February 16, 2018

Kathryn Matthew To Serve as IMLS Director

Kathryn K. Matthew, Director, IMLS

Kathryn K. Matthew, Director, IMLS

The U.S. Senate announced its confirmation of Kathryn (“Kit”) Matthew as director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums, on September 22. Matthew succeeds IMLS deputy director for library services Maura Marx (a 2006 LJ Mover & Shaker), who served as acting director since previous director Susan Hildreth’s term ended in January. The four-year directorship alternates between leaders from the library and the museum communities, in order to ensure representation from both sectors. President Barack Obama announced his intent to nominate Matthew for the position on March 10, along with nominees and appointees for several other key administrative posts.

Matthew, who has served as chief science educator at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis since 2014, has also held senior positions at a number of museums including Science City at Union Station, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, the Virginia Museum of Natural History, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

“I am pleased to see that Kit Matthew was confirmed and am looking forward to seeing IMLS priorities and impact under her leadership,” former IMLS director Hildreth told LJ.

“Kit brings an incredibly rich background to the agency with her experience in science, curation, business, fundraising and communications management,” said Marx. “She’s also bringing a deep understanding of libraries’ role in American public and academic life, so we are thrilled she’s finally here! We’re all looking forward to working with her.”


Matthew holds a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College, an M.B.A. from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, and a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Pennsylvania, and began her work with museums at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, MI. She subsequently served in curatorial, collections management, and research roles, later moving into management, exhibits and educational programs development, and fundraising and marketing.

From 2005­–06 Matthew served as an exhibits consultant at Chemical Heritage Foundation, and director at the Historic Charleston Foundation from 2006–08. From 2008–13 she was a principal consultant and product manager for the Arts and Cultural business sector at Blackbaud, Inc., a software and services supplier to nonprofit organizations that focuses on fundraising and financial management.

“I think she’s got a very broad and detailed perspective on the museum field and its opportunities and challenges,” said American Alliance of Museums (AAM) president and CEO Laura Lott. “It’s really a perfect background for what she will be doing at IMLS.” Matthew served as a peer reviewer for the IMLS-funded and AAM-administered Museum Assessment Program, in which museums, a one-year program of self-assessment and consultative peer review for small and mid-sized museums. She has also performed peer review services for the National Science Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and was awarded the AAM Excellence in Peer Review Service award in 2009.


In addition to her storied career, Matthew’s connection to museums and libraries reaches back several generations. Her great-grandmother—a poet and the first woman on the Charleston, SC, City Council—was one of the founders of the Charleston Public Library, originally known as the Charleston Free Library and headquartered in a wing of the Charleston Museum.

Her family also includes several paleontologists. Her uncle Edwin H. Colbert was a prolific author of books, such as The Age of Reptiles and The Great Dinosaur Hunters and Their Discoveries, that helped drive the public’s budding fascination with dinosaurs and paleontology beginning in the 1940s. While working at New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), Colbert discovered one of the largest concentrations of dinosaur fossils ever found, including more than a dozen complete Coelophysis skeletons. Matthew recalled an early visit to AMNH: “I must have been about five or six, maybe younger, and I was running around through all these collections cases while my parents were trying to talk to my uncle. He pulled me aside and opened up a drawer—it was like a child opening up a treasure chest. And there was this perfectly preserved fossil of Coelophysis.” In a satisfying coincidence, Matthew told LJ, decades later she became the director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque, near Ghost Ranch, where her uncle discovered the fossils.


“I feel like [the directorship of] IMLS is the capstone of who I am and my career,” Matthew said. “I’ve worked in museums, I’ve done a lot of fundraising and management, I’ve been a curator, so I deeply understand what it means to run libraries and museums as a business—but more importantly as anchors in the community, whether you’re talking about families or donors or part of town economic development.”

Matthew plans to draw on her wide range of experience to help IMLS constituents address a variety of issues. Her first question for both museums and libraries, she told LJ, will involve defining their missions: “‘What do we know about our audience or our users?… What do they value and what do they need?’ And that’s what you have to start with. You meld that with your core competencies, whether it’s an incredible collection of manuscripts, or vases, or fossils, and you come up with what you can offer that’s unique to you and the community.”

This could lead to new programs, Matthew explained; “taking an existing project or investment that [IMLS] made to a grantee and revisiting that, evaluating it, and retooling it for a broader set of our users or organizations—libraries or museums. [Or] looking at some small investments…could they be broadened to other communities?”

Matthew also hopes to reinforce IMLS’s use of data to help drive its mission. “There’s a saying I’ve heard from scientists: Data tells a story,” she said. “And in many cases it does, both within the agency and within the field. I’d love to see IMLS strengthen itself even more in research and evaluation. [This involves] looking at what other entities, whether universities or foundations, are doing in that area, and then how we can all work together to understand what impact we’re having with our programs or what other research questions we want to tackle collectively.”

She is also interested in discovering the ways that the two sectors can work together programmatically. “I’ve thought a lot about the commonality between libraries and museums,” Matthew told LJ, “and it’s really about telling stories, whether you use a manuscript or an object…stories really engage our communities and their audiences. Storytelling is a way to allow us to personalize what we’re learning…. Whether it’s through early childhood programs, programs that talk about the scientists behind discoveries—their struggles and successes—or authors, or people working deep within libraries. Stories are really what pull the public in. And members of Congress, too…. We’re always looking for ways for libraries and museums to partner.”

Added Matthew, “We work within our existing networks, and to branch out beyond that—you can discover amazing things by talking to what I call parallel fields, people who think about the same problems you do, but you might not know it until you look.”

“I think she’s going to be a great advocate for the agency as a whole,” Lott told LJ upon Matthew’s confirmation. “I think she’s a go-getter, and I’m really looking forward to working with her.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.