State Librarian Makes History
State Librarian and Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (KDLA) Commissioner James A. Nelson is making history himself as he retires after 26 years of service in the state librarian position. Nelson, who was appointed in 1980 by Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., is the longest serving Kentucky state librarian in the state’s history.
The 65 year old also is the second longest currently serving state librarian in the United States with Maine’s state librarian being first.
Nelson’s agency is responsible for statewide library development and management, and preservation of public records in Kentucky. Kentucky is one of 10 states that combine libraries and archives into one department. Currently, the state archives hold 247 million pages or 18.5 miles of critical public records dating from 1780 to the present in 99,000 cubic feet of space. It holds invaluable documents such as letters signed by President Abraham Lincoln, a deed signed by Patrick Henry, archival drawings and plans of the state capitol building, and governors’ records going back to Gov. Isaac Shelby.
“Jim’s dedication to the state and his profession are evident when you consider the number of years he has spent in his job. We are truly proud of the fact that he is the longest serving state librarian in Kentucky’s history and the second longest in the United States,” said Governor Ernie Fletcher.
“Jim’s tireless efforts in working to expand the state library and archives facilities shows his love for the place where he works and the people who work with him.
“While his full-time service will be missed, even in retirement I know that Jim plans to be an active voice in furthering the mission of public libraries and I commend him for that and the service he has provided to the Commonwealth,” Governor Fletcher said.
Since 1958, KDLA has been mandated by law to serve as the central repository for state and local public records in Kentucky.
“For 26 years, Commissioner Nelson has displayed amazing talents and abilities in skillfully managing and preserving Kentucky’s resources, records, collections, and oral and written history. He is an irreplaceable treasure chest of state knowledge, and I am grateful for his wonderful service to our commonwealth,” said Kentucky Education Cabinet Secretary Laura E. Owens. KDLA is an agency of the Education Cabinet.
During his impressive career, Nelson has served six Kentucky governors as state librarian, and one governor as acting state librarian, but surprisingly he didn’t dream of becoming a librarian when he was younger. During college, Nelson was fascinated with poet Dylan Thomas, and longed to be a drama author after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Colorado in 1965. Now after 40 years of diverting that plan, he has decided to retire and return to his first love. “I want to start a writing career. This time I want to do fiction,” he said. “My focus will be horse racing and some politics.”
But the Colorado native doesn’t regret the circuitous path he has taken to a writing career. “If you had asked me 40 years ago as a library aid at the Louisville Free Library, I would have said I was going back to Colorado to write,” Nelson said. “But after working there I thought this was a really neat thing. It was an information resource that people could use to help themselves and their families, and it was free.”
Nelson went on to earn a master’s degree in library science at the University of Kentucky in 1969.
Libraries also run in Nelson’s family. His wife Becky is the school librarian and school technology coordinator at Hern Elementary School in Frankfort. She also teaches children’s literature at the University of Kentucky. They live in Georgetown and have five adult children and one grandchild.
Nelson said he likens “public libraries to town squares where we have a human connection in the global world we live in.”
Even though he is retiring, Nelson still has hopes that the KDLA’s Clark-Cooper building in Frankfort will be expanded soon because it has run out of space to store documents. The building, opened in 1982, was named in honor of Dr. Thomas Clark and prominent Hazard banker Vernon Cooper, two champions of Kentucky’s library system.
Plans for the $8 million addition would include electronic pickers to retrieve documents and state-of-art climate control for proper preservation of records. Currently, all of the records must be retrieved by hand. “The archives have to be secure, have temperate and humidity control and be accessible,” Nelson said.
“The permanent records of the state of Kentucky are in jeopardy if we don’t get a new facility,” he said. “We are at a crisis point. The state archives are filled to capacity. We must expand the Libraries and Archives Building with a 16,000-square-foot addition so that we can respond to the storage demands of public agencies.”
KDLA is legislatively mandated to document and preserve about 5 percent of government records that are generated, but in June 2005, KDLA had to issue a moratorium barring further records from being transferred to the state archives because of a lack of space. Nelson said although the space problem is an issue for everyone, it is particularly troubling for the legal community which relies on court records stored there for cases. Nelson estimates that 80 percent of the research done on permanent documents at KDLA is on court records. In addition, authors use the records for research, and Kentuckians use the archives to trace their family roots.
“My hope, first of all, is that the state’s decision makers will come to appreciate the critical role that libraries have in moving the state forward. Kids go to libraries to do homework, teachers go to do research, and families go there to achieve a higher quality of life,” he said.
Under his direction, Kentucky was one of the first states to start an electronic records management program to preserve items such as email, reports, budgets and documents of government activity. “We are one of the most progressive state agencies doing electronic records management,” he said.
Another success was working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to get computers and Internet access in all 118 of the state’s legally established public libraries. Kentucky was one of the first states to participate in the foundation’s library gift program. “We’ve done a good job of getting technology out there and training people to use it,” Nelson said.
His nearly 40-year career in libraries and archives has garnered him numerous professional awards including the 2003 Kentucky Libraries Award and 2002 Innovation Award from the Kentucky Library Association; the 1997 Professional Achievement Award from the American Library Association and a 1985 Outstanding Alumnus Award from the University of Kentucky, College of Library and Information Science.
Nelson also has served on several national and state committees including serving on a Legislative Research Commission committee which revised open records and open meetings laws to accommodate electronic records. Recently, Nelson chaired the Board of Directors of the Southeastern Library Network (SOLINET) which serves nearly 2,700 libraries in 10 southeast states and the Caribbean. He said he enjoys leadership roles and collaborating with various organizations.
“It’s been so great to be in a position where I can influence change,” Nelson said.
He counts among his primary mentors Dr. Clark, U.S. Senator Wendell Ford and Margaret Willis, the first state librarian that Nelson worked under. Nelson was Sen. Ford’s speech writer when he was the Kentucky governor in the early 1970s. In all, Nelson has served eight governors in some capacity since moving to Kentucky in 1965.
Of Dr. Clark, Nelson says he was lucky to have known and traveled with the “Father of the Archives.”
“Dr. Clark could write history like few others can. Most write history very dry and boring. He brought an unusual story telling skill to writing and a wealth of knowledge that he could rattle off,” he said.
Dr. Clark also often advised the young librarian including once when Nelson was offered a position as the state librarian in Virginia. Nelson said that Dr. Clark told him he could take one of two careers paths – take a job where he could travel and see things or “find a place you like and set your buckets down.” Fortunately, Nelson chose to set his buckets down in Kentucky and stay.
“I’ve loved being state librarian. It’s a perfect fit for a writer,” Nelson said.
KDLA provides grants, technical assistance and direct services to libraries, archival repositories and public agencies throughout Kentucky. In addition, it offers reference, research and specialized information services from Frankfort. For more information about KDLA services, go to www.kdla.ky.gov.
The Education Cabinet coordinates learning programs from P-16, and manages and supports training and employment functions in the Department for Workforce Investment. For more information about our programs, visit www.educationcabinet.ky.gov or call 502-564-6606.