libraries that inspired you along the way? I first started off at HCPL as a part-time Library Assistant at Parker Williams Library. I later returned to Parker Williams as a full-time Library Program Specialist. When I arrived back at Parker Williams, we were still in the midst of the pandemic and virtual content was needed. The virtual content I was able to create while a part of the Parker Williams team was Taste the Culture, Mythical Mondays, and Story of Life. Each of these were ideas that I was able to bring to fruition with my wonderful team while I worked at Parker Williams and these programs can be viewed on their Facebook page. Another crowning achievement is my current program of Kids Craft Club at the Cy-Fair Branch. It has been amazing to watch the program grow over time and to build connections with the kids and their families.
The first woman leader that inspired me was my manager, Ruby Robinson, from my time working at Houston Public Library. It was wonderful to work with an encouraging and supportive manager and to see someone who looks like me in a leadership role. I have often found myself inspired by the women colleagues that I work with. I have had the chance to work with some amazing women who are intelligent, encouraging, supportive, and creative.
What does Women’s History Month mean to you? What has it taught you? Women’s History Month to me means taking the opportunity to celebrate the women who came before us—the trailblazers and the innovators. It is because of them that we are able to what we can today. Through Women’s History Month, we are also celebrating the present—today’s movers and shakers, who are fighting the good fight, breaking glass ceilings, and showcasing greatness. And finally, Women’s History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the future—to encourage young girls to follow their passions so that we may progress towards a truly wonderful future. Women’s History Month has taught me to not only look at those in the history books but to look at those locally and in surrounding communities.
To celebrate the "history" part of Women's History Month—is there a woman from history that you find especially inspiring and why? The woman that has stuck out to me since childhood has been Oprah. I remember doing a report on her in sixth grade for Black History Month and even dressing like her for the report. To me, she was an inspiration as someone who came from small, humble beginnings, who faced so much adversity and to still become the first Black woman billionaire. To me that was especially inspiring as I come from a small town in East Texas. Through it all, Oprah worked hard to become a revered daytime host and household name. When you watch Oprah and listen to her, you leave the experience feeling good and feeling empowered. I hope I am able to create that same kind of experience for our patrons through my librarianship.
What is your vision for the future of libraries and what advice would you give to women looking to establish careers in libraries? My vision for the future of libraries is that we continue to work towards becoming an inclusive and welcoming place for all and continue to be hubs for providing excellent service for our community members. My advice to women looking to establish careers in libraries would be to find your people. Find those colleagues who you can turn to for support and who you can collaborate with.
And because we’re talking about women and libraries here, I of course have to ask a book-related question: who is your favorite strong female character in literature and why? So I am going to take from graphic novels and choose Nubia, the long lost fraternal twin of Wonder Woman. Nubia is someone that I had not heard about until recently when I found myself falling in love with the graphic novel format. I got a sneak peek of her when I read Nubia: Real One by L.L. McKinney and Robyn Smith. I am so ready to dive further into Nubia’s world and follow the adventures of this strong, agile, and beautiful Black woman.
Name: Elyssa (E) Peterson
Job Title: Library Technician
Firstly, please tell me a bit about your career thus far with HCPL. What have been some of your crowning achievements? Who were the women leaders in libraries that inspired you along the way? I started with HCPL in August of 2021. I started as a part-time Library Service Specialist, creating book displays for Valentine's Day and Banned Books week, establishing a Parker Williams Pinterest page, and decorating the Children's Area for Summer Reading Program 2022. As of May 2022, I became a full-time Library Technician (fun Fact: I officially started full-time on my birthday). In addition to Pinterest and book displays, I am a Dungeon Master in PW's D&D Club, a Reference-by-Mail writer, an ESL and citizenship tutor performing mock interviews for future citizens, a passport agent helping others achieve their dreams of travel, and a maker giving orientations on the laser cutter machine. I am also attending university, working on my Bachelor's Degree in Computer Information Systems. When I am finished with my undergraduate degree, I plan to attend University of North Texas for a Master's in Information Science.
I am deeply inspired by Lynda De Los Santos and the librarians at San Jacinto South College who first directed me down the path to librarianship in my first job as a Library Assistant, Delaney Daly for her confidence and can-do attitude! I hope to be a good and kind librarian like her someday. Honorable man-tions (like mention haha) are John Harbaugh (he/him), Mike Saperstein (he/him), and Amelia Morris (they/them). Thank you all for your guidance, understanding, and support.
To celebrate the "history" part of Women's History Month—is there a woman from history that you find especially inspiring and why? Two of my favorite women from history that have inspired me with their creativity, independence, and wit are: Ada Lovelace, English mathematician and an associate of Charles Babbage, for whose prototype of a digital computer created a program. She has been called the first computer programmer. Additionally, Mary Shelley, English Romantic and Science Fiction novelist and writer of Frankenstein, my favorite novel.
What is your vision for the future of libraries and what advice would you give to women looking to establish careers in libraries? Personally, I envision that libraries of the future will at some point become completely digital and our jobs as librarians and library technicians will become a form of information specialist and that libraries themselves will act as data centers. Libraries will teach communities the importance of reading literacy as well as computer literacy, and will help to bridge any gaps where others may fall behind due to a lack of resources. I think anyone wanting to establish a career in libraries should be open to learning about and using new technology as technical skills are becoming increasingly important in our modern world.
Name: Nikki Shaw
Job Title: Collection Development Librarian
Firstly, please tell me a bit about your career thus far with HCPL. What have been some of your crowning achievements? Who were the women leaders in libraries that inspired you along the way? My career with HCPL has honestly been a whirlwind. I was hired in 2016 to work in circulation while I was still acquiring my Master's in Library Science. I started at the Fairbanks Branch and was there for 6 months. Shortly thereafter, I was informed of a new position coming available at the Aldine Branch for a Children’s Specialist. I stayed in that position for 2 years. Once I graduated with my Master's, I heard that a Young Adult Librarian position was opening at the Fairbanks Branch. Becoming a YA Librarian was a goal I had been working towards since I started my Master's degree. I was selected for that position and remained at the Fairbanks Branch for another 2 years. In 2020, a position in Collection Development opened up. I didn’t know much about the position other than that I was interested. As it turns out, the Collection Development position presented an opportunity for me to achieve my long-term goal of working as a Collection Development Librarian who specializes in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I applied for the Collection Development position and today, work on a fantastic Collection Development team that has done an excellent job of purchasing diverse materials. Selecting diverse books is a passion of mine and I am very thankful to have a manager who gives me the opportunity to expand on this passion and use it to show the patrons (and sometimes my co-workers) the amount of books we actually have and where to find them.
Crowning achievements: Being chosen by Linda Stevens to participate in various TLA panels, gaining program recognition from Linda Stevens when I was working at the branch level, being selected by both Linda Stevens and Amber Seely to assist an outside organization in finding diverse STEM books. And last but not least, being chosen by Nancy Hu to star in a video for the library system to talk about diverse YA books. I certainly enjoy being recognized for my love of diverse books.
Women leaders I’ve worked with: My first HCPL manager was Suellen Dunn at Fairbanks Branch. She always wanted to know what I was interested in and she was able to push me towards those interests. Amber Seely, my current manager, is someone I also look up to. I have never seen someone achieve the things she can with just her mind. Her thought process and extensive knowledge of the collection blow me away all the time. Of course there’s Theodora Muokebe and Linda Stevens as well—I admire them for just being who they are and doing the work they do.
I also want to take some time and mention my co-workers who deserve just as much recognition as the supervisors and managers I’ve mentioned. Janny at Aldine Branch has been and will always be truly a backbone of that library. Not only is her customer service to the patrons impeccable, but so is her service to all of us here at HCPL. There’s also Darcy Cassavant in Collection Development. I don’t think I was even a year into my YA Librarian position when I asked her if she would mentor me. She was quick to say yes and I was infinitely grateful for the time she had taken to show me even a fraction of what she’d been doing in her position. There’s also Anna Weinberger. Not a day goes by without our daily Teams chats. She’s always there to answer every question, laugh at every joke, listen to every gripe—that type of work friendship is deeply cherished. Jasmine Washington and I met at an outreach event last year and have since become work besties. We’ve been to several book signings together and we talk about books constantly. And lastly, there’s Anjela Martinez. We work together for Tournament of Books and I swear this work pairing couldn’t be any better. I often joke that we are Book Twins, since we agree so closely on the books we love and always want to read the same things. We should probably establish our own book club someday . . .
What does Women’s History Month mean to you? What has it taught you? Women’s History Month is about paying homage to women and femme-presenting people who are out here doing phenomenally! I am a firm believer in ensuring people get their flowers while they can smell them. I feel it’s not always necessary to lean so far into the history aspect of it. After all, history has to be “made” in the present. Even more, I feel that Women’s History Month is a way to shed a light on and show respect for the contributions that so many women and femme-presenting individuals have made to society and to help further close the gaps on justice and equity.
To celebrate the "history" part of Women's History Month—is there a woman from history that you find especially inspiring and why? One woman I find particularly inspiring is Zora Neale Hurston. She spent a great deal of her life promoting Black culture and folklore. She used her writing to help share her experiences with the world. Though she was rarely published, she continued to press on and do her best to educate the world on what it was like to be a Black woman. I admire her most because no matter the circumstances she faced, she never let those hardships change who she was. She stayed true to herself and her writing. Anyone with that type of determination and grit deserves to be praised. Plus, fun fact: she was my sorority sister in college.
What is your vision for the future of libraries and what advice would you give to women looking to establish careers in libraries? My vision for the future of libraries is making sure that we continue on the path of being more than a place that stores books. I love how we’ve evolved into being a library of “things” and I hope we can expand on that more and more as time goes on.
My advice for women coming into the profession is the following: embrace the change. So much is changing in our field. Nothing is the same anymore. And I want them to remember that’s okay! Things are constantly evolving and it’s best to see the need for change and even more, to change with it. It won’t always be easy or even enjoyable but change is going to come, so best to embrace it.
And because we’re talking about women and libraries here, I of course have to ask a book-related question: who is your favorite strong female character in literature and why? I am a bit indecisive so I couldn’t pick just one strong female character. And since I’m one of the Youth Book Selectors in Collection Development, I think it’s only right that I mention some characters from Young Adult and Juvenile Fiction to answer this. As I was considering them all, I realized they all have something in common. I admire characters that speak up and speak out in a way that brings about change. All of these stories are very different, but they all boil down to the strong female character represented not being afraid to be the one to say something in order to create change and live their truth. They may have started out afraid, but they didn’t allow it to stop them. And I admire that so much. I love Melissa from Melissa by Alex Gino, Starr from The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Tracy from This is My America by Kim Johnson, and Willowdean from Dumplin by Julie Murphy.
Name: Cheyanne Young
Job title: Young Adult Program Specialist
Firstly, please tell me a bit about your career thus far with HCPL. What have been some of your crowning achievements? Who were the women leaders in libraries that inspired you along the way? I've been with HCPL (and libraries in general) just about 10 months now, but I already know libraries are where I'm meant to be. My favorite achievements so far are that the Instagram reels I made received 15k-20k views (our library average is around 500 views), and the K-9 Program I hosted last August had 160 people in attendance. Another achievement that means the world to me is when I've suggested a book to a patron and they've returned a few days later to tell me how much they loved it.
I was greatly inspired by Mrs. Gordon, a school librarian in Florida. She read one of my books a few years ago and reached out to me on social media to invite me to the book festival her school hosts every year. Over the years, we've become friends and I’ve been able to see all of the amazing things she does with her school library, for the students she serves, and watching her advocate for books in general. She is one of the main reasons I enrolled in library school—I want to be just like her!
What does Women’s History Month mean to you? What has it taught you? Women's History Month gives us time to reflect on what women have achieved. It has taught me that we are resilient, strong, powerful, and most importantly, that we've been here all along, and we aren't going anywhere.
To celebrate the "history" part of Women's History Month—is there a woman from history that you find especially inspiring and why? This might be a little cheesy, but I'll have to go with my own mom. She grew up poor. She told me she never had good grades in school, and she had to work hard to become a civil engineer, staying up late to study when I was just a little girl. I remember her college graduation day, and how proud and happy she looked. Now, she's a highly respected USACE engineer and she's worked hard every day of her life to make sure that our family had everything we needed, and then some. I'm very proud of her.
What is your vision for the future of libraries and what advice would you give to women looking to establish careers in libraries? I don't see libraries going away any time soon. In fact, I think they'll only get bigger and better as time goes on. Libraries are a sacred third space in our communities and we provide valuable services to our patrons. As technology grows into AI and VR and other futuristic capabilities, I think libraries will still be here, leading the effort to educate and bring these services to our communities. My biggest advice for women who would like to work in libraries is to just go for it. Go for it now. Don't wait until you have the Master's degree, and don't think you're incapable of helping the community until you do. There are many ways to get involved in the library, like volunteering or specialist positions that still have a huge impact.
And because we’re talking about women and libraries here, I of course have to ask a book-related question: who is your favorite strong female character in literature and why? Bobbie Draper from The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey. She's a gunnery Sergeant in the Martian Marine Corps, and hands down the strongest, coolest, female character you'll ever read. Here's my favorite quote of hers: “You just have to believe that what you’re doing really matters, and then the fear can’t control you.”