Libraries Can Really Change the Future – Interview with Susan Benton

In February I had the honor of sitting down with Susan Benton, President/CEO of the Urban Libraries Council (ULC). Susan is retiring this summer after thirteen years of service at ULC. Before she left, I wanted to learn more about her tenure at ULC and her thoughts on the challenges facing, and future of, public libraries. The full conversation is posted at Public Libraries Online. Here is an excerpt from that interview.

DC: How has ULC changed under your leadership both internally and also in terms of its relationship with members?

Susan Benton

SB: When I first joined ULC, we had a very small staff and were located in Chicago. We made the move in 2014 to Washington D.C. which was important for us. While some thought ULC moved to Washington to lobby on Capitol Hill, we moved to D.C. so that we could be closer to allied organizations that are important to libraries. The work that ULC is doing to transform the lives of people in our cities and counties requires us to work with organizations here in Washington D.C., such as the National League of Cities, National Association of Counties, the Council of the Great City Schools, the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities and others. They are truly sister organizations with very similar missions to ULC. We now connect with them to extend our work. The move helped us take a stronger position for urban libraries. We are constantly in conversations with colleagues in the public sector and private sector so that we can educate others about the essential contributions of libraries to all aspects of life. 

Read the rest of the article on the Public Libraries Online web site.

Finding Your Leadership Pathway – a PLA PreConference

Are you planning to attend the Public Library Association Conference in Portland OR or live in the vicinity? If so, why not brush up on your leadership skills by joining me and a team of great leaders for a full day pre-conference session, Finding Your Leadership Pathway.

Our presenters include:

  • Lynn Hoffman, Director of Operations, Somerset County Library System of New Jersey
  • Isaiah West, Teen Services Specialist, Prince George’s County Memorial Library System
  • Derek Wolfgram, Library Director, Redwood City Public Library
  • Douglas Crane, Director, Palm Beach County Library System

This full day event is happening on Tues. March 22, 9 am to 5 pm, at the convention center.

What to know what is in store? Read on!

Public libraries offer multiple pathways to leadership. From team supervision to directorship, and from small municipal and rural libraries to large multi-site systems, the array of options create a rich leadership landscape for public library careers. Join current and prospective leaders at all levels to share in a day of exploration, self-reflection, and networking, all focused on helping you map out your own career development journey. In addition to having ample opportunities for interaction with other participants, you’ll also hear from over a dozen diverse leaders as they talk about their own varied experiences throughout the day.

Outcome OneState their leadership value and identify the strengths they can put to the most effective use now and in the future;
Outcome TwoCommunicate with stakeholders and powerfully advocate for change within their organizations, employing strategies to make their voice heard at all levels of leadership; and
Outcome ThreeCreate a plan for sustained action that exemplifies their commitment to maintaining and building on their leadership practice

Register for the PLA Conference and add on this event for an additional charge. Lunch is included.

I hope to see you there!

Gazing into the Crystal Ball

2021 proved to be a very unpredictable year. Between the pandemic, political uncertainty, and economic challenges we never knew what would happen next. Still, everyone must plan for the future, including Library Directors and CEOs. So, what are these leaders focusing on with the new year?

In a recent survey I conducted of Urban Library Council members, I asked Directors to share their top concerns for 2022. The results were published in an article on the Public Libraries Online web site. The group reported focusing on a broad range of topics, but far and away the largest was COVID and its fallout.

The pandemic upended the library’s relationship with patrons. Between limited hours, uncertain access to buildings and safety concerns about virus spread, patterns of use changed dramatically. Libraries have seen a drop in visitors that has not reverted back to pre-pandemic levels. A Canadian library director listed a number of possible reasons including:

“The continued effects of the pandemic including changing customer behaviors, hesitancy to frequent public spaces, mental health issues, impact on loss of learning due to school closures, and the shift to online.”

Related to the pandemic were concerns about budgets due to a violate economy.

Several directors commented that their infrastructure is in need of repair and upgrading. However, funding for capital projects is running up against tight operating margins. For example, a California library director shared the following about their system.

“This may not be the case for every library system but over half of our branches are too small and well beyond their normal useful life. There is a high amount of deferred maintenance and insufficient funding resulting in increased deterioration of buildings.”

Explore more thoughts from public library leaders on their top concerns for 2022 at the Public Libraries Online web site.

The Six Step Guide to Library Worker Engagement

Over the past four years I have focused on building a strong culture in my library system. Unlike revising a policy or plan, strengthening a culture takes time to achieve. One of the key books I have used is Primed to Perform : how to build the highest performing cultures through the science of total motivation. It included ideas such as creating a Firewatchers committee and measuring your culture based on six key factors.

This year a new book has come out on culture that focuses solely on libraries. Written by Elaina Norlin, it is titled, The Six Step Guide to Library Worker Engagement.

In the book, Norlin demonstrates how library workers can easily become disengaged from their work. To prevent this from happening, she identifies the following areas as key to building a strong culture:

  • Leadership and Management
  • Trust
  • Recognition and Praise
  • Feedback and Performance Evaluation
  • Teamwork and Collaboration
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

To show best practices, Norlin includes interviews with library directors, managers, and leaders from public, academic, and special libraries. I was honored to be interviewed for the section on Feedback and Performance Evaluation. Here’s a portion of that interview.

If a new library director or manager wanted to know how to get started inspiring a more engaged workforce, what would be your advice?

The first step is always to listen. Often a new leader may come in with great ideas and pet projects to launch. However, if they don not take the time to learn more about their organization and connect with the people who comprise it, they may end up going in the wrong direction very quickly. Typically there is a problem or an old way of doing things which is a pain point for the staff that needs to be resolved. A new leader can show their support by tacking that issue first and only afterward start advancing their own ideas.

Find the book at your local library or from the ALA store.

Is COVID-19 Still Preventing Indoor Library Activities?

I recently provided an update to Public Libraries Online regarding the status of indoor public library activities and events. Here is the opening of that posting.

When COVID swept across the country last year, libraries closed their doors to the public. Programming for children, teens, and adults went virtual and for the most part was very successful. Over time as buildings opened and services were restored, one thing that remained off limits was indoor activities and events. However, with vaccination rates climbing over the summer, many libraries explored reintroducing indoor activities. How many have taken that next step?

Photo by Lina Kivaka on Pexels.com

A recent survey of Urban Library Council member libraries by this author showed that indoor activities are coming back strong. Many large library systems across the country are opening up their meeting rooms for staff led events. That being said, there are still lots of concerns. Out of the 66 libraries that responded to the survey, 28 had not started any indoor programming. One library system summed up the hesitancy as follows:

“Our rationale is partly low staffing, definitely that children are not vaccinated yet, and that we are working on getting the tech to succeed at hybrid activities. Our community is surging and the majority of our community are more reticent of in-person activities without a vaccine requirement which we have not enacted.”

Read the rest of the article at Public Libraries Online.

Libraries Service for the Incarcerated

This past week I wrote an article about public library service for the incarcerated that was posted to Public Libraries Online. The article looked at the work being done by three major North American library systems to serve a population that is physically unable to come to their buildings. Below is the start of the article.

Libraries have been providing service to the incarcerated for many decades. While this past year has challenged the ability to serve the general public, many library systems continue to reach out to jail and prison populations. Here are examples from three large library systems that reflect the variety of creative programs and the outstanding efforts libraries are making in this work, despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic.

St. Louis Public Library

St. Louis Public Library has been very active serving the local imprisoned population under Director Waller McGuire. St. Louis has provided paperback materials for many years both to the adult population and the Juvenile Justice Center. In years past they provided programming within the Juvenile Center.

To learn more about the program in St. Louis, and then read on to discover what is happening in Salt Lake County and Toronto, please visit Public Libraries Online.

Public Library COVID Restrictions

This week I provided an article for Public Libraries Online regarding the current status of library COVID-19 operating restrictions across the country. Here’s the opening of the piece:

Fourteen months ago the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country. By the beginning of April the vast majority of public library buildings were closed to the public. Over the subsequent months, some libraries dipped their toes into offering curbside checkouts before opening their doors for limited services. Other systems remained stuck in a full closure aside from virtual services. Now that vaccines are available and virus transmission rates are dropping, public library service is largely being restored across the United States, but at vastly different timelines.

To read more about the current operating restrictions in New York, Florida, California, and Missouri, which following recent CDC guidance are fast changing, read the full post on Public Libraries Online.

Understanding the Role of Public Library Directors

Public library directors fill a unique role in their organizations as leaders in both policy and culture. Whether it is a single building rural library to a multi-location big city system, all library directors face a series of similar problems as they strive to keep operations going. Between budgets, politics, policies, and staffing, no two days are the same.

On Tuesday I will be moderating an online discussion with experienced directors who will share their stories about why they chose this career path, its challenges, and their thoughts on the future of the profession. If you are interested in becoming a director, already a director looking for some tips, or simply want to learn more about the role, this is the panel discussion for you. Even if you are not a librarian, the leadership lessons alone will be worth your time.

Joining me on the webinar will be Roberta R. Phillips of the Prince George’s County (MD) Memorial Library System, Mark Williams of the Milton (Ontario) Public Library, Mary Ellen Icaza of the Stark Library (Canton, OH), and Jessica Hudson of the Fairfax County Library (Fairfax, VA). It is hosted by the Public Library Association.

The webinar will take place on Tues. May 18, 2 pm EST. To sign up, please visit the webinar page. Registration is free but space is limited. This panel discussion is organized and hosted by PLA’s Leadership Development Committee.

Federal Support for Public Libraries – How You Can Help!

Do you know how your local public library is funded?

The vast majority of public library funding comes from local revenue, such as property tax. A smaller portion comes from each State government with large variations across the country. It is easy to forget that the Federal government also supports local libraries.  Most of the revenue comes through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) that is distributed to the states through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

This past year IMLS received additional funding outside the usual appropriations process. This first happened with the CARES Act. For example, my library in Palm Beach County received a competitive grant for $24,316 from CARES Act dollars. With the passage of the American Rescue Plan, $200 million more was appropriated to IMLS to support libraries in their COVID relief efforts.  The American Library Association is also advocating for a regular budget appropriation of $206 million for LSTA grants in the next Federal budget year.

You can ask your Federal elected officials to support more funding for LSTA through the ALA engage platform.

Also moving through Congress is the Build America’s Libraries Act.  According to ALA, if passed:

“The Build America’s Libraries Act would fund upgrades to the nation’s library infrastructure to address challenges such as natural disasters, COVID-19, broadband capacity, environmental hazards, and accessibility barriers. This groundbreaking legislation would pave the way for new and improved library facilities in underserved communities across the country. Join us in the effort to support this bill and #BuildLibraries.”

You can contact your local member of Congress and Senators to ask them to support this Act through the ALA engage platform.

To keep track of all these Federal funding streams, please visit the ALA Advocacy and Public Policy pages.