Eric Head is the director of the Citrus County Library System and this year’s winner of the prestigious Florida Library Association’s Leader of the Year award. It’s not something Head would have predicted when he started working for the department as a part-time computer technician in 1995.
But the makings of a state, award-winning librarian were always there.
“I’m a library nerd. I go to them even on vacation,” Head recently told the Chronicle.
The library is a special place where people learn about new things, socialize, and can contribute back to their community as a volunteer, he said.
“I don’t know if I like the term community center, but I know the library is at the center of the community,” he said.
Libraries are a place people come for help, whether it’s to find a book, take a class to learn about the basics of using a computer, learning about online searches, or about new books or authors they’ve never read before now.
Head recalls installing computers and their wiring when people would come up to him to ask for help usually directed at other library staff.
“It makes you feel good to help people,” Head told the Chronicle. “And (libraries) are fundamentally part of American life.”
His father was a salesman and volunteer fire chief. His mother of him was the librarian in a 600 square-foot library in Homosassa during the 1990s.
“I loved books and learning. My mom used to read to me all the time,” he said.
The library also attracts people of all ages and backgrounds. Head recalled that he often sees one table utilized by seniors enjoying a game of chess or a puzzle and next to them a table of young people and the two groups talking with one another.
Libraries are also a place where people can volunteer and give back to the community, working in a setting they’ve likely been familiar with most of their lives.
In 1996 Head became a librarian and the department’s technology coordinator. In 2003 he earned his Master’s in library and information studies. In 2002 he was promoted to assistant director and in 2011 library director.
Head recalled that when he was first hired that during library staff planning meetings the information technology staff were often invited to attend. He said that’s where he became interested in how decisions were made about the department’s needs and vision for the future. He said he soon realized he wanted to be part of that process.
Technology has changed since he began working with the department nearly 30 years ago. Libraries now offer an array of speakers and lectures, classes about technology, audio books, and digital videos.
What hasn’t changed is the need for libraries, he said.
After the rise of the internet, Head told the Chronicle that many predicted there would be no need for libraries. But instead, library visits and memberships continued to grow.
When eBooks became available, people predicted the demise of traditional paper books.
“People have been telling me Ebooks will get rid of regular books for the past 26 years,” he said.
Instead the popularity of the county’s five library branches grew.
The county has 57,252 registered patrons, has hosted 1,112 programs during the past fiscal year, answered 11,262 patron questions, and overseen nearly 132,000 library visits, according to county records.
Instead of competing with digital retailers like ebay or Amazon, the library system here focused on its strengths in offering digital services, but including help from library staff. The library branches have circulated among patrons nearly 52,000 digital items in the past fiscal year.
Head has served as chairman of numerous library association committees and as president of the Florida Library Association in 2019-2020.
Because the library’s patrons aged and some began to be diagnosed with dementia, he now requires his staff to be educated on the subject and offers workshops for how to best interact with patrons with the disease.
One of his most public challenges has been an opposition to a June kiosk display of books centering around LBGTQ issues. Some said the display was not appropriate.
Head said that his job as director was to be neutral on issues and from the “library’s point of view it was just another subject of interest.”
“Libraries are for everyone,” he said.
The opposition was not “about the book displays, he said, but rather “it’s really about the books themselves.”
And in many cases the people opposing some books likely haven’t visited one of the county’s libraries, he said.
Head said that his staff nominated him for the Florida Library Association award.
Many in the county wrote to the association saying Head was a good choice to be recognized.
“I have worked alongside Eric for more than 10 years,” wrote Shaunda Burdette, executive director of the Citrus County Education Foundation
“We have served on numerous projects and committees throughout Citrus County. His is very well respected on state and local levels. Eric is the epitome of a true leader. This can be seen through his work from him as the Director of the Citrus County Library System, and in every committee, he serves on, on a daily basis, ”she wrote. “From serving as president of the Citrus County Education Foundation previously to creating an early literacy program, to being the voice of families who need the ability to have access to libraries, his passion for him can be felt throughout our entire community.”
Sandra “Sam” Himmel, superintendent of Citrus County Schools, agreed.
“Eric has been at the helm of our library system for more than 27 years and there’s no one else more dedicated to the job,” Himmel wrote the FLA. “As a Citrus County native, I’ve seen firsthand the tremendous improvements that have been made to our library system under his guidance from him.”
“If you look at the types of programs he’s instituted, his focus is to appeal to the community. He takes his cues from the community. Whether it’s a summer reading program, field trips, or a library card campaign — Eric is always the first one to step up for our schools,” she wrote. “He’s always realized that libraries are more than just books on shelves, they are gateways for our kids.”
Head told the Chronicle that the library system’s success rests with his staff and volunteers, that they do the hard work.
One of his biggest challenges with the public, he said, was trying to rid the community of an image that the library “is a dusty, old, quiet building with books in it. “We’re a lot more than that.”
He said he was honored to receive the FLA’s award.