As a black kid growing up in the South, Chad Helton rarely used the library because he never felt he belonged in one.
Few patrons looked like him, and the programs at the Mount Airy, N.C., library didn’t reflect his community. Little did he know then that a job delivering books in a golf cart after he dropped out of college would lead to a pioneering career as a library administrator.
Helton, the first black top administrator at several college libraries and the Los Angeles library system, was named director of the Hennepin County Library system last week. He will face the challenge of reopening libraries that have been shut down by COVID-19 and also working with communities wounded by the police-involved death of George Floyd.
“The pandemic just highlighted the important role that libraries play in people’s lives,” said Helton, 42. “This is something we’ve never experienced. It certainly will be interesting.”
Helton, who will be paid $175,000 a year, said he jumped at the chance to work for a system he called one of the most innovative in the country.
The Hennepin County Library has 41 urban and suburban locations and a $90 million budget, with more than 810,000 active cardholders. Branches were visited more than 5 million times last year.
Helton replaces interim director Janet Mills, who county officials said did an outstanding job of filling the job for the past year and a half. Mills was very thoughtful in her approach and her focus on the library’s mission, said Sheila Letscher, vice president of the Library Board.
When Helton takes over the county library in late August, it will be nearly two years since previous director Lois Langer Thompson left to take over a library system in suburban Seattle. County Board Chairwoman Marion Greene said library officials took their time because they wanted to open the applicant pool to candidates with different life and professional experiences.
Helton had been a college dropout for eight years, working three jobs at a time and relying on friends for a place to live, when he got on the library track. While delivering books at the University of North Carolina, he ran into a former professor and mentor who stressed how working in a library can change your life.
Helton returned to UNC, earning a bachelor’s degree in African-American Studies and then master’s degrees in library and information studies and public administration.
He enjoyed his nearly two-year stint in Los Angeles, but he had an “inexplicable love for Minnesota” from the time he was a child, cheering for the Twins and Vikings and becoming a big Prince fan. Since 2010 he has visited Minneapolis several times. “The more I visited, the more interested I became in the community,” he said, “and then this opportunity of a lifetime presented itself.”
Letscher was impressed with Helton’s résumé, engaging personality and desire to keep the Hennepin County system relevant.
“We are very, very lucky to have him,” she said. “His leadership style struck me as very collaborative. He gets his greatest energy from talking to people in the community.”
In Los Angeles, Helton helped start a program that allowed the homeless to sleep after hours in their vehicles in guarded library parking lots. He said he worked hard to set up systemwide programs and connect staffers to other branches, which could be more than 60 miles apart and serve residents with little in common.
Besides directing the Los Angeles library system’s 72 branches, Helton has run California libraries in Palo Alto, Contra Costa County, Stanford University and the University of California, Davis.
“My leadership style is trying to get people involved and having their opinions heard and respected,” he said. “I’ve learned that I have some really great ideas and some really terrible ideas. Sometimes I need to be quiet and let others bring in ideas.”
Helton cited Hennepin County’s MNspin program as an example of how his administrative manner will fit in. The program features albums from local artists that can be checked out from the libraries.
“The staff went out to the community and saw that something was missing,” said Helton. “They bridged the gap and filled a hole to create an amazing program.”
A big fan of jazz, soul, R&B and rock, Helton has more than 5,000 vinyl albums. He said jazz musicians influenced his leadership skills, and that great band leaders understood their role was to highlight the components of their band and not focus solely on themselves.
Although he has been the first black director at the libraries where he has worked, he will be the second to run the Hennepin County system. Charles Brown served as director from 1994 to 2004.
“I don’t necessarily look at things from a racial or ethnic perspective,” said Helton. “I look at diversity in people by how they think rather than how they look.”
In an interview this week, he noted this was a “sad and heartbreaking time” for Minneapolis but said it offered an opportunity for a real conversation about the systemic nature of racial tensions and disparities.
“Growing up in the South as a young black kid, I definitely experienced my fair share of racism, and also my fair share of negative interactions with police officers that have continued even as an adult,” he said. “I want to really be at the forefront of how we will move forward as a community and help shape that conversation.”