Looking back on your own personal history, what are some defining moments you feel made you a good leader?

Aikens: My defining moments were undergirded by three things: a love for people, a desire to serve others, and opportunity. Along with the phenomenal upbringing provided by my parents, my community provided numerous opportunities for me to learn leadership skills and practice leading as a young person. My grandmother led an exemplary life of service feeding, sheltering, and mentoring countless individuals. She modeled the importance of love, service, and humanity, and helped groom me to do likewise. I remember being a peer counselor, complete with a team of “staff.” I was still in high school and had responsibility for coaching team members, reviewing their timecards, delivering their paychecks, and recognizing their contributions. It was then that I realized how powerful coaching and recognition are to team success. Opportunities such as these not only prepared me for leadership, but they also normalized it. Leadership didn’t seem distant or scary. It was natural.

Tonya Aikens (Submitted photo)

How does this translate into the way you lead the library system? 

Aikens: I’ve always believed the best investments we can make are those we make in people. Investing in the library system, our team, and those we serve, uplifts our entire community. Knowing this, I lead with a people-first mindset. We’re laser-focused on providing ample, and equitable, opportunities for all.

As you lead the library system — and it is recognized as outstanding — how do you make a decision between trying to make changes and keeping everything the same because it seems to be working so well? 

Aikens: I lead understanding libraries, like people, businesses, and communities, are ever evolving. To remain outstanding, our library system must also evolve. Change is a growth opportunity. In this way, change is not only good, but necessary. Think about a young mind and its potential. Instead of having access to the library of today, imagine that young mind only having access to the library of 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, and so on. We’d be doing a complete disservice to that young mind, literally stifling its growth. This is true for every person HCLS serves. With our team and alongside our community, I vision, assess, and plan for maximum effect. It’s a responsibility and an honor to create opportunities for immediate and generational impact.

Howard County LIbrary System CEO Tonya Aikens addresses attendees at a fundraiser event February 25 at East Columbia Library. (TBM / Jason Whong)

Is one of your visions ensuring the library system serves everyone?

Aikens: Public libraries exist to serve everyone in community. Our mission acknowledges this in our commitment to provide high-quality public education for all. Our mission aligns with my personal values and commitment to ensure our library system truly serves everyone in our community. I endeavor for our materials, classes, and events to speak to the interests and aspirations of all residents, and for all residents to see themselves reflected in library offerings and welcome in all library spaces. No matter who you are, there’s a book here that reflects you. There’s a work of art for you to borrow that piques your interest. A class designed for you. An event planned with you in mind. Team members are waiting to welcome you and connect you with myriad opportunities. We endeavor to learn about you and your aspirations, to leverage your unique assets, and to connect you with others who will share theirs all with the goal of building an even stronger place where everyone thrives. That’s a library system working for and with community. That’s HCLS.