November 17, 2017

Felton Thomas | Movers & Shakers 2002

Betting On Outreach

“We make people better”

When you grow up in Las Vegas, as Felton Thomas did, you learn the difference between good bets and bad. So during his adolescent years, when his friends were getting into trouble, he worked as a page at the library, which he believes saved his life. Thomas has gone on to become the director of the same branch library that gave him a safe place to hang out, while one of his old friends died young and another was sent to prison for life. That fateful choice has left him with a kind of missionary instinct, an urge to reach out and save other ghetto kids. His mottoes for his library are “Success for All” and “We make people better.”

Outreach to kids is one of Thomas’s critical priorities; 40 percent of Las Vegas’s population is under 18, and he wants his future customers and taxpayers to feel welcome and successful in his library. In the course of a year his library staff make 1200 visits to at-risk schools, bringing books and storytelling to the kids and encouraging them to get their library cards. For special events, he has brought in rap performers, politicians, and famous athletes, who talk to kids about reading and being proud of their history.

Vitals


Current position: Branch Manager, West Las Vegas Library, NV

Degree: MLS, University of Hawaii, 1993

Active in: ALA Black Caucus, Nevada Library Association

Awards: Nevada Library Association 1999 award for his Rites of Passage program

That’s especially important to Thomas because his local community, descended from men who came to build the dam in the 1930s, hasn’t had a tradition of amateur historians to keep those memories alive. He has been active in the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District’s multicultural initiative to promote cultural diversity and received a grant that allowed him to digitize a collection on the history of African Americans in Las Vegas and Nevada, so it could be more widely available by way of the net.

Of course, not many people in his district have Internet access at home. As he says, “We’re living in a world of information haves and have-nots. One of the ultimate missions of the library is to make sure the have-nots have the same access to information as the haves.” The expanded Young People’s Library he planned opened in March 2001, with a preschoolers’ area, study rooms, and a family computer lab where computer use has been doubling every two months.

And because so many young lives are blighted by violence, he got an ALA Live at Your Library grant for a community project on violence prevention. Other projects include his Shoes for Children program, which has distributed over 4500 pairs of new shoes to kids in West Las Vegas over the past seven years, and his award-winning Rites of Passage program, which gives teens strategies for handling the problems of the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It’s all part of making the library an integral part of the community, a partner in its revitalization and its children’s success.

Thomas serves as mentor to his own pages now and tells them they, too, can become librarians. It’s a safer bet than most of Las Vegas has to offer.

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