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Levin: Lace Keaton: From library cards to library director

Lace Keaton’s love of libraries can be condensed to one sunny morning in the Bahamas, years ago. It was her wedding day. While friends and family went shopping and to the beach, Keaton made her way to Shirley Street to spend time in the historic Nassau Public Library, by herself, happy and content among the books.

The roadmap of Lace P. Keaton’s life is pinned with libraries across the country, including the Newton County Library System, where she has served as director since June 2011. Some people keep menus of memorable restaurants. Keaton maintains a collection of every library card ever issued to her, dating back to rural South Carolina where she grew up.

From the Palmetto State to Downers Grove, Illinois (where Delaciea Keaton went to undergraduate school at George Williams College), to the College of DuPage and then to Colorado Springs, Colorado, Hawaii and Germany. She shuffles through her collection of library cards and holds up some others: “And this one is from Fort Sill, in Oklahoma. And this one is from Lake Lanker Regional Library,” where she worked in the 1990s. And then there were libraries in Ohio, Savannah and Waycross, before she was tapped as the chief of books for Newton County.

“I come from a family of educators,” says Keaton, 57, who earned her graduate degree in Library Science from Clark Atlanta University. “We were always reading. I tell people I used to chase the bookmobile the way others chased the ice cream truck.” Her cousin is Hill Harper is a best-selling author, though fans of “CSI: New York” may know him as investigator Sheldon Hawkes, the character he played for nine years. 

But unfortunately, Keaton’s lifelong love affair with books and the places that house them collided with a flailing economy about the time she was hired. The library, in 2011, was in the midst of opening up a new facility at the same time that libraries statewide (well, probably nationwide) were undergoing budget cuts. Throw in a building needing overdue maintenance and advances on the informational internet highway that siphoned off attendance, and the confluence of all of the above took its toll on the Newton County Library System. Employment in the library when Keaton started: 45. The employee roster today: 15.

But Keaton, a recent past president of the Georgia Library System, is nothing if not optimistic.

“We are working on a strategic plan, a community survey. We’re working with a consultant to find out what the community wants,” she says. “We’re looking at every single aspect of our system. It’s how you stay current and relevant in your community.”

This, she says, “is our Phoenix phase,” an opportunity for a rebirth. “We’re investigating it all. Manpower, facilities, renovation. We’re going to see what people are saying and then take the pieces and put it all together.” The library’s eight-member board of trustees, says Keaton, have been “unbelievably supportive.” The board is led by Steven Whatley, Ph.D., former county school superintendent. And more than once, she casts credit to her staff for their yeoman efforts. “They were doing two or three jobs each, and now they’re doing four or five.”

The Covington library dates at least to 1916, when early maps show that it occupied what is now the Covington Women’s Club, one block off the square. The first official free library opened its doors in 1944 in the basement of the county courthouse. For a while, the county system merged with DeKalb and Rockdale library systems, and in 1978, opened up a new home in the old post office building on Monticello Street.

The three-county regional system disbanded in 1989 and a board of trustees was established by the agencies funding the Newton County library—the county, the City of Covington, the Newton County School System, and the State of Georgia, along with supplemental grants and other sources. Despite its name, the library is not controlled or administered by Newton County.

The handsome and 32,000-square-foot, light-filled main library opened in October 1998 on Floyd Street, thanks in part to a Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax. Two other branches opened later: the LEED-certified Porter Memorial Branch Library in western Newton County in 2011 and the Jeanette Adams Zeigler Library in Newborn in 2014.

Keaton, soft-spoken and elegant in manner, takes a visitor on a strolling tour of the library. Employees are maintaining records, entering data, filling book orders and staffing the front desk. Out on the floor, patrons are reading, perusing genealogy records, working on computers. A generation ago, the business of libraries was books; now its information in its many different forms, including music, audiobooks, CDs, to name a few. Through the Georgia-pioneered PINES (Public Information Network for Electronic Services) system, virtually every resident in Georgia has access to the collections of almost the entire system of libraries in the state, free of charge.

Keaton escorts her visitor to the door. Outside, the parking lot is already more than half-full and the library has only been open an hour. Moms are escorting their kids inside. Perhaps one of them will someday will put his or her own wedding plans on hold for another hour to go spend time in a local library.

Rob Levin is president and editor of a book publishing company in Covington and is a former national feature writer for the Atlanta Constitution.