April 18, 2018

Mary Graham | Movers & Shakers 2004

 The Antibureaucrat


It’s tough to make the staff of a large, highly centralized urban library system believe they should make their own decisions and even take risks–all to serve their community better. But that is what Mary Graham has achieved as Brooklyn Public Library’s director of the Office of Neighborhood Services.

A study of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) in 1998 found that the library served 150 different ethnic groups and that staff spoke 70 languages. It also revealed that some branches in low-income areas could serve their constituencies better. Library managers wanted to correct this. But at the same time, the severe budget cuts that followed the September 11 attacks forced them to make the most efficient use of their resources.

The solution to both problems was the Leadership Branch Initiative, a pilot project headed by Graham. BPL’s Ianthee Williams, a Brooklyn branch librarian, says this project intended ‘to transform neighborhood libraries and the way they function, both internally and in their local communities, by building and nurturing autonomy at the local level.’

Graham organized three branches, all in challenging communities, into a cluster. ‘It was a total change,’ she says, ‘new staffing, new titles, new responsibilities, more promotional opportunities, very different reporting structures, and a definite emphasis on team-based work. We told them to take risks, to really bend the rules.’

Four librarians selected from the cluster were responsible for assuring quality customer service, mentoring staff members, and forging new partnerships in their communities. Staff members could then take their innovative public service ideas directly to those cluster leaders, who had the power to put them into practice. This model was expanded to include 24 libraries.

At every step of the process, Graham kept librarians and clerical staff fully informed. She soothed fears about their changing roles, welcomed their feedback, and invited them to generate solutions.

This pilot project proved to skeptical staff that library management was genuinely committed to decentralization and that it could have beneficial effects. Its success led to the creation of Graham’s new role, to extend the cluster concept to all 58 libraries.

It’s no accident that Graham was selected to lead this project. You could say it’s a job she’s trained for all her life. As a library clerk, Graham was inspired to become a librarian by overhearing reference librarians and marveling at all they knew.

She also heard transactions that left something to be desired in terms of humanity, a concern she took with her when she became a school librarian. Here she found teens who longed for positive contacts with adults. One of her goals is to make all librarians equally comfortable in serving teens.

As branch manager and then regional librarian, Graham developed a management style that facilitated problem-solving by consensus, ‘modeled respectful and inclusive communication with all levels of staff, and provided an environment that encourages respect, risk-taking, and creativity,’ she says.

This is not management speak. It’s the philosophy Graham lives by. Ask her about her heroes in the profession, and she’ll tell you about ‘supervisors who encouraged me to take risks if it meant better service for communities and staff who have developed into leaders when I gave them a chance.’

You could hardly choose a better person to humanize a creaky bureaucracy.




Current Position: Director of Neighborhood Services, Brooklyn Public Library
Degree: MLS, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn,1978
Hobbies : An avid playgoer and tennis player