Lee Burchfield has pretty much spent his whole life in libraries — first as a volunteer in grade school and now as director of the Louisville Free Public Library. He joined the library in 1997 and served in various roles up to being appointed director in 2019.
Your first library job?
In eighth grade, instead of having to go to study hall, I volunteered to work in the school library and got hooked. I learned to appreciate the atmosphere and the environment and continued with my library volunteer work in high school. I was also the audiovisual guy along with shelving books and library general maintenance.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I considered becoming a professional musician. In the third grade I started playing the trumpet, and in fourth grade started the French horn. Instead, I got two graduate degrees — one from the University of Kentucky in library science and one from Southern Seminary in historical studies focused on 19th century American religions.
A word that describes you?
Empiricist. The only thing we truly know are things we can experience firsthand. It doesn’t mean we don’t believe in things, but we have to acknowledge the difference between knowing and experiencing.
…I’ll retire. I’ve worked in libraries for a long time, and I have wanted to keep finding a challenge. As director, the biggest challenge today, of course, is funding operations. I would like to solve the long-term funding problems and failed referendums that have hindered the work of the library for 100 years.
How to keep your spirits up?
My core beliefs and values about the world. Even in these polarized, pandemic times, we’re still living in the Golden Age of human existence. Though the short-term outlook may seem bleak, I have to focus on the big picture as well. I know the library is helping people find jobs and learn things. I also have a lovely wife and two fun cats.
Learn from your parents?
From my mother I learned to make lists, and from my dad I learned that people depend on you. If you say you will show up for something, then you show up. I have tried to be that person, and I feel that that has been a key to my career success. I have been counted on to get done what needed to get done.
A tech tool you find useful?
Trello. As a lover of lists, Trello allows me to categorize my lists, and I can have lists of lists.
Where would one find you browsing in the library?
The 19th century American history section and the arts section. When I’m out of town I always look at books in other libraries that might have more money than we do to spend on art books.
A pet peeve?
I keep a window open in my office, and it seems like people are driving the loudest cars ever up and down Broadway. It’s very startling.
What are a few of your favorite libraries?
The Seattle Public Library is a spectacular downtown facility. It is the central library that every community deserves. Also the Nashville Public Library. It combines a classic exterior with a beautiful interior that features exhibits patrons can enjoy.
With 15 free minutes…
…I would listen to music. I feel like music is a glimpse into a world we can’t see or understand. It changes the way your brain works.
What do you like best about being director?
I love the library. We have 17 locations, and I get to spend time in all parts of the city. People everywhere tell me how much they love the library. It’s encouraging to hear how our staff has done such a great job.
By Lucy M. Pritchett | Illustration by Dan Kisner