8 | Kelly Overton: Librarian

Overton was born and raised in Columbia, S.C., the older of two sisters. She describes her childhood as pretty run of the mill. “I got A’s and B’s but I was really bad at math,” she said. She kept her grades up through high school and entered Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where she double majored in Southern history and literature.

After graduation in 1994, Overton joined former President Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps service program then began work at a non-profit in Durham, N.C., called Public Allies. She worked with area teenagers, helping them to build and operate their own radio station on Duke University’s campus. She described the youth-run station as “NPR for kids” with her job being to mentor and supervise their work. A few years into it, she was dissatisfied. Overton said she felt limited from having her greatest impact. “I feel like I got to know them really deeply,” she said, “but I only got to know 12 kids really deeply. There were lots of kids that couldn’t get to downtown Durham to be a part of the program.”

By chance, the mother of one of the kids from the radio station was founding a charter a school. She knew that Overton worked well with young people and asked her to interview for a teaching job. The school only had to have half of its teachers certified and Overton would be one of their exceptions. She taught ninth and tenth-grade English at New Century Charter School in Chapel Hill. It was there that she had the idea to become a librarian. She describes it as a “lightning bolt experience.”

The charter where Overton worked was established to provide students who had been previously homeschooled with a traditional high school experience. In the middle of her second year teaching, she took the students on a field trip to the library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As she and her group of students were leaving the building, she found her future path. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. It’s a job,” she said. “ I remember exactly where I was when I had this revelation.” And like that, her mind was made up. She applied and got into the university’s master’s degree program in library science, where she concentrated on young adult services. Her thesis was about how adult readers experienced young adult fiction.

When she graduated in the fall of 2003, Overton planned to move to New York and become a teen librarian. She always wanted to live in the city. But the attacks on the World Trade Center had hurt city finances and the New York Public Library had a hiring freeze. Overton got as close as she could: a job at a public library in East Brunswick, N.J. She moved to nearby Metuchen, a community she described as “storybook” with the added advantage of a train to New York running through it. She would be close enough to New York in case anything ever opened up.

Finally at a conference later that year, she met a woman who worked for the New York Public Library that had some pull. The woman liked Overton and even though the city was still doing most of its hiring internally, she arranged for her to apply. “It all felt very meant to be,” Overton said.

In July of 2004, Overton got the job she wanted at the Mott Haven branch of the library, just a four-minute walk to the Bronx Academy of Letters. A year later, she would visit the school and Anna Hall would offer her a job.

Overton remembers the story much how Hall recounted it. She was visiting the school and working with students in classrooms, administering workshops on the public library system. “Letters was in my neighborhood,” she said. “[Hall’s] class was one of the ones that I visited. The school was different than the others that I’d visited. They were being very respectful to the kids and listening to them. I was into that. That was the first thing that made me want to pursue working there.” However, the school didn’t have a library, let alone a librarian. That would soon change dramatically.

“We needed money for an actual space,” said Overton. “Each New York City Council member has money for special initiatives. At the time, there was a big initiative to bring libraries into new schools. I wrote a letter to the Bronx borough president and they led me through the process of applying for the grants. I wrote a proposal asking for everything that we wanted and we got it.” The grant totaled nearly $500,000 that Overton said went toward transforming a classroom on the school’s first floor into a library. Other money came in from the school’s board members to buy books. “It was like a total of $750,000 all together,” said Overton. That the school could lose the hard-earned space just a few years later, she said is “ridiculous.”

Donovan X. Ramsey