John Spears was returning phone calls from a borrowed office last week when we spoke. I was lucky to catch him standing still. The incoming executive director of the Pikes Peak Library District was in the midst of relocating to Colorado Springs from his previous home in Salt Lake City, a 600-mile migration that would leave anyone frazzled.
"It's the most convoluted moving process I've ever done in my life," he said. That afternoon, he would drive nine hours back to Utah to pack up the rest of his belongings and pick up his partner, Brian, and the couple's three dogs. "I'll finally have more than an air mattress, a TV and a really upset cat to keep me company at night," Spears joked. Initially, the details caught me off-guard. After all, newcomers generally aren't so naturally at ease with media — particularly not over the phone with someone they've never met.
But that's just one trait that sets John Spears apart.
You might expect a library professional to be reserved and soft-spoken. Not Spears. As a kid growing up in Chicago, he played the bassoon and the piano, and wanted to be a musician when he grew up. He majored in performance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but the world of classical music is cutthroat, so he reconsidered his career path. Initially, he turned to studying social work, but it only stuck for one semester.
"Some of the professors did an intervention on me and said 'No, you shouldn't do this, because you'll wind up with 17 homeless people living on your floor,'" Spears says today. He switched to musicology, specializing in late Tsarist Russian music. At the time, he was working in the university library and very much enjoying it.
He took a co-worker's suggestion and passed the Civil Service Exam hoping for better pay and benefits while finishing his degree. After graduating, job offers didn't exactly roll in, so Spears stuck around at the library, which paid for his master's degree in Library and Information Science.
His interest in social work, however, persisted through the intervening years. While Spears was executive director of the Salt Lake City Public Library, he continued and expanded the library's outreach to the city's homeless population. Under Spears' leadership, the library hired three full-time case workers to engage and assist homeless and at-risk residents. They organized resource fairs for SLC's homeless, as well as the city's refugee and immigrant populations.
"People don't ask [why we provide services] when you have 300 children in the building on a given day, or 300 businesspeople in a given day, or 300 Spanish speakers in a given day," Spears says. "Yet there is still this hesitation very often to be seen as offering services to the homeless. We wouldn't have that hesitation if it were any other group." But after opening up discussions with staff and community, Spears says SLC's homeless were soon embraced as just another subset of library patrons.
"The homeless aren't a problem to be solved," Spears says. "Homelessness is a problem to be solved. The homeless are just one more constituency that the library serves. ... It can be amazing when the library works with other providers. It's a multiplying effect, and it's really astounding what that effect can be."
When Spears visited Colorado Springs last year, he knew enough about the Pikes Peak Library District to expect more than a warehouse for books. He describes what he found as a "very forward-leaning library, a library that has a lot going for it," further noting that "what I saw was a library that had totally embraced a library as a place of creation, a library as a place of discovery, a library that needs to get out into the community and was very community-driven." He's looking forward to developing plans within the library and the community.
He and Brian checked off several of the standard tourist spots during a trip to the Springs last Thanksgiving, visiting the chapel at the Air Force Academy, hiking through Garden of the Gods. But they also found a local favorite: Bear Creek dog park.
"A 25-acre enclosed dog park? That's awesome," Spears says. "This is a pretty amazing city."