CHESTERTOWN — For Arnessa Dowell, the new executive director of Kent County Public Library, if Walt Disney World is “where dreams come true,” then the library is where dreams can get their start and get to work.
“Anything you want to be in life, anything you want to do in life — you can research it here,” Dowell said in an interview Thursday, Jan. 7 at the library’s Chestertown branch. “Libraries have helped get small businesses up off the ground. They have helped people get college educations.”
Dowell was hired Jan. 1 to serve as executive director for KCPL with her first day on the job on Jan. 4. A graduate of Goucher College in Towson, she got her start in the field working at her college’s academic library.
“It was the ladies there that showed me that libraries are kind of the ‘it’ thing,” Dowell said. “They really helped me through a hard time. My mom passed of breast cancer while I was in college and it was the ladies at the library that really helped me get through that hard time.”
Most recently, Dowell worked for a public library located in Grand Forks, N.D., where she served as the information service director. She also managed a staff of 14 to 16 circulation and reference staff.
“I’ve alway had a passion to serve and public libraries just kind of transitioned me into that,” Dowell said.
In addition to her background in public libraries, Dowell said much of her career has been dedicated to serving “our men and women in uniform.”
“I’m a military spouse, my husband is now a (U.S. Air Force) veteran,” Dowell said. “That was kind of my passion, my joy to a certain extent — especially since I grew up in the military. I grew up in Germany.”
Dowell said the decision to relocate back to Maryland from North Dakota was “the most logical choice” given she has family here and because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everything was pointing me back here to Maryland,” Dowell said. “With COVID, everything just became a little bit more real. Time is definitely precious, so we decided to come back here and be closer to family.”
Though KCPL is in the midst of a renovation project and coronavirus has caused volatile circumstances for many organizations and businesses, Dowell said she is ready to take on the challenge.
“I am definitely a person that embraces change,” Dowell said. “Growing up military, it’s one of those things where you become very resilient. I was excited about this job because it just kind of touched on the things I’ve done.”
Dowell said in her prior roles, she navigated three major library renovations with this job marking her fourth directorship.
Dowell was responsible for developing the COVID-19 response at her previous library.
“In that time, we still did summer reading programs. We still did things — maybe not inside the building, but we made sure that we focused more on outreaching and making sure that we still serviced the community,” she said. “So, I’m just really excited about all the things that I get to do here, in Kent County.”
In terms of her goals for KCPL, Dowell said one of the biggest challenges she sees is ensuring the three branches of the library are able to service their respective communities.
She said she plans to ensure the North County branch in Galena and Rock Hall branch are as functional as possible to provide the best service for their respective communities — to “make sure that we meet the needs of the people that they serve.”
She said she hopes to increase outreach and help KCPL shift its presence to a more virtual format given the pandemic.
“I just know I want to help. I want to be impactful,” Dowell said. “I know that we’re working on different projects that I feel like the community is going to be excited about when we get the chance to roll them out.”
To ensure all branches are meeting the needs of the communities they serve, Dowell said the library may soon send out a survey for residents to complete so staff can determine how to best address any services that are lacking.
Dowell said she is grateful to be given the opportunity to take on the role of executive director for the community here.
“All your dreams can come true at the library,” Dowell said. “If you want a book to read, if you want to meet an author, if you want to learn another language. ... You can figure out how to travel the world on a shoestring budget, and I think that is what’s important about the library — public libraries in general — is the fact that you can come in with any type of question and get the information that you need.”