A professor speaks to a group of students sitting in the film viewing room with black and white film on the screen over his shoulder.

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The story of the York County Libraries president includes a chapter at York College

Robert Lambert stands at the railing of a balcony surrounded by bookshelves in the library.

Robert F. Lambert planted the seeds for his career with a part-time job in high school. Over the years, he was lured in various directions, but he always came back to where he started: Martin Library in his hometown of York.

Along the way, the 1994 York College of Pennsylvania graduate built a resume in library operations that would lead him to his current post as President of York County Libraries.

His golden opportunity arose in ninth grade at William Penn Senior High School through a federal job-training program for underprivileged youth. He worked after school and in the summer. “I would alternate weeks; one week in the library, one-week community service ‒ whacking weeds, cleaning parking lots, picking up glass,” Robert says.

He earned $3.35 an hour at Martin Library, which went toward school clothes. Robert worked there throughout high school as he took a curriculum heavy in math and science. “When I was done with high school,” he says, “I wanted to be nuclear engineer.”

Always a homecoming

After graduating, he served four years in the Marine Corps, then returned to York. After finding disappointment at two colleges, Robert came home again. He enrolled at York College and returned to Martin Library, working in marketing, development, and customer service. “It was total exposure to the business and customer service side of library operations,” he says.

But Robert still didn’t see a career path there. For three years in college, he had majored in Physics. Then, during that summer back in York, he took a class with Brian Furio, Associate Professor of Communications at York College. “I was blown away,” he says. “His passion, his approach to teaching communication, his engagement with students. I changed my major from Physics to Speech Communications.”

Robert was on the road to his career. “It was a great time at York College,” he says.

He considered going into political communications, but the tug of library operations had become too strong. “I was looking at my strengths with respect to what I could bring to the profession,” he says.

Making career moves

After earning his bachelor’s degree with a minor in Philosophy in 1994, he joined the library system full-time. He learned that to pursue a career in the field, he’d need a Master’s degree in Library Science. He enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh and completed the program in nine months. “I came right back to York and got involved in the business side of running a library,” he says.

He also started working on a Master’s in Public Administration at Penn State University. Moving up the ranks, Robert was named Director of Strategic Partnerships, managing the library system’s $2 million portfolio. “It was about getting the library out in the community, partnering with other organizations as part of our revenue model,” he says.

Those partnerships included operating libraries at schools, a hospital, and for York Housing Authority residents. Being a numbers person, Robert campaigned for and was elected York’s controller in 2008, serving six years. “That enabled me to work with the Mayor and City Council to secure dedicated tax support for the libraries,” he explains. Yearly since 2010, the library system receives 50 cents per capita.

Ongoing challenges

Robert acknowledges the struggles libraries face. “Funding for libraries across the commonwealth and libraries, period, is challenging,” he admits. “If you look at the competition ‒ Amazon, years ago it was Borders, now Books-A-Million. The marketplace has always been a competitive environment for libraries.”

Still, York County Libraries is in a growth cycle, conducting a $10 million capital campaign to build a new library in Hellam Township, expand in Red Lion, and improve Martin Library in York.

The hometown product who returned to continue the work he started in high school is being tapped by another local institution. In September 2019, Robert will bring his strategic thinking and financial expertise to the Board of York Traditions Bank. “It’s just a tremendous opportunity to be part of a bank that has such a visible force in the community,” he says.

Libraries are vital to a community, Robert says, and he believes they will survive because of their strong social component. One example is the PA Forward program, which emphasizes residents literacy in information, civics and society, health, and finances.

“People love their homes, their jobs, and their libraries,” he says. “We provide that space where people come and gather socially. Libraries are not about books. They’re about people.”