Tonya Olson-Ferrell, a native of west-central Minnesota, has been the director of the Yankton Community Library for the last year. During this time the library has continued to offer many free programs for all ages, and has made efforts to enhance service to the community by doing away with most fines and offering homework help after school. Given all that, it seemed appropriate to get to know our library’s director a little better.

She came to South Dakota enrolling at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, “I was all set on Gustavus, which is in Minnesota, a very similar school, and then I got, as part of my scholarship to Augie, a trip to India. So that really solidified it for me and that was a great experience.”

As far as developing an interest in librarianship, that didn’t begin until her junior year at Augie, “I did a semester in Minneapolis through the HECUA Program (Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs). They do some study-abroad programs and they do some in-country programs … around a certain topic. Mine was looking at social justice through the lens of the Twin Cities.”

Though there was never any single formative experience in the area of social justice for Olson-Ferrell, she says she’s always been drawn to such issues. As a youth, she went on a couple of mission trips to Jamaica, and then to India through Augustana, all in the span of about three years. Now, she believes that first-hand exposure to the poverty in those countries started her thinking about social justice here in her own country and in her education. “My grandfather was a principal in Minnesota his whole career and he always talked about, ‘There’s a lot of poverty here too.’ And ‘What can we do to help kids here?’ Not that it’s not great to help people in other countries, but there are things to look at in our own country.” Topics like these, she believes, discussed around the family dinner table while she and her sister were growing up, probably contributed to Olson-Ferrell’s personal desire to participate in the HECUA program.

Through the program she got an internship with the City of St. Paul Dept. of Parks and Recreation. During that internship her boss sat her down one day and said: What do you want to do with your life? She replied: I have no idea! “I was freaking out about it. It was the typical college student getting-ready-to-be-a-senior thing. She asked me what I was interested in, and I honestly don’t even remember what I told her…, but she said, ‘I think you should look at being a librarian. Librarians are some of the most radical people I know.’ And that floored me. I had never heard anything like that. Our library growing up was pretty strict and what you think of stereotypically, and very small. So I thought, I will have to look into that,’ and just sort of filed it away.”

Senior year she got in touch with Augustana’s Head Librarian Ronelle Thompson. She explained her interest and asked to shadow one of the library’s employees. Thompson replied, “We can do that, but if you’re really interested, you should work in a library. We can’t show you everything and you can’t get a really good glimpse into this — and if you want to do this — unless you’re doing it every day.” Adding, “And hey, by the way, I have a job opening.”

Olson-Ferrell applied, but didn’t get the job. What she did get though, was encouragement from Thompson, who said that though she was not a good fit this time around, she should continue her efforts to find employment in a library. A few months later Olson-Ferrell’s patience and persistence paid off and she landed a job at Augustana’s library as the acquisitions library assistant. “And that,” she smiled “was the beginning of everything.”

She was there about nine months. “It was great. I loved it.” She worked closely with both the assistant director and Thompson, and came to view Thompson as a mentor. “She’s really informed about a lot of things and she was a really good teacher. … It felt like I was learning a lot. … I was very sad to leave Augie.”

She left, for a job as a library assistant at the Yankton Public Library, which is where she found her calling. “I did a lot of marketing, a lot of cataloging, a lot of technical services, and then I decided I really do want to do this and so I started looking at masters programs.”

Olson-Ferrell got her degree online from the University of Alabama, working all the while, and taking a job at USD’s library. After three years — and a whole lot of hard work — she had her masters and soon after, her first librarian position as the digital access manager at the USD library. But, when the library directorship came open in Yankton, she realized that she had come to miss how, in her opinion, public libraries directly affect the lives of many people in the community, not just the students. “I really missed how you just help so many people here. It can be draining because it’s an emotional labor, but it’s really rewarding.” Working in a public library is often compared to being a bartender or a social worker, she explained, because you get to know the clients’ personal lives.

She concludes, working in a public library really is a radical thing.

“Libraries are very unique institutions because they are open to everyone. And that is one of the great tenets of libraries — in addition to being actually great it is one of the higher tenets. I personally think that imbues everything with a sense of social justice, but that’s also my personal lens. Other people might not come to it looking at it that way, but I think that is a really radical notion in today’s society: We are open to everybody, no purchase required, no qualifications required, you can be as rich as they come or as poor as they come and we will serve you the same — theoretically — people are human and that doesn’t always happen, but that is the goal.”