After 28 years as a librarian, Gari Plehal is finally managing her own branch - the . Plehal, who started the job last month, is having the time of her life.
"I love the work in a way that's almost crazy. I love to read and I get great joy from helping somebody else find the perfect book," Plehal recently told Patch from the library. "One of the things about this branch is that the two service desks are right by the door, so I get to meet everyone who comes in. It has a very neighborly feel to it."
The job of a librarian isn't what it used to be.
"Fifteen years ago, people used to come to the library for information and we helped them find it," Plehal said. "Most of the time now, though, people come to us with questions on library technology so that they can find the information themselves. So, we do a lot more teaching than we used to on how to navigate the library computer system."
Plehal was born in Chicago, and grew up in Austin, Minn. — the home of Spam. "Let me say that I have eaten it and it's ok, but it's not a part of my diet," she said. "But my mother-in-law used to send me the winning recipe for the annual Spam cook-off."
Plehal met her husband, John, in high school. She received her degree in musical theater from the University of Utah. "The only singing I do now is at home," she said. Shortly thereafter, the couple married. John entered the U.S. Navy, and over the next 25 years, the family (three children were born along the way) moved to Utah, Florida, Nova Scotia, California, Hawaii and Maine before settling in Springfield in 1989.
It was in California in the early 1980s that Plehal got the library bug. "During a period when my husband was deployed in Okinawa for more than six months, I decided I needed something to do other than take care of a two year old 24/7, so I decided to take a class, and I kept stopping at the page that said 'Library Science.'"
Plehal studied for two years and received her Master's in Library Science from San Jose University. She then worked at libraries in the Alameda County California Library System from 1984-86. In 1996, with the family permanently fixed in Northern Virginia, Plehal volunteered to be the Sunday Librarian at Pohick Regional Library.
"I was raising children but wanted to keep my librarian skills up to speed with the computer revolution, and in those days Pohick was the busiest library in the system, and Sunday was the busiest day, so it was quite a learning experience," she said.
Plehal left the Pohick branch in 2006 as the Associate Branch Manager, and worked the following two years as the Assistant Branch Manager at the Richard Byrd Library in Springfield.
Welcome To Lorton
Plehal oversees more than a dozen full, part-time staffers and volunteers in the Lorton branch. She considers herself to be an organized manager with an adaptable leadership style.
"So, if you're wondering if I alphabetize the spices in my spice rack - yes, I do," she said. "I was a bit of a rebel when my husband was in the military because I had a hard time keeping track of everybody's ranks, so I made it a policy to love everyone the same. I take a team approach and I believe in trying to be a servant leader. If I work hard to make everyone on my staff successful and help them meet their goals, I feel like I'll be a success."
What's the funniest book Plehal's ever read?
"A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole
Her favorite authors?
What's an unexpectedly challenging part of the job?
"One of the biggest hurdles we face is that we have some teachers in schools who ask their students to write a paper without using online sources, but we have online databases that we use, so now the reference material that used to be in books may no longer be published," Plehal said. "And those students need to learn how to find the most accurate information but are kept from doing so."