February 18, 2018

TN Library Association Criticizes Memphis Mayor for Hiring Nonlibrarian Leaders

By Norman Oder

  • “Slap in the face” to the profession
  • Mayor won’t comment
  • Five more managers leave system

In an open letter to Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, the Tennessee Library Association (TLA) called his recent dismissal of longtime Memphis Public Library and Information Center Director Judith Drescher “a slap in the face” to library staff, given that “two political appointees, without any library science or library technology education, without any professional experience in libraries, without any experience in managing library staff,” are now heading a library which “gained a national reputation as one of the best in the country under Judith Drescher’s leadership.” The TLA criticized the mayor’s failure to conduct a national search for Drescher’s replacement.

Eyebrows were raised in December when the seemingly sudden retirement of Drescher and two colleagues was announced. After all, Drescher had just led the library to win a National Medal of Museum and Library Service, awarded by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), in part for such innovations as the establishment of a 2-1-1 call center for community information. Herenton appointed as director Keenon McCloy, the city’s director of public services and neighborhoods. Then the mayor appointed Michael Gray, a retired deputy director in public services and neighborhoods and former mayoral bodyguard, as deputy director. McCloy, not Drescher, attended the mid-January ceremony in which First Lady Laura Bush presented the IMLS award.

The TLA also questioned the disbanding of the appointed library board, part of the transfer of oversight from the county government to city support. “We urge you to reconsider your appointments to the Memphis Public Library, to reinstitute a legally appointed Library Board of Trustees, and to repair some of the damage that has been done to the citizens of Memphis who use the unparalleled and nationally recognized resources of the Memphis Public Library,” stated the letter, which was distributed to the local and library media, as well as the American Library Association. The mayor will not comment on the letter, a spokeswoman told the Commercial Appeal.

At about the same time the TLA sent the letter, the Commercial Appeal reported that five top managers were leaving the library, three to retirement. One of those retiring, Adult Services Coordinator Heather Lawson, will run the Hernando Public Library in nearby Mississippi; she told the newspaper she’d been recruited after news of turmoil in the Memphis system had surfaced. When the Commercial Appeal tried to get a comment from new library director Keenon McCloy, the newspaper was referred to Herenton’s office, with no response.

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