LAFAYETTE -- The next time you venture into the Lafayette library to peruse the stacks or participate in a community program, look out for giraffes, orphan dogs and a cool, clever matchmaker.

The Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation has selected Walnut Creek resident Beth Needel as its new executive director. She succeeds Kathy Merchant, who led the foundation during the construction of the state-of-the-art library building at Mt. Diablo Boulevard and First Street.

Needel is now tasked with carrying the organization into the future.

Arriving with collaborative fundraising and programming expertise from her work with Barnes & Noble, Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation, and the Oakland Zoo, Needel impressed Senior Librarian Vickie Sciacca as a "best fit" during the monthlong interview process.

Beth Needel is photographed in the Lafayette Library in Lafayette, Calif., on Friday, July 5, 2013. Needel is the new executive director of the Lafayette
Beth Needel is photographed in the Lafayette Library in Lafayette, Calif., on Friday, July 5, 2013. Needel is the new executive director of the Lafayette Library and Learning Foundation. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

"She is extremely bright, understands the dynamics of developing and leading nonprofit organizations, and has a style that is fresh and absolutely genuine," Sciacca said, while stressing the importance of adaptability in a community with evolving needs and interests.

Foundation Board President Caity Meaney Burrows said Needel stood out among the candidates as inquisitive, insightful and a "thoughtful strategist" capable of "integrating the library into the fabric of the community."

In an interview. Needel presents a stately, gently intelligent profile -- much like the beloved giraffes she will continue to care for as a volunteer at the Oakland Zoo.

"I'm tall, like they are, but my tongue's not nearly as dexterous," she says, smiling and admitting to a soft spot for animals. "We have three dogs and three cats in our home, which is low -- if you work in animal rescue, you foster."

Needel grew up in Chicago, "living" at libraries and "eating" her way through favorites books like the Pippi Longstocking stories, Helen Keller's biography and countless mysteries. She moved to Walnut Creek in 1989 and recalls exactly where she was one month after arriving in California.

"I was putting the last book on my bookshelves when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit," she says. "What did that teach me? I learned I had to find a better way to keep books on the shelf."

Such practicality is important, but Needel says maintaining an organization's long-term viability is all about relationships. And it's about compassion, which comes out when she glimpses a child, far across the library, shelving books.

Surprised by her sudden emotion, she impatiently wipes a few tears away and says, "When I came here, I didn't know anyone and had a young son and a husband who traveled. Working for nonprofits created community and as I shared their core values ... it created relationships."

Needel especially enjoyed establishing interactive programs, where authors met readers, seniors engaged with youths and troubled kids domesticated animals and learned lessons of discipline from the experience. As Capital Campaign and Grants Manager for Oakland Zoo, she raised funds for the successful construction of a new veterinary hospital, a biodiversity center and support for the California Trail project. She says her eagerness to work with a diverse community and her excitement about libraries' changing role -- becoming as much a community center as a place to find books -- won her the job.

For now, Needel is listening to ideas from staff and the public, and examining programs for what works and what doesn't reflect patron's current interests. She believes the library foundation's consortium partnerships have unlimited potential.

"My ideas will start spilling, but it's not just my view that counts," she said. "It's all the people circling, a collective view."

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