Interview with Sara Stephens and Karen Wells

Interview with Sara Stephens and Karen Wells

This month I had the opportunity to chat with Sara Stephens, Library Development Officer for Durham County Library, and Karen Wells, Executive Director for the Durham Library Foundation. Sara and Karen exemplify the meaning of teamwork. They are each committed to our library system being the crown jewel of downtown, and they collaborate to educate stakeholders of library resources, needs, and impact. Take a moment to become better acquainted with Sara and Karen as they discuss their respective roles.

Tammy: What is your role as Library Development Officer for Durham County Library/ Executive Director for Durham Library Foundation?

Sara: As a Durham native and Librarian (M.L.S., North Carolina Central University 2006), I know that I’m in a role that’s a natural fit for me. By no small estimation, I grew up in a public library. My mother was a regional library director, and she would often bring me into a library where she would work outside of the typical operating hours. The books, the magazines, and the reference materials in the library were all mine to explore. I was steeped in what a library means to a community starting at an early age: libraries are far more than the buildings they occupy. Capitalizing on my background in generating support across the public and private sectors to support our library system is thoroughly rewarding, given that every donor we reach helps support our community.

Karen: I have the privilege of being the first Executive Director for the Durham Library Foundation. As such, my primary responsibility is to facilitate the work of our Board of Directors, specifically focusing on resource development by recommending fund raising plans, and make sure our messages and materials are clear and available. The Board brings their community networks and relationships and together we implement private giving to the Foundation. I’m also responsible for the smooth operation of administrative tasks and office procedures.

Tammy:  What are you currently reading? What interests you about this book?

Sara: I just finished reading A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. Of course, though I was new to reading it, I know that book has delighted many a reader over the years. I appreciate how Gaines can provide readers with compassion and understanding for his characters. I just started The Last Girls by Lee Smith. I admire how Lee Smith incorporates so much of the South in her writing.

Karen:  I just finished a memoir, Educated by Tara Westover, that shares the remarkable story of a very bright young girl born to a survivalist, abusive family who did not believe in formal education or doctors. I was first attracted to the book because I follow a friend on Facebook who recommends good reads and because it was on Obama’s list, but found it to be a fascinating story of how “self” can develop in the context of the most extreme environments. I’ve just begun Ordinary Grace and have The Nightingale waiting in the wings.

Tammy: What’s the primary role of Durham County Library/Durham Library Foundation?

Sara: Libraries are centers of learning and growth and information, and they act as focal points where various minds can meet. From a universal viewpoint, libraries are the bastion of free expression and thought. Libraries protect our fundamental right to free speech. Numerous court cases have risen to the Supreme Court in defense of the first amendment, and libraries are frequently central institutions in those cases. Libraries stand at the gate of freedom, and I hope that Durham County Library can continue in that long line of serving the community and standing for growth and expression.

Karen: I am fortunate that my position has a major, singular goal – to raise as much money as possible for the Durham County Library.

Tammy: What message would you like to share with our readers about Durham County Library/Durham Library Foundation?

Sara: Karen and I spread the good word about Durham County Library to anyone who will listen. We feel honored to speak to current and potential donors about the library’s innovative programs and outstanding services. Great communities have great libraries, and if we continue to sustain and grow our library system, our community will continue to thrive.

Karen:  Having just moved to Durham in May to take my position, I’ve met a sea of new people. I have been most impressed by the number of people who have spontaneously said to me, “I love my library.” The good work of the Durham County Library throughout the years has created a public that fully utilizes and appreciates the services and programs of the library, supported by government that understands how essential it is to have free, available-to-all access to information and technology. An advocate recently said, “Libraries are the gymnasiums of democracy.” We have a ripe opportunity to help develop greater resources from the private sector by providing opportunities for citizens to “give back.”

I also respect the origins of the Foundation which in early 2000 realized the need to provide funding beyond government support. In those first years, the visionary volunteers were able to establish a significant endowment, no small accomplishment for a private, 501(c)3 organization. The history of the Foundation is a successful model, one that can be built upon in 2018 for the growing needs of our expanding population.

Tammy:  Explain how the two organizations work together to provide a margin of excellence for our community.

Sara: The two organizations work together to encourage support of Durham County Library. The Foundation’s goal is to enrich, not replace, traditional tax-based support for the library through gifts, grants, and bequests from individuals and organizations.

Karen: The Foundation’s partnership with the library is grounded in a long and productive history of library staff serving the Foundation’s needs, but now both the library and the Foundation each have their own development staff. It is incumbent (and a pleasure) for me to collaborate with Sara Stephens because together we bring a wealth of experience to our common goal. In addressing the gap between government funding and the needs and vision of the library, we are building a productive partnership of private and public entities, not just in theory, but in action. In this case, two heads are better than one.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks you will have an opportunity to chat with Sara and Karen. You will often see them traveling together to share information about both organizations. If you have an interest in learning more about library resources and how your contribution can have an impact, you can reach Sara Stephens at or Karen Wells at

It is our vision to continue to ‘Inspire Lives, Transform Durham.’

Thanks for reading!

Top image: Sara and Karen (center), with Humanities Programming Coordinator Jenny Levine (left) and trustee Willis Whichard (right)

One reply to Interview with Sara Stephens and Karen Wells

  1. I love this we need the community to come together. It will help our young generation to come around the library more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *