New library director's career far from quiet

She's been featured in comic, had brush with hostage drama

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Did You Know?

Following her retirement in 2007, the Salt Lake City Public Library named its auditorium for Nancy Tessman.

Nancy Tessman's 33-year library career has ranged from the whimsy of an "Archie" comic book to the life-and-death drama of a hostage standoff.

We're not talking about bookshelf inventory.

A few years ago, the new executive director of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District was portrayed in an "Archie" comic as an example of library leadership.

The hostage situation — resolved by a rescue that Hollywood might think twice about — happened while she was at work.

Tessman was hired in June to replace Bruce Ziegman as leader of the Fort Vancouver system, and she just hit the three-month mark on the job.

"She's learning fast," said Bill Yee, chairman of the seven-member board of trustees. "She's a good administrator, to begin with. She's spending a lot of time in the field, and we're glad she's doing that."

Tessman was hired on a one-year, $135,000 contract. She came to Vancouver from the Salt Lake City Public Library, although it wasn't a direct path. Tessman was director at Salt Lake City from 1996 to 2007 before taking a sabbatical.

In 2006, Salt Lake City was named library of the year by Library Journal. The new library built during Tessman's tenure — the bond was approved by 68 percent of the voters — included retail space. One of the tenants sold comics and graphic novels, and it turned out that they were very well connected in the comics industry, Tessman said.

It wasn't long before a library task force from fictional Riverdale, setting of the Archie comics, showed up in Salt Lake City to see what was going on there.

"It was a nice celebration of libraries in general," Tessman said of the comic book tribute.

In 1994, a gunman took 18 hostages immediately after a group of Buddhist monks had taken apart an intricate sand painting. The gunman, who had a crude bomb, herded the hostages toward another room: It was right next to the room where a sheriff's lieutenant was teaching a class.

The officer, who was not in uniform but was armed, slipped into the group of hostages. After he identified himself, the hostage-taker swung his handgun toward the sheriff's officer; the officer fatally wounded the gunman.

"I was in the building the whole time," Tessman said.

"Anything that happens in a town," Tessman observed, "can happen in a library." In her years in Salt Lake City, that included flooding, fire and a police pursuit.

And these days, libraries and the communities they serve have economic issues in common.

"When revenues go down, the need goes up," Tessman said. "When we have limits and have to provide more service, those are not easy decisions."

The district is looking at new ways of doing business, Yee said. Tessman, who heads the system with an annual budget of about $24 million and about 200 employees, will be a big part of that.

One innovation is the Yacolt Library Express, a mostly unstaffed facility that was scheduled to celebrate its grand opening Saturday afternoon.

Another transition is ahead at the Vancouver Mall branch. It will be converted into a "library connection" of about half its current size.

"They like us there," Yee said, referring to mall officials. "And we want to be there; but they can't continue to give us a big space at a low price."

Despite the current climate, "I think libraries have a role to play in economic development," Tessman said.

And not just in Vancouver, where a new flagship branch is a big part of downtown redevelopment. Tessman listed other cities from Ridgefield to Goldendale served by the Fort Vancouver library system: "They're all interesting places with good days ahead, and libraries will play a role,"she said.


Tom Vogt: 360-735-4556; http://www.twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.