Norma Zuniga fell in love with libraries in the fourth grade, newly arrived in Hartford, Conn., from her childhood upbringing in Peru. Her English was limited, so her teacher, Mrs. Clifford, suggested she get a library card.
“I remember thinking, ‘I can take these books? Really?,’” says the recently appointed director of the Arlington Library System. “It was such a new concept for me because I didn’t grow up with the notion of public libraries. So, I would take these books and devour them, and I’ve loved libraries ever since.”
Zuniga is by no means new either to the system or to the position. She began as a children’s librarian 18 years ago and spent the last year as interim director.“ Being the interim director allowed me to sort of get my feet wet and figure out how things work at this level, which is very different,” she says.
Before, she was asked for an opinion. Now, it’s a decision, and she must carefully weigh each proposal on how it will impact the entire system. “I want to make sure we’re headed in the right direction together,” she says, “and this communication is facilitated because we’ve known each other so long.”
“She’s smart, reliable, dedicated and determined,” says former Library colleague Andi Davis, now administrative assistant to Mayor Jeff Williams. “She has a heart for serving people through library services.”
Indeed, it’s thinking about the people served by the Library, especially those on the margins, that sometimes keeps Zuniga up at night. “Our most vulnerable populations,” she says, “our senior adults who can’t come, maybe, because of transportation, mobility or health issues. And especially in the downtown area, those who are lacking shelter – making sure we know what’s out there so that we can connect them to resources available to them.”
The best part of her job, she says, is when she can escape from her City Hall office and go across the plaza to the new Downtown Library to see and visit with those very people – even if, for now, that activity has been put on hold because of social distancing restrictions attached to the coronavirus crisis.
“It’s seeing those patrons, regardless of age, and how they marvel at everything we have that empowers them as individuals,” she says. “That’s why I love my job – to see the faces of the adult learners who figure out that, with a library card, they have access to so many resources, classes and opportunities that will hopefully enhance their lifestyles, maybe their livelihoods, and to see that it is all for them.”
Zuniga’s other major concern is the people who serve those patrons – her library staff.
“It’s making sure that they have the training they need,” she says, “that they have their toolbelt as fully equipped to do the things we’re asking them to do.”
Included among those tools, she hopes, is the staff’s ability to understand and communicate the value of public libraries, not only to patrons, but also to other city departments and decision makers.
“It’s all about telling our story,” she says, “to let them know how we’ve been connectors, the providers of information and resources.”
Zuniga’s decision to apply for the director position wasn’t as easy as it might seem. “I wanted to make sure I wanted the job for the right reasons – not only in my mind, but also in my heart,” she says. “It means the world to me, so to be given this opportunity, I was so humbled, so honored and I really intend to do my very best.”
Mrs. Clifford would be proud.