CARBONDALE — Diana Sussman is a far cry from the stereotype of the shushing librarian. As director of the Carbondale Public Library, she’s worked to cultivate a vibrant, community-oriented space that bustles with people from all walks of life — and that means it’s anything but quiet.
“Our foot traffic last year was 127,679 people, and our program attendance was 8,354. That’s a lot of traffic. That’s a lot of attendance. Our programs are often so large that they don’t even fit in our meeting rooms — they have to be out in the middle of the library,” Sussman said.
Sussman, who has helmed the library for the past seven years, has been named the 2017 recipient of the Illinois Library Association Librarian of the Year Award. It is an honor that recognizes a librarian’s service in Illinois libraries.
Before her time at the Carbondale Public Library, Sussman worked at the former Shawnee Library System as director of the Southern Illinois Talking Book Center, which served the blind and print-impaired.
Under Sussman’s leadership, the Carbondale Public Library offered close to 550 programs for children, teens and adults last year.
Sussman has geared much of the library’s programming toward promoting a culture of inclusivity and understanding.
“I would say, in the past couple of years, I’ve seen people have a lot of difficulty having civil dialogue around disagreement, having trouble picturing another person’s point of view, understanding what someone else’s life experience might be and how that might make them react to the world differently from another person,” Sussman said.
This past spring, the library and Nonviolent Carbondale organized an “11 Days for Compassion” program that featured bystander intervention training for teens and a “Human Library,” where participants had conversations with “living books.”
“We’ve had immigrants, we had people who were formerly incarcerated, we’ve had people from various diverse backgrounds, people from different religions, and (it gives) people the opportunity to sit down across from that person and hear their personal story so that they can be better advocates for people — but also so that they themselves can see what they didn’t already know and come to a better understanding about what it’s like to be somebody else,” Sussman said.
In her time as director, Sussman has seen funds for social service agencies dwindle, bringing more disadvantaged people through the library’s doors.
“I see more and more homeless people. I see more and more people falling through various cracks. I see more and more people who appear to not get the mental health services that they need,” Sussman said.
To help address that problem, the library started an internship program through the Sparrow Coalition that brings in Master’s degree students from the social work program at Southern Illinois University. For most of the year, the library now has a social worker on staff.
“We see a lot of people with social service needs that go beyond just handing them a phone number, for example. So it takes a social worker sometimes to understand what phone number needs to be handed to them, and then sometimes they need a little more advocacy,” Sussman said.
The library’s social workers have helped find housing for families struggling to afford the upfront costs of rentals.
“We’ve had people show up at the library and say, ‘I’ve just got to town, and I’m here because I was evicted and I came to Carbondale.’ Or, ‘I came to Carbondale because I was flooded out in Louisiana and I ended up up here.’ We’ve had all those situations, and our social workers have been able to help them find housing in a town that’s completely unfamiliar to them, to find emergency financial help if it’s available, and also just to be an ear, someone to talk to,” Sussman said.
Tina Hubert, executive director of Six Mile Regional Library in Granite City and the 2016 ILA Librarian of the Year, said she couldn’t think of anyone more deserving of the honor than Sussman.
“She’s a very thoughtful and caring person. … She’s kind, which we need more of in this world, and she’s someone who really, really does try to bring out the best in people and the best in situations,” Hubert said.
Sussman will be presented with the award during the Illinois Library Association Annual Conference on Oct. 10 in Tinley Park.