Growing up in Fairfield, California, during the 1990s meant visiting the library on Fridays for Will O’Hearn. His earliest memory: repeatedly going with his mother, an avid reader. “Whenever I asked for anything at the library, my mom said, ‘Yes,’ because it was free,” says O’Hearn, who is now Eugene Public Library services director.
With limited resources at home, the high cost of computers at the end of the 20th century and no time to explore his school’s computers, O’Hearn found in the library a sanctuary. Not only did he become passionate about books, but it was there that he discovered an additional resource available for everybody: those computers.
“The moments that changed my life and still make a huge impact on me today were those moments in the library. I learned how to use a computer in the library,” O’Hearn says. He was in the early years of elementary school. His brother, four years older than him, also learned how to use the machines at the same place.
It was at the library that he found his community where he always felt welcomed. He got his first job at age 16 at the Marengo-Union Public Library in Illinois. Although he did not think of it as a career back then, he enjoyed helping people find information and, as a result, went on to get a bachelor of science degree in human resources management at Northern Illinois University. He ended up working in the corporate world, but did not enjoy it.
“I kept talking to my partner, Joannne O’Hearn, about wishing to be helpful and do something that was a bigger goal for the world, that would help the whole world like the library. I wish I could just be friendly and help people. She is a pretty astute listener, a very intelligent person, and said, ‘It sounds like you want to work at a library,’” O’Hearn says.
As a result, he started working as a circulation supervisor at the academic library of College of Lake County in Illinois from 2008 until 2010. To become a librarian, a master’s degree is needed, so O’Hearn received his master of arts in library and information science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2011. He never looked back.
His career includes working at the Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado, the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois, and, since 2019, at the Eugene Public Library.
Why Eugene? He was attracted to its library system, the involvement and passion of the community as well as how its people cared about education.
“The library welcomes everyone as part of our community; whether you are passing through town for one day or you are the mayor of the city, the library is going to treat you with respect and dignity and welcome you in. The library is truly for everyone. That is a really big deal for us,” O’Hearn says.
The Eugene Public Library has welcomed anybody through the years, regardless of people’s housing status, as long as the space is used respectfully. Unsheltered individuals can also access full-service library cards like anybody else in the city at no cost by providing a letter from a service agency to prove their residency. From his experiences growing up, O’Hearn wants the entire community to feel comfortable, appreciated and accepted.
“I always thought of the library myself as a bit of a sanctuary. A place where people can get away from the world to lose themselves in knowledge and education. To escape maybe a difficult home life, to just get a moment for yourself. We call it the third space: You have your work or school and then you have your home,” O’Hearn says.
The Eugene Public Library has become that: a third space defined as a mecca and a sanctuary. During the pandemic, the library system went into an innovation boom and expanded and fully developed the Library of Things. You can check out sewing machines, loaf pans, board games, ukuleles, outdoor games, scanners and mobile wifi hotspots, among many other useful things.
Just like the stereotype regarding libraries has been debunked as it is not just a source of books, O’Hearn’s persona defies the negatively stereotyped librarian. He is neither quiet nor introverted. “Librarians are just like any other group of people,” he says. “They are diverse, wide-ranging.”
Eugene Public Library is asking community members to help the library plan for its future. The “Craft Our Next Chapter” survey is available in English and Spanish at the library website, Eugene-Or.gov/library.