Librarian Stephanie Hartwell-Mandella has been known to sing sea shanties on Talk Like a Pirate Day and has been seen walking around town on May 4 in full Darth Vader costume. As Head of Children’s Services at Katonah Village Library, she brought awareness around diversity and LGBTQ issues, created a Gospel Fest for choirs to perform during black history month and was one of 10 nationwide winners of the American Library Association’s 2018 I Love My Librarian Award. Now the mother of two is Assistant Director and Head of Youth Services at North Castle Public Library in North White Plains.
Did you always want to be a librarian?
No, but it makes sense to me now. It’s the kind of thing where you have the lightbulb moment. I was a theater major in college, but then I realized I’m not driven that way. I went back to school and my first masters was in early childhood, my first career was preschool. Then I became a parent and I had my own children and I stayed home with them. As many mothers, and many people do, I got tired of staying home. My brain was atrophying. So I got a gig at the library because it was part-time and I could be home, get the kids off the bus. One day I was like, “Wait a minute, I could do this!” I’ve been in libraries all my life. I lived and breathed libraries growing up, I was always the kid in the card catalog. I looked around and it was like “ding,” I have a degree. I could do this with children. I put those things together and it made perfect sense.
What was your favorite book growing up?
I had two, really. Petunia, by Roger Duvoisin. I remember seeing it on the shelf when I first got to Katona and being like, “Oh my god, I love that book.” Also The Mitten, not the Jan Brett version, sorry Jan Brett. Alvin Tresselt wrote the original. I love that book even though it always made me apprehensive.
What is your favorite part of what you do?
I love my career, and the relationship it allows me to form with the community. That is what’s really important to me. To be able to help fulfil a need at any given moment. If there are transgender children at the elementary school, I can do a program and support the family. In some communities they’ve had incidences of hate, with swastikas and things like that. I’m the one to bring in that Holocaust survivor to speak, which we did in Katonah. I like to be a bridge.
How do books help you achieve that?
Books connect people and information. Because people just don’t know what they don’t know, right? I like to highlight the things we have in common, to bridge the gap between our perceived or imagined divides. I think a lot of that stuff is fake, and I like to remind people of all the things we have in common. I like the reference interview a lot. People come in and they say, “I need a book on this,” but what they really want is something completely different. It’s just a matter of talking to them and really understanding what it is they’re looking for. Nine times out of ten people come in to look for something and they really just want to talk. Especially when it comes to seniors, that might be their only interaction for the day and I love being able to say that’s okay. I’m here. We can talk about whatever you want to talk about.
Do you have any big plans for your new library?
This is my first year here [at North Castle Public Library]. As the weather gets warmer we’d like to do a lot more outdoor actives. We’re talking about planting some gardens and planning some walkabouts. I’m thinking about a pre-school fair in the spring, and of course summer kick-off to get kids ready for summer reading.
What do you do when you’re not at the library?
If I’m not here for work or an event, I’m home dealing with kid stuff and grocery shopping, just doing what everybody else is doing. I also spend as much free time as I can in rehearsal because I sing as a side thing. So I’m either rehearsing for the church choir or a gig. I’m always looking for more rehearsal time. Yeah, I love music and I love to sing. I would rehearse all the time if I could.
What would you do with a day off?
I would either sleep late and get a mani-pedi or get up early and go get my braids done. Those things take time, and they have to be scheduled in. Then I would go to a rehearsal. Haha, that’s my self-care.
Interview by Asia-Rose Farnill