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SLCL’s director Kristen Sorth awarded for excellence

Kristen Sorth [SLCL photo]

The American Library Association [ALA] has named St. Louis County Library [SLCL] director Kristen Sorth as the 2019 winner of its Ernest A. DiMattia Award for Innovation and Service to Community and Profession.

The award, supported by the DiMattia Family, is given annually to a public librarian that “demonstrates leadership in anticipating emerging trends in services, products and technologies that will enhance the library’s position in its community … [and] participates in the life of the community using membership in and volunteer service through a broad range of community organizations and projects.”

Sorth was nominated by SLCL staff for the annual award, which includes $5,000 and a citation of achievement. According to Sorth, she was “shocked” to hear of her win.

“I had no idea the staff had nominated me,” Sorth said. “I was very surprised and very grateful for the recognition, and really touched.”

Sorth started with the library system as its human resources director in 1998 and served as its assistant director for the administration before assuming the director position in 2013.

SLCL is the area’s largest library system, with more than 400,000 cardholders and an annual budget surpassing $50 million. Sorth manages a team of over 600 employees and has also introduced multiple programs to the system, including We Stories Discussion Kits that help families discuss issues of race and cultural diversity; summer and after-school lunch programs, a Career Online High School that offers adults the opportunity to earn a nationally accredited high school diploma and career certificates; and Recycled Reads, which circulates surplus library materials throughout the community.

Kristen Sorth with patrons at the Grand Glaize Branch re-opening [SLCL photo]

Still, Sorth is slow to take credit, preferring to attribute the library’s success and popularity to its staff and donors.

“We have an incredible staff here, and I enjoy being able to talk to them, go out to the branches and see the work that they do,” Sorth said. “I’m always amazed by the number of ideas and how creative they are when they are working with the public.

“The mission of the library in general and the impact we have on the community is really rewarding … I can get up from my desk anytime and walk into the [Headquarters] branch and see the impact that we have and how many patrons are here using the library in a variety of different ways.”

Part of Sorth’s award sprang from her dedication to keeping the area’s biggest library system operational and functioning, even during the tail end of the multi-year, $120 million Your Library Renewed progject. In the past five years, 17 libraries have been renovated or replaced, with No. 18, the Mid-County Branch in Clayton, slated to re-open this fall.

“I definitely think the Your Library Renewed project has been amazing, and I’m very proud of it,” Sorth said. “We have renovated or replaced 17 branches in five years, which is a crazy timeline and pretty remarkable in the world of construction. I’m really proud of that and I’m proud of the impact those new buildings have on our patrons and on our community.

“I’m so lucky to be surrounded by an administration that is forward-thinking and creative and dedicated and hardworking, and honestly, I couldn’t do it without them.”

Sorth conceded that the library business is not as quiet as some might think.

“Sometimes I think people think that libraries are just this lovely quiet place where people come to read, and that is true. They are lovely and people come here to read, but we’re also a business, in a way,” Sorth said. “We’re in the business of relationships and community, and that means having a lot of employees, having a budget to manage, and then, construction projects on top of it. It’s never boring, that’s for sure.”

Under Sorth’s leadership, the library has also grown its list of community partnerships with organizations and programs such as Operation Food Search, Gateway Greening, the Alzheimer’s Association, Science in St. Louis, Born to Read, National Safe Place and more.

“We really see our role as being at the table [and] working with other community partners, both nonprofit and of the private sector, in making this region a really great place [in which] to live,” Sorth said.

Sorth also is an active volunteer with FOCUS St. Louis, the YWCA and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, where she serves as chair of the Board Governance.

“Personally, I think it’s important to be involved in organizations that I really care about and see that their mission is improving the quality of life in St. Louis,” Sorth said.

Sorth will receive her award at the ALA conference in Washington, D.C., in June.

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