March 24, 2018

Run It Like a Library! | Blatant Berry

The recent turmoil among library directors, marked by the resignation of Mary Dempsey in Chicago, for example, demonstrates again that public administration requires deeper skill and talent than business management. Directing a public library is mostly public administration. (See “A Hard Act To Follow”)  Top administrators face intense political pressure from all sides. They must be accountable to a swarm of elected officials, a dystopian diversity of constituencies, a gang of pressure groups, and, always, a huge gaggle of gadflies. The issues change with each new day and even more with every election.

The measures of library success are far more complex than the easy bottom line of business. A library director who claims improved service is attacked for excessive expenditures. If a library director points to programs for a new constituency, complaints of neglect will come from another. Governing trustees from commerce press the librarian to “run it like a business,” but that option is unavailable because it is irrelevant. Sure, for decades some libraries have been run by managers hired from the corporate world, but so far there is no evidence that they are more successful, more effectively managed, or any less subject to the whims of local politics.

Dempsey’s departure from the Chicago Public Library is just the latest example of how urban politics, in this case the cost-cutting passions of a new mayor, can end the tenure of the most effective and successful library director a great library ever had. Consider the revolving door of the director’s office at the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). A board, partly of business types, with its own agenda, sent an accomplished leader like Martín Gómez elsewhere. He moved to the Urban Libraries Council, then to Los Angeles to manage that huge urban library. Gómez had crucial victories in L.A. before being recently seduced to manage in the relative peace of the library at the University of Southern California. That same Brooklyn board ran its next two directors out of town. One of them, Ginnie Cooper, landed in the District of Columbia, where she has taken that damaged library system a long way toward recovery and fiscal and political health.

We watched Deborah Jacobs master the endless regulatory squabbles of both Corvallis, OR, and Seattle, where she built glorious new libraries and branches. Now Marcellus Turner must master the complexities of that city, with its governance so uniquely attentive to every voice.

Because libraries are supported by taxes, lurking antitax hobbyists are always ready to tell library directors that every expenditure is excessive, that the staff is too large, the planned building is too big, the technology too costly, or the spending somehow corrupt. We can cite no proof that public library directors are as corruptible as such pillars of society as bankers, brokers, and industry heads. If you want a model of carefully managed public spending, the public library is your best choice, providing service to all for less than two percent of the cost of government.

There are notable risk-takers running libraries, too. My favorites include Rivkah Sass, who left the directorship in Omaha to try to fix the library in Sacramento, CA. Another is Clyde Scoles, who has brought a higher level of public service for years to economically wrecked Toledo. There is Scott Hughes, struggling to build effective library service in poor Bridgeport, CT. Consider Charles Brown, who went from successes in Hennepin County, MN, to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, NC, only to be ambushed by a board that decided a world-class library was too expensive. Brown now has the daunting challenge of re-creating the New Orleans Public Library.

The point is simple. Running a library requires talent and skills far more sensitive, subtle, and politically perceptive than those needed for most commercial concerns. Indeed, such a range of skills is rarely found in corporate America. So the next time somebody says, “Run it like a business,” tell them that just isn’t good enough for a library.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III ( is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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  1. Jane Cronkhite says:

    Very true! I am very impressed by directors and administrators who have a vision for a library system and can accomplish those goals while navigating the bloody bureaocratic political waters at the same time. It is an enormous feat. My hope is that with the trying economic and political climate now, great leaders are learning from today’s challenges and being developed for the future of libraries.

  2. The problem is that most Library Schools do not teach public administration

  3. Ed Williams says:

    Mr. Berry’s message about the challenges of running a public library is informed and provocative. As a trustee of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library, I’d like to make it clear that the “board” he refers to that cut funding here was the board of county commissioners, not the library board of trustees. The sharp, sudden economic downturn hit everybody who relies on county funding, and unemployment here is still at 10 percent. But public reaction to the deep library budget cuts, as demonstrated in outspoken political support and a doubling of volunteers, sent a strong message of community commitment to our library. In hard times bad things can happen, but one good thing is that our library has learned to sharpen its business practices, build important relationships and focus its efforts in ways that will prove beneficial as the economy improves. The pace of our recovery will depend in large part on the economy, but the commitment and talent are here. We’re on the way.