Interview: David Dodd Takes The Helm At Benicia Public Library



Library Director David Dodd

Lisa Duncan Photography

David Dodd loves a good story.

Novels, comic books, music, movies or video games—all have stories that we can learn from. So all should be found in a
library, reasons Benicia’s new director of library and cultural services.

“To me, it’s all about storytelling. Video games are storytelling, comic books are storytelling. Storytelling builds empathy,” says David, who started the new job in March.

Being a librarian is at his core.  He looks at how new media and technology can be used by libraries and their patrons. He insists that libraries be neutral sources of information.  “You don’t get to apply your values. You are there to help people find what they are looking for.”

Two early jobs shape David’s perspectives:  Working as a community organizer providing food, legal help and other assistance in several California cities and being a jailhouse library assistant in Alameda County.

“Those two jobs gave me a perspective on America that many people could use,” he says. “It cements your values and toughens you—it was very formational.”

Taking the job in Benicia was somewhat of a homecoming for David, who worked for the Benicia Library in the early 1990s. He went on to do library work in Colorado, Aptos, San Francisco, Marin and Sonoma counties before returning to Benicia.

David, 60, tries to work each week at the reference desk as he handles the library’s administrative duties and works with the city’s Arts and Culture Commission. “There’s such a nice synergy here between the arts and the community.”

Music plays a big role in his life.  He wrote The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics and co-authored two other books about the legendary band. He plays in a Grateful Dead cover band and was the keyboardist for the Unitarian Universalist church in Petaluma for 12 years. He and his wife, Diana Spaulding, founded the church in 2002.

The couple have two children and a dog named Benicia. Why choose that name? “We fell in love while I was in Benicia.”

How has the transition back to Benicia gone for you? It’s been wonderful. I’m reconnecting with a lot of people. I love the city team, the other department heads. It was fascinating to staff the emergency operations center when we had the Valero incident (in May). I was an information runner, mostly updating boards showing the number of people evacuated, the number of roads closed. I collected the data. It was very well run. It’s good to know the machinery is in place in case of a catastrophe.

How did being a jailhouse library assistant shape you as a librarian? During all my early experience, I was taught by really good librarians on the job.  A librarian taught me about the Freedom to Read, the Library Bill of Rights, how to do a good reference interview, how to be a neutral entity. …

I defend literature and reading from any point of view because we become informed, we become empathetic when we read. It’s proven that reading fiction builds empathy, helps us understand things we have not experienced. It’s really clear that we need to break out of these bubbles we live in, and reading different points of view can help do that.

Benicia Public Library, photo by Malcolm Slight

Malcolm Slight

Benicia Public Library

What role does a public library play in a community? We’re partly a watchdog and partly a gatekeeper and guide. … We need to look out for the public’s interests. For example, if there’s a change in political leadership and information that used to be readily available is no longer available, our job is to help make sure that data is not lost, that it remains available.

How is technology affecting libraries? Whatever technology is out there, we have to pay attention to how it’s being used and what the implications are for readers, what the implications are for libraries. … We’re about to get a set of virtual reality goggles, and our staff is trying out a 3-D printer to see how it works, how it might be used in a library setting so it would be accessible to everyone.

Why is it important to you to work at the reference desk each week? I want to keep my skills up. I always want to feel that I could walk into an empty building and within a couple of months, I could create a library. I’ve never lost track of the technology or tools needed to do that.

Also, being on the reference desk is a great way to meet the public and make friends. I’m somewhat of an introvert. I get my energy from reading and playing music, not from being with lots of people.

How much work time is devoted to the library and how much to cultural services? The library takes about 80 percent of my time and cultural services about 20 percent right now. Some days that’s flip-flopped.

What’s on the horizon for the Arts and Culture Commission? We’re gearing up to have a fully fleshed-out public art program. The chair, Terry Scott, is working on a Made in Benicia branding program that would extend beyond art to anything made in Benicia. We also work on the film festival and review cultural groups’ grant proposals. It’s a very active program. …

We were called upon to support Arts Benicia’s application to the California Arts Council to create a Cultural District. We’re among 22 finalists.

We also are awaiting the results from the Arts and Economics Prosperity survey, which was jointly done with the Economic Development Commission. The goal is to have data to show the economic value of arts and culture in a community. (Editor’s note: Survey results were expected in June, after our press deadline.)

Did you spend a lot of time in libraries when you were growing up? Oh yeah. There was an old Carnegie library in the middle of a city block in Livermore, where I grew up. The Narnia books were my favorites. First they were read to me, then I read them every year through high school.

Who’s your favorite author currently? My favorite author is Richard Powers. He’s a novelist and he won a National Book Award for “The Echo Maker.” My favorite book of his is “The Gold Bug Variations.” He writes about music and how it relates to science and time.

I read a lot of mainstream American and British fiction. I just read Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAddam.” I also like Kate Atkinson, who wrote “Life after Life” and “A God in Ruins.”

I do read a lot of poetry, but I struggle with nonfiction—I’d rather learn things through fiction.

What do you do to relax? I play music, I listen to music.  I hardly listen to any Grateful Dead now. I listen to world music, bluegrass, folk. I like music that you never get to the bottom of. Books are the same way. You read something in your 20s then re-read it again in your 40s, and it’s not the same experience.

And I garden—we have fruit trees, roses, grapevines, artichokes. I like the aesthetics of placing plants in the garden.

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