Leaving a Library Legacy: CALS Deputy Director Lisa Donovan Retires

On November 2, CALS staff members from several branches along with other well-wishers gathered at the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library & Learning Center to bid a fond farewell to retiring Deputy Director Lisa Donovan. If you know anything about Lisa, the location of the party was a given. Lisa began her career with CALS when the Main Library opened in its current location in the River Market in 1997. She was hired as a part-time programmer in the Youth Services department. But her early childhood development work started well before that. “My undergraduate studies were in Child Development. I always worked in children’s services in some capacity. My first job out of college was director of a daycare center. To this day I consider that the hardest job I’ve ever tried to do. I left that job when my second child was born. When our children were little I was fortunate to be able to work part time, teaching preschool, usually in the schools our kids attended,” Lisa told us when we asked about her background.

“In this age of cancel culture and book banning, we librarians must know who we are and why we are here. We can’t let anyone convince us that keeping this safe and precious space for people is harmful or not necessary. Andrew Carnegie once said, ‘A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.’ If we remember this and treat people with kindness, we’ll be alright.” –Lisa Donovan

Prior to CALS, Lisa worked as a consultant for Arkansas State University Childhood Services, monitoring childcare programs and training teachers. While she enjoyed that work, the travel involved wasn’t ideal for a mother of four. Enter the Central Arkansas Library System. The part-time position in Youth Services was exactly what Lisa needed. She immediately felt at home, having found her “bliss and her people.” Once all her kids were in school, Lisa began working at CALS full time, and that’s when her career really took off.

She became Assistant Manager of Youth Services at Main, then was promoted to Manager, followed by Summer Reading Coordinator for the system, then Director of Youth Services for the system, and finally Deputy Director, where she would stay until her retirement. (Lisa is quite adamant that everyone know that she was replaced by not one, but two people!)

During her time with CALS, Lisa didn’t just move up the ranks, she actively championed programming and helped create opportunities for staff and patrons alike. She helped establish Be Mighty, a city-wide program helping connect kids and teens with free meals. When asked what she was most proud of, she couldn’t land on just one thing, saying, “The things that make me most proud are not really my achievements; instead they were accomplished through the work of many people. It has been gratifying and humbling to hear from past and present coworkers and patrons that I helped them along the way, whether it be to achieve career goals, school assignments, or making it through their daily lives. Most of the time I was unaware of the effect I had on other people. I didn’t really plan things, they just happened. I’m so glad CALS and I found each other.”

Remember earlier when the location of her retirement party was stated to be a given? That’s because she was pivotal in the creation of the Children’s Library. This summer when Hillary Clinton herself visited the library, former CALS Director Bobby Roberts discussed Lisa’s involvement in the library’s origin story at length. He said that it all began with Lisa, who was head of Youth Services at the time. The location was obvious, with the system wanting to invest equally in the community south of Interstate 630. The proximity to the zoo and UAMS made the location ideal.

The gallery/maker space at the Children’s Library was a later addition, thanks to a grant. While making plans for the construction, staff pointed out that the computer lab, which at that time was in the current gallery space, would be more accessible if it were moved upstairs. That would leave the long, narrow space outside the maker space empty. Everyone agreed that a gallery seemed like a good companion for the new maker space. The computers were moved upstairs, and at the end of the grant project there was a new maker space and accompanying gallery. First intended to house art created by the young library patrons, the gallery evolved into also displaying items from the CALS art collection as well as hosting award-winning temporary exhibitions.

As a parting gift for all of us, Lisa worked with CALS Art Administrator Colin Thompson to curate an art exhibition that will be on display in the Children’s Library Gallery from December 1 through January 27. For From the Vault: Art for the Young at Heart from the CALS Permanent Collection, she pulled together what she describes as a fun collection, including vintage posters, book covers, and historical pieces that she personally saved. See more about the exhibition here.

“Not everything was easy: when we began hiring social workers so we could help meet the needs of the most vulnerable people in the library; figuring out how to keep the library up and running during the pandemic while doing our best to stay safe, which was extremely difficult. During that time a coworker and I had a mantra that helped us a lot. When things got tough we would remind one another, ‘we can do hard things.’ We still need to say that from time to time.” -Lisa Donovan

When asked about her favorite memories, several sprang to mind, and of course there are photos to commemorate. “I have lots of wonderful memories, like the time our linebacker-sized page dressed up like Captain Underpants for a program; visiting with Vernon, former head of Security, about our families as he made his rounds through Youth Services; the Harry Potter party that grew and grew until it occupied the entire Main Library; and this summer when Bill and Hillary Clinton came to the Children’s Library in honor of its 10th anniversary.”

“The library is a fabulous place to work for the right kind of person. You have to value books and learning. You don’t get to sit around and read books at work, but you will be around books and lots of smart, good-hearted coworkers. Most importantly, you have to want to help people. What makes the library such a special place are the books (not to mention computers, tools, toys, etc.) and the helpers who make sure that everybody is safe and welcome to come into the library and learn and enjoy.” –Lisa Donovan