Felton Thomas Jr.

Proud University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa alumnus and director of the Cleveland Public Library, Felton Thomas Jr., is ensuring that the pioneering legacy of the former head of the Cleveland Public Library, Linda Anne Eastman, continues in his tenure. Eastman was the first woman to head a major U.S. city library system in 1867 and she pioneered dynamic changes including opening bookshelves to patrons for the very first time. The library was also the first library to provide e-books in the country.

Felton believes that “libraries can affect people and make their lives better.” He is putting this belief into action transforming the Cleveland Public Library into the “People’s Library” which will be a “driving force behind a powerful culture of learning that will inspire Clevelanders from all walks of life to continually learn, share and seek out new knowledge.”

One of the most exciting initiatives will allow community members who take classes at the library to gain certification, an education portfolio and be considered for employment with the City of Cleveland.

A transformative force in the community

Felton truly knows the transformative effects that libraries can have on communities and individuals. As a young boy growing up in a tough Las Vegas neighborhood, the library was a place of solace, learning and employment. It helped him to “get away and go to whatever world I wanted to be in.” Now he is a role model to others in the same situation and recently received a letter from a young man who explained that Felton was his inspiration “to get out, pursue his career goals and help people.”

The now president of the Public Library Association has learnt many lessons along his journey including that you should “always be open to the opportunities that life presents—you never know which opportunities will have an effect on you for the rest of your life.”

His UH “Date Street Crew”

When he arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1992 to complete a masters of library information science at UH Mānoa, Felton was initially drawn by the beautiful beaches, weather and a stellar volleyball program. But he left with much more than that—“the Date Street Crew”—friends he made for life, a sense that libraries should be for the people and the communities in which they are situated, an understanding that libraries could and should be focused on new technologies, an international perspective and best of all, his beautiful wife, Linda.

His time at UH was special and his advice for current students is to take the time to network, create personal connections and understand that those around you including professors are committed to your personal and educational growth.

Felton believes graduates from UH Mānoa have a sense of adventure, resilience and a healthy appetite for taking risks to implement real and positive change. He is living proof of this.

Felton is truly “doing his part, plus”—one of his favorite sayings. Last year the Cleveland Public Library provided more than 150,000 meals in partnership with the Cleveland Food Bank to children who were participating in their free tutoring programs. Library cards have also been sent out to every student in the city aiming to make Cleveland a “city that reads.”

Felton says that ordinary libraries house collections, good libraries focus on service and great libraries build communities. The City of Cleveland is lucky to have a man who is making their library great, in partnership with the community around him.

By Tara Loty, UH Foundation director of alumni engagement for UH Mānoa