Paula Alston has spent over 33 years in a library—the last 10.5 as the executive director of the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library.
Next month, she will step aside and turn the keys to the three facilities in Christiansburg, Blacksburg and Floyd over to someone else.
“It was a hard decision to retire, but I want to travel a bit,” she said.
Alston’s career jumpstarted as an inquisitive youngster living in Montana, reading books of all kinds, shapes and sizes. She received a Masters of Library Science from San Jose State University and has been on a non-fictional ride ever since.
She started as a reference librarian in Chesapeake, Virginia, rising to assistant director. Then in 2006, she accepted the position of director here in the New River Valley.
“We, my husband and I, wanted to leave the Tidewater area. When we came here, we loved it, so I didn’t hesitate when the job came open,” Alston said.
In addition to her husband, Tom, who retired from the military, the couple’s daughter soon followed and moved to Blacksburg. In the process, the family opened a Jimmy John’s franchises in Roanoke and Radford.
Another reason, according to Alston, for her retirement plans is to dive deeper into the “freaky fast” fast food business. The couple hopes their daughter can take over the businesses in the very near future, so they can hit the open road.
Looking back at her years in southwest Virginia, Alston admits the area has struggled in so many ways of being between an urban and rural area. That was the biggest step for her coming from the Tidewater area to the mountains.
During her tenure, there have been some major changes. First, the library system abandoned a familiar bookmobile system.
“We also closed a satellite library at the Corporate Research Center at Virginia Tech,” she said.
Those early years were a time of change, not only for the local libraries, but the haven of books as a whole. Alston said libraries had to adapt and figure out how to attract people.
“Amazon and Kindle changed everything along with e-books. It has been an up and down struggle as libraries had to reinvent themselves,” she said.
But despite the changes and new technology, Alston said the demise of physical located libraries with four walls was poppy-cock. She said all the trash talk was just that.
“High-speed internet became so important, and yes, a lot of people can get it at home or on the handheld devices. But many cannot. So, libraries supply a source for those that are underserved,” she said.
On the flip side, the longtime librarian pointed out people should not be limited to getting their information all from the Internet.
“Not everything on the Internet is true. Libraries provide a very reliable source of information for people,” said Alston.
Funding has always been a concern during her tenure with most of the funding for the regional library coming from local governments. She admits the community has been very lucky that Floyd County and Montgomery County have continued to provide a steady revenue source.
Alston hopes the regional library can quickly look at renovations and new construction in all three locations.
Work was completed at the Floyd Library shortly before she arrived, but Blacksburg and Christiansburg are pushing their limits. The two latter libraries were built in the late 80s and are filled with electrical and structural problems.
“I hope work can be done on both and believe it will happen in Christiansburg within the next 10 years,” she said.
Alston is confident she is leaving the library system in good hands, praising its current staff.
“They have stepped up at every branch and learned to deal with new technology and the handling of books.”
And when talking about those trips after retirement, she already has five planned between now and December. “I hope to enjoy family time and travel. It’s also time to see if I can be a gardener,” she joked.
Alston will officially retire on May 1.