Risk taker, change agent, library true believer
By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 01/15/2006
They took a risk when they hired Rivkah Sass in 2003 to direct the Omaha Public Library (OPL). Sass had never been the director of a library. She took a risk, too. A half-dozen or more librarians have occupied the director’s chair in Omaha since an incumbent died in 1992. That’s not exactly a revolving door, but it does make you wonder why that job has changed hands so often.
Sass and the Omaha library board were made for each other. Taking risks is central to Sass’s management style. The first thing she told the citizens of Omaha when she arrived in September 2003 was, “You’ve got a second-rate library here. A great city deserves a great library.” The remark was quoted by Michael Kelly in his column in the Omaha Herald-World. “Regrettably, her assessment is true,” Kelly wrote.
Pushing toward greatness
Sass has labored with passion, joy, and a heavy dose of courage to begin to push OPL toward greatness. In the slightly more than two years she has been there, she has forced change. The 82-member staff she inherited had 50 people classified as librarians or at higher levels; there were no library assistants or circulation clerks. When a librarian II supervising only two people retired, Sass frequently downgraded the position. “We had librarians doing nothing but checking out books. They weren’t out in the community. They weren’t really managing. They weren’t taking care of the collection,” says Sass. Even with a flat budget, OPL has gone from 82 to 87 full-time positions. Changes planned by Sass will add more jobs in 2006. Librarians still hold more than 40 posts.
Both the gate count and circulation have increased by 13 percent under Sass. She attributes part of that to a very aggressive weeding and rearrangement of the collection. “The libraries were too full of too much old stuff. The collection is now more visible. We can’t spend more, but we’ve added downloadable audiobooks and ebooks and put money into our DVD collection,” Sass asserts. “You may not find Legally Blonde in the DVD collection, but you will find last year’s Sundance winners and other important movies.”
OPL is now a model for automated acquisitions. Since she arrived at OPL, Sass has given some 50 presentations where she talks about the library and what the citizens of Omaha ought to expect from it. She covers the circuit, addressing literary groups, service clubs, neighborhood cliques, and many others.
“When I hear that old refrain, ‘Oh the library. We use the Internet, and I buy my books,’ I tell them, ‘Own the best, borrow the rest. Use the library to find out which books you want to own,’” Sass exclaims.
Closing floor four
In one of her riskiest moves to strengthen OPL, Sass closed an entire floor of the central library, one of four. The building is very large and quite unworkable. There is a huge atrium. Some 4000 square feet of storage “full of crap,” according to Sass, were closed. Everything now fits on three floors, including new areas for fiction and magazines. The change freed up staff to keep the place open seven days a week. Ultimately, some of that extra floor will be used to add space for parking and other functions.
The OPL capital improvement program includes such interesting, high-risk ventures as a shared branch with a local community college and a shared space with an elementary school and recreation center. Other partnerships engineered by Sass include Omaha Reads, that one book/one community initiative invented by Seattle’s Nancy Pearl. OPL has partnered with a local professor of dance to add a salon with interpretive recitations and dances to the successful Omaha Reads program.
Partners in arts
OPL has two Prime Time programs. An initiative from the Louisiana Arts Council, Prime Time deals with literacy and English as a second language. There are large Spanish-speaking and Sudanese populations in Omaha. OPL works to build a bilingual staff, both by hiring speakers of Spanish and by training them. The branch in South Omaha has many staff who are native speakers of Spanish.
Timothy Schaffert, the nationally celebrated Omaha novelist, organized the Downtown Omaha Lit Fest and convinced dozens of authors with ties to Omaha to come back to town and perform. OPL is a Lit Fest partner, and the program is now an annual event.
An OPL partnership with the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, which has a world-class reputation for its artist-in-residence program, is delivering an art in the libraries project, from which OPL will get ten pieces of public art made by kids. Sass sees all kinds of community building, civic engagement, and learning in the collaboration.
Only about one-third of the people of Omaha have library cards, so Sass has targeted registration growth as a publicity aim. “My best achievement,” she says, “is when I’m introduced to someone and they say, ‘Wow! The library. I’m hearing more about the library now. What a great job you’re doing!’ To me that means someone who wasn’t aware of the library might come in to get a card.”
The education of a director
The Sass career odyssey, a long and varied one, was clearly an education for a director-to-be. It began with a stint as a children’s librarian at the Spokane County Public Library. Sass took the job right after her library studies at what is now called “The I School,” at the University of Washington. In Spokane, Sass practiced things she learned from mentor and favorite professor, the distinguished Mae Benne, who taught the children’s services courses. Partly because of Benne, “I’m one of those rare ones who enjoyed library school,” Sass claims.
“I want to show the people of Omaha what they can expect from a great library. I’ve worked in a couple, and I put the Timberland Regional Library at the top of the list.” Her more than six years as community library coordinator at Timberland, headquartered in Tumwater, WA, gave Sass her first management experience. It was crucial to her development. “I managed the Chehalis Branch, in a funny little town with lots of local history,” she remembers. The system serves a huge area, the five counties of southwest Washington State. A couple of jobs and assignments out of library school, Sass was converted to the library system’s service orientation.
“This was in 1983. We had Magazine Index on microfilm. It was the first time I’d ever seen a FAX machine. The automatic response of librarians in the system was always, ‘We don’t own that. Would you let me try to get it for you?’ They had made interlibrary loan a seamless operation,” says Sass, bubbling over with admiration for Timberland. She even remembers specific patrons and projects, like “the househusband” who was writing a book on herbs and asked for books that had to be obtained from the British Library, or the grant they got to dispense information to unemployed timber workers.
Four years at the Washington State Library as continuing education coordinator gave Sass the opportunity to plan and deliver technology training for staff at 44 public libraries and 28 community college libraries statewide. Sass loved working with all types of libraries under a “visionary” head of library development, Mary Moore. Sass added deeply to her own library values working for Moore. Appointed deputy state librarian of Maryland four years later, Sass headed library development. At that point she wanted to be a state librarian.
“The role of the state library ought to be to help libraries innovate and experiment. State library staff should even be able to say afterwards, ‘You know, that didn’t work. It was a great idea in concept, but it didn’t work.’ That can’t happen now, and I realized it wasn’t the best fit for me,” Sass confesses.
Sass has a similar reaction to her “adventure” working with Thomson Gale, 1996–99. “I wanted to take a sabbatical from libraries, think about building virtual communities, do R&D. It didn’t work out as I had planned,” she admits, “but it was a great learning experience.” Five years as reference and information services coordinator under Ginnie Cooper at the Multnomah County Public Library in Portland, OR, completed Sass’s preparation to be the OPL director.
“If I had not worked at Multnomah, I wouldn’t have been able to do this job,” Sass says. Cooper was not a mentor, but she was a strong influence. Sass especially respected Cooper’s courage to innovate and, of course, her willingness to take risks.
“I’ve never had so much fun,” says Sass about her first directorship, “even taking risks like closing down the fourth floor of the library. Reallocating positions is risky. I do a lot of risky things. Now that I’ve been here over two years, I’m part of the system, I am the problem,” she laughs.
The mark of Robinson
Sass’s most important mentor was the legendary director of the Baltimore County Public Library System, Charles Robinson. She is a committed believer in “the Towson heresy,” as some of those familiar with Robinson’s views and his “give ’em what they want” theory of librarianship have labeled it.
Robinson, along with library headhunter June Garcia, convinced Sass that it was the right time in her career to apply for some of the many open top library jobs. Sass waxes heroic about Robinson, calling him the most important influence in her career. “Charles contributed as much to libraries of the 20th century as Melvil Dewey did to the libraries of the 19th century,” she says with the over-the-top honesty and enthusiasm that characterizes so many of her public comments.
Robinson, who retired a few years ago, has mentored librarians like Sass in leadership jobs all over the United States. Garcia was a Robinson mentee. A former director of the San Antonio Public Library, she is now partner in Dubberly Garcia Associates with Ron Dubberly, another Robinson mentee, who once directed the public libraries of Seattle and Atlanta. Their firm, represented by Garcia, was consultant to the Omaha trustees as they searched for a new director. To show how far these professional connections reach, as a student, Sass worked at the Seattle Public Library when Dubberly was director. So it goes.
Hiring a sidekick
“The Omaha Public Library is seeking applicants who want to help create a new vision for the library and enhance its presence in the community. The successful candidate will work as partner and colleague in the spirit of Boswell and Johnson, Lucy and Ethel, Butch and Sundance, Batman and Robin, Fred and Ginger.” That was the first paragraph of the job ad that attracted Stacey Aldrich, the 36-year-old assistant director Sass is so proud to have hired.
“She is incredible,” Sass exclaims. “I have someone I can totally, 100 percent trust. I have somebody who hasn’t been with the system for 20 years. I have someone who has had the luck to work somewhere else. She has a different vision about what libraries can be. She was deputy state librarian in Maryland. She is a futurist, a member of the society. She’s changed my whole attitude about what it takes to get the job done,” Sass says, her excitement obvious. Whether at OPL or elsewhere, Aldrich, Sass is convinced, is a director in the making.
Rivkah Sass is a librarian unafraid of, indeed energized by, risk, happy to force change, and rooted in a library philosophy of service and “give ’em what they want.” A teller of truth, willing to risk the consequences. A person boiling over with enthusiasm for people and passion for librarianship. Couple these with a career odyssey that has taken her to all kinds of libraries, both as manager and front-line worker, and you have the ingredients for an exceptional “Librarian of the Year.”
John N. Berry III is Editor-in-Chief, LJ