Our Celebration of Diverse Voices Continues
Celebrating NPL’s Women of Color: Syreeta Butler
Last year, during Women’s History Month, the team at Nashville Public Library (NPL) shared the stories of some of the amazing women who make NPL a cornerstone of our city.
And — because you loved it so much — we’re bringing back this series for Black History Month 2023 to shine a light on just a few of the women of color who work every day to make NPL an inclusive hub that serves the needs of our diverse communities.
Today, we’re sharing the story of Syreeta Butler, who works every day to ensure Nashville school librarians and students have the materials they need to grow their joy of reading as the Program Manager for Limitless Libraries.
Since we spoke with her last year, Syreeta has been very busy. She ran a virtual Middle School Battle of the Books, with more than 20 schools participating; was a guest speaker at Belmont University’s Banned Books Celebration; assisted in the development of a new partnership between NPL and the American Baptist College’s Susie McClure Library; and participated in the Joint Conference for Librarians of Color, held once every four years.
Tell Us a Little Bit About Yourself
I am a native Memphian, born and raised. I obtained a Bachelor’s of Business Administration from the University of Memphis in Management Information Systems, so I have an IT background. I also have a Master of Science in Library and Information Studies from Florida State University.
I have worked in libraries since April 2000; when I was 19 years old, believe it or not.
A few other subtle tidbits: I’m a Christian; I love who I am, and that’s the basis for all of my core values; I really enjoy traveling; I love all sorts of music, and I’m a big goofball, just to add that!
What led you into working in libraries and specifically NPL?
Full disclosure: I absolutely hate retail — that’s what started it. I quit my job at Burlington Coat Factory, because I was like, “Oh, God, enough!” I was just in a really heavy place because I had become independent, paying my bills myself. I went to my English class the next day, down in the dumps about quitting my job, because it was the only job I’ve ever quit. My English professor, Dr. Ladrica Menson-Furr — I’ll never forget her name — came up to me very concerned, and was like, “What’s going on? You’re not your normal, happy-go-lucky, funny self. Is there something I can do to help?” I told her that I’d quit and that I was worried about finding another job that would allow me to support myself.
She told me, “Oh, you should work at the library.” I told her, “Absolutely not! I don’t want to work at the college library — I’ve done that; I spend way too much time there as it is.” She said, “No, no. The public library.” I looked online, saw that they had a position for a part-time Library Clerk open at Memphis Public Library’s Parkway Village Branch Library. It was literally right down the street from my house, almost walking distance, but I’d just never paid attention to it. I applied and got the job. I was hired within a week; that’s how fast it rolled.
I loved my coworkers, and I loved the energy and the vibe. It really solidified my love for libraries. I started as an Adult Services Librarian at Edmondson Pike in March 2016. So, now, as we’re speaking, I’m at my six-year mark with NPL!
Tell us a little bit about your job at NPL.
To start: Limitless Libraries is a partnership between NPL and Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), which offers students, educators, and school librarians access to our collection of two million-plus items and great databases to support their educational needs.
My role is more about relationship-building and ensuring that the educators and the students feel supported, and that the community understands that we’re here to provide access where there is no access. When students are at home, they may not live close to a library; but, by being at a school with Limitless Libraries, they have access not only to the materials at their school but also to what’s available all across Nashville.
The key part of my job is understanding how the flow of work between MNPS and NPL is happening. It’s great because I get to support the kids and have a little bit of fun in the background!
What do you find to be the most rewarding aspects of working in libraries and at NPL?
I genuinely love helping people. Not necessarily in the sense of something that’s always life-altering, but in the sense of, “If you’re in pursuit of something that’s important to you, I want to be here to guide you along the way.”
For example: people who are starting their own business don’t always know where to begin their process. By talking to a librarian, they get some solid advice like, “First and foremost: have you considered registering your business? If you’re starting a food truck, let’s get you some materials about food trucks. If you want to open a brick-and-mortar shop, let's get some materials about that; let’s get some materials about writing a business plan.”
Those are the kinds of things entrepreneurs are interested in. Librarians are the hand-holding friends that guide people along their information journey to develop what they as a person are looking for. It’s not me impressing upon you, “You should be an entrepreneur!” No — they have the entrepreneurial mindset already. We’re just here to help guide them along the way.
You get to help students learn about college. You get to help babies grow their interest in reading. You help seniors bridge the digital divide. We do a lot, and we get to be a part of peoples’ lives without forcing our way in. That’s by far the most enjoyable part of this for me.
What do you find are the biggest challenges about working in libraries?
One of the biggest things we’re facing, as the Limitless Libraries department, is the pending legislation to restrict what school librarians can put in their collections. We’re the ones who order MNPS library materials; they filter through us. The fact that they’re talking about criminalizing librarians for the materials they stock is absolutely insane to me.
As librarians, we go to school to be able to evaluate information, resources, and educational support materials. If these degrees didn’t exist, who would be there to guide people on their information journey? That is a heavy thing to think about. You have the school board who sets the precedent for educational standards. You have the school librarians who are saying, “We are going to evaluate the information in these books or these materials to ensure they support what you guys are doing.”
On the public library side, we’re here to guide people along the way, not force anything on them. We keep materials for anyone who wants to see them. We want to remain neutral, in the sense that we don’t have an agenda or try to change anyone’s thought process — which, I feel like, these bills say is what we’re trying to do.
Another challenge, honestly, is being an entity of the government. A lot of people have a lot of mistrust in government, which I get; but sometimes that means we’re not trusted in our responses and interactions. So, we have to fight a lot harder to be trusted and respected. A lot of it, I think, is because people honestly don’t understand what we do. They seem to think we just sit here waiting for them to come in, then say, “You want a book? We have a book.”
Who are the women you admire most in your life?
The first woman that comes to mind is my late mother, Sarah Butler. She passed away in 2017. My mother was a phe-nom-en-al woman! She dedicated her life to customer service and was absolutely great at it. I learned so much from her, just in the ways she would engage with people. She could make a child feel like they were the most incredible thing that walked the earth; a senior citizen like they were the most loved person in the world; a homeless person like they were seen and appreciated; a businessman like he was the biggest, most successful worker that ever was. Everyone who encountered her had that same experience.
Literally every day of my life, until 2017, I heard the words, “I love you. You are beautiful.” She really spoke positivity into me, and it has lasted. There wasn’t a day that went by that she wasn’t investing that thought process of “love yourself” into me. That, to me, was so valuable and is the very core of who I became. I don’t think I would have been able to succeed in life and be where I am if I wasn’t standing on the foundation that she laid for me.
I think that’s why I have always been told that I’m a people person, and people say they feel so comfortable around me. I was always told, “You never meet a stranger. People are just people, and you meet people where they are.” I don’t have to change who I am, but I can adapt to the needs of the person that I’m meeting and getting to know. I know how to keep boundaries while remaining respectful. She’s the one who instilled that in me, just because that’s the type of woman she was.
Everyone who came to show condolences or send messages when she passed away said the same thing: “She made me feel like I was the most loved person.” I have really good friends who I didn’t even realize she was contacting and talking to until after she passed away!
There are some celebrity women I admire, of course: Condoleezza Rice, Stacey Abrams, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey — because who doesn’t want to become a billionaire? I also appreciate Ellen DeGeneres because of her candidness about her walk through coming out and living her truth. I respect her just for genuinely being her — it’s the authenticity I admire!
What advice do you have for the next generation of women?
I really hope that women embrace who they are, live their authentic truths, and shatter those glass ceilings that exist. I want them to do the things that may look scary, like this position was for me, at first. It just did not compute. I want them to take those opportunities and chances when they’re available, develop new skills and processes, and just become a better person.
People always talk about “sitting at the table” or “earning a seat at the table,” but there are often times where we don’t get the opportunity to sit at the tables that we want to. I’m just like, “Okay, let’s just build our own table and invite the people we want to sit there!” It’s about being a part of conversations and having opportunities to share our thoughts, beliefs, and core values with others, in our career fields and everyday life.
So, I would encourage women to just be authentically themselves, and not look at failures as failures. My mother always told me, “There are no failures — only learning opportunities.” So, failure does not compute with me. It’s actually something I sucked at early on in job interviews because they would ask me, “What is your biggest failure?” and my response was, “I don’t have one,” because I always took the opportunity that others would view as a failure and asked myself, “What can I learn from this and use to do better the next time?” I would encourage other women to do that, as well.
What are your favorite books and why?
I had the pleasure — because it was indeed an absolute pleasure — of reading Bamboozled by Jesus by Yvonne Orji. She played the character Molly Carter on the HBO show Insecure. It’s an engaging, modernized interpretation of Biblical events, but it’s written in a way that aligns with her walk through life to become who she is. It’s witty, talks about trusting that you’re on the right path, and achieving greatness in the face of adversity. It’s the way she approaches the material: it’s very relatable and very “now;” that’s the only way I can explain it. It really encourages you to keep going. These little “sideswipes,” as we call them, may throw you off your game for a moment but, again: if you think it’s a failure, it isn’t.
Another book that really spoke to me is Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson. We had to read it for the NPL Branch Managers’ Book Club, and as I started reading, I thought, “I remember some of this.” It dawned on me that I had read it for one of the leadership classes I had taken when I was getting my bachelor’s. Of course, being in my 20s, the book didn’t have the weight that it does now. I wasn’t in a career, or had a relationship that was solid and heavy. I read it one way then, and now — having a career, being in a leadership role, having been married and divorced — it has a different weight to it now, and I appreciate the concepts more. It challenges your way of communicating, and the way you approach difficult situations. It encourages you to approach hard things in a positive way.
Being in this position, sometimes we have to have really, really hard conversations. After reading it, I found myself speaking in a more respectful way, identifying what matters to the person I’m communicating with, and just being very intentional about showing respect and communicating positively instead of, “It’s my way or the highway.” I think that happens way too often in management, and people communicate more freely when managers empathize or sympathize with their employees individually.
All this to say: that book has literally changed the way I approach every conversation that I have!