November 23, 2017

Can Bankers Keep Our Books? | Editorial

In tough times or good, libraries need librarians at the helm

Last month brought news that Charles Brown was leaving his job as director of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library (CML), NC, effective June 30. The announcement took library directors around the country by surprise, especially since it was accompanied by the appointment of Vick Phillips, a former banking executive and business consultant with no library experience, as interim CEO to lead the library through the toughest economic environment in its history.

Brown’s remarks on his decision drew commiseration and recognition from a number of librarians to whom LJ spoke. Like many of his counterparts who spent years building their libraries—Brown has been at CML since 2004—Brown has had Draconian cuts forced upon him, slashing staff by 176 (one-third of the workforce) and hours by 53 percent and closing four branches.

He explained his decision to LJ’s Michael Kelley:

This has been just a devastating ten-month period for the library system and for me professionally and personally…. Every layoff has been like a dagger to my heart…. I pride myself on being a library builder and a nurturer of staff, and this has been the complete opposite…. [t]hings are not going to get better overnight. And so I think it’s a good time to leave.

While Brown has many admirers, including this writer, who don’t begrudge him his choice, it is regrettable that his replacement—even interim—is not a librarian. There are plenty of instances where the CFO or budget manager comes from business, as at Phoenix Public Library (PPL), which has a CPA on its team.

But, long term, as San José Public Library director Jane Light pointed out, “You need an expert librarian at the helm.” And Ken Wiggin, Connecticut State Librarian, said, “That intrinsic library school piece that we come out of library school with, and go into librarianship with, too, isn’t there.”

CMLs Board of Trustees apparently plans to require an MLIS degree when it advertises for a permanent director. We strongly endorse that. There are plenty of library leaders out there who can guide the budget process and manage change, as Phillips has been charged to do. They will bring with them a service philosophy and public sector sensibility that, despite a record of community service, he lacks. He is not going to be judged by quarterly results but by community needs and satisfaction, as well as his ability to work with the powers that be.

Light speaks for many directors struggling through budget cuts when she says, “For me, one of the biggest dilemmas is what cuts do we make that will work when the economy gets better? Where will we be in three to five years? You [must] prove you are able to grow back in a healthy way to meet community needs, even if not in the same way.“

“A number of people have suggested that we preserve our open hours and open doors. I believe our mission is greater than a free used bookstore. We’re looking at programs for children, for adults…. We’re developing story time in a box to provide quality literacy activities with fewer staff. We’re also looking at all kinds of partners to work with.”

Last year in San José, the city council used some salary and benefit savings to keep the branches open 4½ days a week, after the city manager had recommended reducing them to three days a week. (The main library is open 80 hours a week, since it is a joint public/academic facility.) The same thing happened in Phoenix last year, which kept six libraries open when staff citywide took reductions in salaries and benefits.

“We’re looking every day at how we do business and what it costs us to do business,” said PPL director Toni Garvey. “At the Maricopa County Library Council meeting, we’re talking more about collaborating to provide more efficient service for all of our customers. It’s a level of discussion we haven’t had before.”

“When things turn around I want people to say the library handled it well,” continued Garvey. “How do we preserve the quality of what we do, even if we can only preserve this program or that program? I want elected officials to feel confident that we made the right decisions, and I want the public to feel we provided the best service that we could.”

Charlotte needs a leader steeped in that kind of library philosophy. The times are tough, but as Light said, “Times have been tough before. Persistence pays off.” So do librarians in the top spot.

Francine Fialkoff About Francine Fialkoff

Francine Fialkoff (ffialkoff@gmail.com) spent 35 years with LJ, and 15 years at its helm as Editor and Editor-in-Chief. For more, see her Farewell Editorial.

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