Meet Heidi Daniel, the new KCLS executive director

Heidi Daniel started as the new executive director for King County Library System (KCLS) on March 11, 2024. Her journey began with children and teen programming in Oklahoma City and Houston before transitioning to library administration. Her first Executive Director job was overseeing the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. Before joining KCLS, she was the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore for over six years. She has a strong commitment to breaking down barriers of access, and made the Pratt one of the first public library systems on the East Coast to eliminate fines. Under her leadership, the Pratt was named one of the “Nicest Places in America” by Good Morning America and Reader’s Digest. She also received the Daily Record’s Maryland Most Admired CEOs award in 2023.

Heidi joined KCLS staff members Debera Harrell and Sarah Thomas to discuss libraries, leadership and why she’s excited about her new role.

Q: What do you recall about your first library experience?

A: I grew up in Alma, Michigan and used the Alma Public Library. My first job was there as a shelver. I was terrible at it because I would read the books and talk to people instead of shelving. Neither of my parents went to college. I’m adopted and they felt strongly about making sure that I had the chance to get an education. They thought, “She’ll love to learn because she loves to read.”

Q: What were your favorite books growing up?

A: I was a voracious reader. I had a big imagination. As an only child, I spent a lot of time alone, so books became my friends. Growing up, I read Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary—I loved the Ramona series. In my middle grade years, Harriet the Spy. As a teenager, I loved the Neil Gaiman Sandman series. Later, I loved the Color Purple, and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. The amazing thing about literature is that you can always find something in humanity to connect with.

Q: How has your library career unfolded?

A: I graduated with a degree in women’s studies and a minor in sociology but realized I didn’t want a life in academia. I worked for an arts council in Oklahoma City, thinking of arts management. But I always had this deep personal connection to public libraries. I went to work as a library children and teens specialist and fell in love with it. We were doing programs after-school and in juvenile justice centers, working with teen moms and the LGBTQ community. I decided what I really wanted to do. I earned my master’s degree in library science and moved to Houston to work for the Houston Public Library as an assistant branch manager for children’s services.

I like challenges, working with people, leading, problem-solving and setting the vision for departments and organizations. I applied for the executive director of Mahoning County Public Library System in Youngstown, Ohio, and was there for five years. When the Pratt Free Library executive director position opened up in Baltimore, I applied and served there for seven years before joining KCLS.

Q: What are some of your favorite memories or stories of people that have been impacted by libraries?

A: In Baltimore, a gentleman told me he had been homeless for years, but brought his daughter to the library to give her a sense of normalcy and stability. He said he was treated with respect and dignity. He would get resources and look for a job while his daughter was in the children’s section. He did find a job and housing, and his life improved significantly. I think we underestimate the power we have to brighten someone’s day and change the trajectory of their lives.

Q: What are some of your biggest concerns facing libraries?

A: One is making sure our funding is sustainable into the future, that our operations and teams can be supported so they can support our communities. The other is the national issue of intellectual freedom. The idea that we should somehow be censoring what we provide to make people feel comfortable just does not hold true to the freedom of public libraries and the principles they were founded on.

Q: Tell us a bit about your family.

A: I have two teenagers, a husband and mother and two dogs. My son is 15 and has started school here. He had been home-schooling. My husband is an at-home parent; he helps make things work at home so I can be fully present at work, which is a luxury. My daughter is going to stay in Baltimore with him until she finishes 8th grade. We’re all excited to be in a new region of the country.

Q: What are some of your top career successes?

A: The ones with the most community impact. When I was in Ohio, there was a branch in a community that was scheduled to close before I got there. Their sense was that losing the library and a place to come together would be the last nail in the coffin. A donor came on board because of the listening sessions and deep work we did to identify what the community needed and to support the solution the community wanted. We were ultimately able to build a new library with the Community.

I’m proud of leading fines-free initiatives in both libraries. Also, facility improvements. In Baltimore, a community that was highly impacted by redlining and systemic racism wanted a library, but the city had no funding for it. Pratt’s team worked closely with the city and the state and we were able to get the investment together for the first library in 15 years. I’m also proud of the social impact programming the Baltimore team created while I was there, and that we had a 12-year high in circulation last year.

Q: What are your hopes for KCLS?

A: We are a property tax-funded organization. We have to be critical to the communities we serve, ensuring services are essential to them. I’d also like to be a place where people love to work. I hope we can create a shared vision and actions that ensures both of those things.

Q: What excites you about your new role?

A: KCLS has a great reputation nationally. I’ll get to work with communities that love their library and with staff that are clearly so dedicated to the work of KCLS and the mission. I’m a builder. I’m excited to get to know the staff, to figure out what our challenges and opportunities are, and how to move forward. I’m really looking forward to it.