A woman sits at a desk and smiles at the camera
Charlene Tolbert, the new director of the Ashland Public Library, poses for a photo in her office on Nov. 14, 2023.

ASHLAND — Charlene Tolbert started working at her library in elementary school. 

Originally from Puerto Rico, Tolbert served as a library aide throughout elementary school, and continued through middle school and high school. It’s where her heart is.

She views libraries as a gathering space for all people, where everybody is welcome. 

She earned a degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in English, and then worked for a couple years as an insurance agent with State Farm.

But she found herself gravitating back toward libraries, which was always her passion. 

Tolbert said she thinks Ohio has some of the best libraries in the country. That, combined with North Carolina’s high cost-of-living, drove her to move to the state. 

She worked as a youth services associate at the Ritter Public Library in Vermillion, and then stepped up to a management position at Bellevue Public Library. 

She worked in management positions there from 2018 until earlier this year. Tolbert also earned a master’s degree in library sciences from Kent State University.

It follows her home, too. Her husband works as the director of the Milan Public Library. They’re currently doing a book cataloging project in their off-time at home in Milan.

“We’re blessed to work in a profession we’re passionate about on a personal level,” Tolbert said.

Starting this week, Tolbert added another feather to her professional cap: She began her new position as the director of the Ashland Public Library on Monday. 

“I’ve always really enjoyed the administrative side of libraries,” Tolbert said. “I’m also equally passionate about helping staff recognize their dreams and their goals, and making sure they’re taken care of.”

The search

The library started the search for its new director in April, after its former director, Heather Miller, resigned from the position. Sandra Tunnell, the library board’s president, said Miller left to pursue other opportunities. 

The Ashland Public Library is located at 224 Claremont Ave.

Organizational Architecture, a search firm, was hired to help with the search for a new director. Tunnell said the firm put out the request, did preliminary interviews and weeded out candidates that weren’t the best fit for the job. 

“We wanted somebody who could be a good communicator and engage with the community,” Tunnell said. 

Organizational Architecture forwarded three finalists for the position. After four rounds of interviews, Tolbert was selected. She said she received the call that she got the job while standing outside of a different library. 

The gig is 33-year-old Tolbert’s first as a library director. Tunnell said the library board is excited for this to be her first directorship, and liked Tolbert’s enthusiasm.

The position receives a salary of $85,000 a year, Tolbert said.

“It’s something I don’t take lightly,” Tolbert said. “This is a tremendous responsibility and I’ll work hard to make sure Ashland Public Library is what it needs to be for this community.”

Why’d Tolbert apply?

The Ashland Public Library has seen controversy in the last two years. 

Concerned citizens fill the Ashland Public Library’s public meeting room on Thursday, July 14, 2022. Credit: Dillon Carr

Recently, a citizens’ group formed to advocate against the library’s levy renewal, sending out fliers to Ashland residents.

Their justification was the library board’s decision to keep three books about puberty in the juvenile nonfiction section following a series of contentious library board meetings in 2022. 

Final, unofficial election results from Ashland County’s Board of Elections showed the levy passing by a margin of 60.46% to 39.54%.

While it still passed with a commanding margin, the library’s levy previously passed with around 72% of the vote in favor. 

For Tolbert, the controversy isn’t something to shy away from. In fact, she said she partially applied for the job because of it. 

The strong public participation the library received set it apart, and she hopes that continues. She said as long as discourse remains civil, she welcomes peoples’ opinions.

“The library is so much more than a few books on a shelf,” Tolbert said. “It’s really about the heart of a community.”

But her main responsibility, she said, is to the staff, and ensuring those individuals can still perform their work.

Goals and priorities

Supporting staff is one of two main goals Tolbert brought to the position. 

“We are blessed with such a dedicated and wonderful staff, like many libraries, but the staff here is just phenomenal,” Tolbert said. “There’s just something special (about them).”

Her other goal is to learn all she can about Ashland. 

She started by connecting with community leaders at the Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting

“I’m in my element,” Tolbert said. “What really drives me is my love for helping people.”

Tolbert said it’s important to her to know Ashland, its people and their information needs. 

“Everyone is a human being with their own point of view,” Tolbert said. “Our job at the library is to remain neutral and help every single person who walks through the doors to the best of our ability.”

This independent, local reporting provided by our Report for America Corps members is brought to you in part by the generous support of the Ashland County Community Foundation.

Ashland Source's Report for America corps member. She covers education and workforce development, among other things, for Ashland Source. Thomas comes to Ashland Source from Montana, where she graduated...