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Out of the stacks

Photo by Michelle Love.

Photo by Michelle Love.

Now that she’s retired from her job as director of the Birmingham Public Library, Irene (Renee) S. Blalock is spending her days doing the things she hasn’t had much time for since she started working in the early 1980s.

“I’m really looking forward to spending time with my children and grandchildren and just focusing on me,” Blalock said.

Until a little more than a week ago, though, her focus was on a long career in a library system that connects with adults and children throughout Birmingham, and, through a cooperative network, across the county. And that work continues in her name; since her retirement Aug. 1, Blalock’s family and friends of the BPL donated $50,000 to the library’s Foundation Board in her honor. That money will be used to help fund programs, materials, equipment and a redesign project of the downtown library, said Olivia Alison, director of development for the BPL. Blalock’s last project at the main branch is now being overseen by her successor, Angela Fisher Hall.

In the days leading up to her retirement, Blalock walked down the halls of the main branch smiling from ear to ear. She worked in the library system for 33 years (five as the director of BPL), and even with retirement approaching, didn’t hide how much she loved her job. As she sat in her office, once filled with books but now filled with boxes, Blalock beamed, reflecting on her long and colorful career in the library business.

She credits her interest in the librarian profession to her mother. “My mother was a librarian back in Selma where we grew up, so that’s where I spent most of my time growing up. I always loved reading and she [my mother] would take me down to the library where I would help her shelve books,” she said.

Blalock took the experiences she had in her mother’s library and applied them when deciding what she wanted to do with her life. “I loved my time in the libraries I grew up in and I loved being around books, so it all made sense that working in a library is what I should be doing,” Blalock said.

After achieving her Master’s in Library Studies at the University of Alabama, Blalock started work as a part-time librarian in the fiction department of the BPL in 1968. In 1981 Blalock went to work in the East Lake branch. In 1994 she was promoted, after 20 years of administrative work, to associate director and then returned to the main branch. There she spent her days managing branches under Barbara Sirmans, who was then the director.

Photo by Michelle Love.

Photo by Michelle Love.

When she became director in 2009, Blalock decided she would spend her time in office making sure the Birmingham Public Libraries stay relevant even as people turned to technology. “Everyone thinks that all librarians do is sit around and read all day, but that’s just not true. It’s like any business. It’s a management job,” Blalock explained. Under Blalock’s care, the East Lake, Inglenook and Powderly branches underwent major technological and architectural upgrades. She even served as project manager over the Five Points West and West End branches’ construction.

Blalock was proud about the progress at the Birmingham libraries. “I truly feel libraries are the most important cultural and educational institution we have available, and I really feel we’ve done a great job keeping up with the technological changes,” she said.

Her final project before her retirement on Aug. 1 was overseeing a tech upgrade at the main branch downtown. “That building [the East building] is a little over 30 years old and it’s starting to show its age. We really want to create a space that people can go to and find any information they need. We want it to be as easy to go to the library and find information as it is to go to Google.”

The hard work at the library over the years had some perks – including meeting some celebrity visitors. “When we [the library] were given one of the first Gates Foundation Grants, they came in and put computers in all of the sections of the library and Bill Gates came,” she said. And there were awards – Blalock was honored with several accolades including being mentioned as one of the Metro Birmingham NAACP’s Outstanding Women in Community Service, Multiculturalism, and Political Action (2008). In April 2013 she was presented with the Alabama Library Association’s Eminent Librarian Award in Montgomery. “I was absolutely thrilled because it was an honor voted by my peers,” she said. “It was really heartwarming that all these people I’ve worked with presented me with this prestigious award.”

Blalock also was honored at the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham “SMART Party’’ in 2012, where she was one of 10 women in Birmingham recognized for creating positive social change for women and girls.

“Renee will definitely be remembered by her hard work to renovate the libraries and keep us up to date with Birmingham,” said Gwen Welch, who served on the BPL board of directors when Blalock became head of the system. “Renee has worked so hard, and even though we are sad to see her go, everyone needs to take time to enjoy their life.”

As she prepared to do just that, Blalock reflected on the significance of her passing career. “I’m very proud to have been a part of what the library brings to Birmingham,” she said with a smile. “It’s rare people can retire and say that they’ve enjoyed coming to work every day. But I’m one of the privileged few who can say that’s the truth.”

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