“We know Luis Herrera will win this award someday because he is a fabulous leader,” wrote Catherine Bremer, the chief steward of the Librarians Guild of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 1021, about the city librarian who directs the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL). That support was echoed by many others, from the very recently reelected mayor of San Francisco, Edwin Lee, to members of the city’s Board of Supervisors, citizens who represent library branches, and the chiefs of other city departments. Such broad consensus made Herrera the clear choice for the 2012 LJ Librarian of the Year, selected by the editors of LJ.
The fiscal foundation
Herrera took over in 2005, five years after the 2000 bond issue for the Branch Library Improvement Program (BLIP), the largest capital program in SFPL history, had been approved by voters. The BLIP program had stalled.
“We put together a team, got a new deputy and branch head, and put a system in place to build a better relationship with the folks at the Department of Public Works (DPW) who were getting the program started,” Herrera recalls. There was a huge and growing gap, $35 million–$40 million, because of cost escalation and other issues. “We were running out of money.”
Herrera took a bold step and went back to the voters. He asked them to extend for another 15 years a property tax set aside that was going to expire in 2009. In the same charter change, voters approved SFPL’s authority to issue revenue bonds to help get the buildings done.
“The measure passed. In fact, 75 percent of the voters were for it,” says Herrera. “There was tremendous cooperation with the mayor’s office. We all came up with creative solutions.” Now, 22 of the 24 branch projects covered by the BLIP have been completed.
“Luis inherited a capital program that was severely behind in its goals and turned it into a model public works program that has rallied the community. The projects are on time, within budget, and have won numerous awards,” says Donna Bero, executive director of the Friends of SFPL, an organization that contributed $4.1 million to SFPL in 2011.
A citywide renaissance
“I call it a library renaissance. It will be a $200 million effort when it is finished, and it gives us authority to use revenue bonds if we need more for other buildings or to fix up the main library,” says Herrera.
“Luis’s leadership has been instrumental in achieving such an intense schedule. He is intimately familiar with all aspects of each project, from budgets to designs to public art selection to environmental features,” writes Mohammed Nuru, interim director of public works, and Edward Reiskin, director of transportation and former director of public works. “He meets weekly with the BLIP project team and monthly with DPW management. His team-building skills and steady positive attitude in dealing with challenges and unforeseen circumstance have greatly helped every member of the project team stay focused, motivated, and appreciated.” That collaborative spirit and team building are indicative of Herrera’s tenure.
The buildings, themselves, are notable. The American Public Works Association (APWA) acknowledged the renovation of SFPL’s Bernal Branch with a national historic Preservation Award. That branch and the one in Eureka Valley were also recognized by the Northern California APWA.
“San Francisco’s new libraries are also models of sustainability and diversity, using green construction practices, providing open access to all users; ensuring the collections reflect the languages mixture of our citizenry; and, as Luis often says, embracing and enriching the cultural narrative of this city,” writes Mayor Lee.
The mayor’s praise echoes the 2011 Alice B. Toklas Democratic Society’s “Partner in Public Service” award for service to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
The extension of the SFPL set aside of city tax revenues has meant fiscal stability for the library in a difficult period. Library hours increased for three years until 2010. The main library and half of the branches are open seven days a week, and the goal is to have that schedule at every library. All the others are open six days a week.
ALL ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS Herrera connects with kids via SFPL’s green bookmobile (top), and with leaders citywide, such as (above, l.–r.) SF Library Commission president Jewelle Gomez, SF United School District deputy superintendent Richard Carranza, Mayor Edwin Lee, SF School Board president and mayor’s education advisor Hydra Mendoza, and SF supervisor Scott Weiner.
Photos ©2012 Tom Graves Photography
One of the most compelling aspects of Herrera’s leadership is his understanding of teams and his willingness to work on them with SFPL workers. “Luis Herrera is a director who understands that the workers (the union) and the library are both dedicated to our mission of ‘free and equal access to information, independent learning, and the joys of reading for our diverse community,’ ” says the union’s Bremer. “Knowing that we are not working at cross purposes makes it possible to work out solutions to everybody’s satisfaction.” Such a strong endorsement of a director from a union leader is rare in urban library circles.
Herrera has set up monthly meetings between the management team and SEIU local leadership. Both sides bring issues to the agenda, and during the six years of Herrera’s tenure they have solved some dicey problems. For example, they set up temporary staffing during the closing of branches for the BLIP renovations, and civil service testing was revised to reflect better the “real work” of library workers. “[Herrera] welcomes input from all…and he listens!” says Bremer.
Consistent communication is all important. “I work hard to earn union backing. After all, that is in the best interests of our public. We sometimes disagree, but we work in out,” says Herrera. “We develop the agenda for our regular meetings together. One time, no one came up with anything for the agenda, so I asked if we needed to meet. The response was an emphatic, ‘Yes, we always need to talk!’ I agreed. It is all about communicating.”
With success in mind
That inclusive touch extends to the future as well. For instance, Herrera created GenPL, an SFPL program to engage the city’s “Next Generation of Public Library Leaders.” The program’s fourth cohort has just started. The goal is to create SFPL’s future leaders from among its staff. This internal leadership development and succession planning effort draws from all levels of the SFPL workforce, from custodians to librarians. It provides access to upper management, engages staff in team efforts to find solutions to SFPL’s toughest challenges, and gives workers at all levels new skills to allow them to navigate the organization.
GenPL has improved internal communication among divisions and created a new network among participants. According to Herrera and deputy city librarian Jill Bourne, who nominated Herrera for LJ’s annual award, it has already produced some good leaders and developed “a kind of cultural engagement with staff at all levels who feel they can contribute to library progress.” Many participants have been promoted and nearly all have been involved in taking on “really tough projects.”
One group was assigned to improve collection management, often spread throughout the divisions of urban libraries where it gets mired in process. In some 18 months the SFPL team restructured collection management and moved it into technical services.
Another GenPL team changed SFPL’s mobile outreach. Bookmobiles in the children’s division, the main library, and the branches were consolidated into one unit.
“The GenPL teams look at a problem from the viewpoint of the user. They change the way we do business, and in the end they own the change,” says Herrera. The Urban Libraries Council agreed, honoring SFPL with a Top Innovator award for the program. In a National League of Cities Award to San Francisco’s Human Resources Department, the GenL program at SFPL was singled out.
“Luis’s management style is tremendously participatory. It is all about team building. He really focuses on empowering people, building confidence, and then trusting their input,” says Bourne, herself an LJ Mover & Shaker. “Some of the projects were things a manager could have come in and forced, but there is power in having them come from a staff team. When it comes from the staff, people feel they are able to make changes.”
In his first conversations with staff at SFPL’s main library in 2005, Herrera heard how they felt “a little under siege” owing to the huge number of library visitors who had both mental health and shelter issues.
“We didn’t have the skills to deal with them. We’re not social workers,” says Herrera. He opened discussions and created an opportunity to work with the Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Police Department to deal with the problems.
SFPL hired social worker Leah Esguerra, paid in part by the DPH, who is at the library to help people who may need referrals to appropriate agencies or other kinds of assistance. The program has proved successful. Esguerra has the skills and sensitivity to work with people without invading their privacy or bothering those who don’t want help.
“It is not about the homeless; it is really about anyone who may need some housing or mental health referrals,” says Herrera. In any quarter, Esguerra aids some 250–300 people, finding permanent housing for many. (For more on this initiative, see Stephen M. Lilienthal’s feature article, “The Problem Is Not the Homeless,” LJ 6/15/11, p. 30.)
In another instance of cross-department creativity, Herrera asked the Police Department if SFPL could “borrow” a sergeant to train and oversee SFPL security personnel when the library’s head of security position was vacant. The person they hired is still in the job. SFPL pays the salary, and the sergeant provides training. All three departments—police, public health, and SFPL—worked together to create the SFPL public safety plan.
“We also have partnerships with the city Department of Environment, the Parks Department, and the schools,” adds Bourne. She says Herrera’s willingness to partner is unique and points to SFPL’s Wallace Stegner Center in the main library. It has collaborated with the Department of the Environment to split the salary for the environmental librarian to make that job full time. Her programs, like one on urban gardening, are gaining in popularity.
Models and mentors
Herrera earned his MLS in the Graduate Library Institute for Spanish-Speaking Americans created and run by the renowned professor Arnulfo Trejo at what is now called the School of Information Resources & Library Science at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Trejo also founded REFORMA (the National Association To Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking). “Trejo never gave up. He fought the good fight, and my first training ground was in REFORMA,” says Herrera.
During his time in Tucson, Herrera roomed with Martín Gómez, who now directs the Los Angeles Public Library.
Through those connections he met other mentors, like Elizabeth Martinez, former Los Angeles City Librarian and past executive director of the American Library Association (ALA), now director of the public libraries of Salinas, CA.
Cordelia Howard at California’s Long Beach Public Library gave Herrera what he calls his “first break,” making him branch head there. He remembers mentoring from former New Jersey librarian, Rutgers professor, and past ALA president Betty Turock and three other ALA past presidents. E.J. Josey gave Herrera the opportunity to work on his Equity at Issue ALA Task Force. Patricia Schuman (Neal-Schuman Publishers) has been a regular mentor, along with Brooke Sheldon, former dean of LIS programs at Texas Woman’s University and the University of Arizona.
“I really admire Susan Hildreth, my predecessor at SFPL,” Herrera says. He credits Hildreth, now the director of the national Institute of Museum and Library Services, with getting SFPL started on the path to all the progress he has made.
“I have a great team. My mentors all said, ‘Surround yourself with good people,’ and I did,” says Herrera.
Such humility and kindness is key to Herrera’s success in San Francisco and to winning this award. In short, he got voters to extend SFPL support for 15 years. He employed his participatory management style to create a rare alliance between management and union. He invoked an ability to build strong and effective partnerships with other city departments, while his unusual brand of courage let staff teams make major management and organizational changes and decisions. Herrera is LJ’s 2012 Librarian of the Year because of his joyous spirit and infectious optimism about libraries and his willingness to communicate that optimism to all those involved, especially the citizens of San Francisco. n
A TEAM THAT CLICKS Herrera (top photo, seated, at center) works closely and in partnership with his management team (l.–r.): human resources director Donna Marion, chief of branches Edward Melton, chief information officer Brian Bannon, and deputy city librarian Jill Bourne. The whole team (bottom photo, l.-r.): Toni Bernardi, chief of the Office of Children and Youth Services; Chief Information Officer Brian Bannon; Deputy City Librarian Jill Bourne; Chief of Branches Edward Melton; City Librarian Luis Herrera; Facilities Director Roberto Lombardi; Chief of Collections and Technical Services Laura Lent (seated); Human Resources Director Donna Marion; and Chief of Communications, Programs and Partnerships Toni Cordova. Photos ©2012 Tom Graves Photography