May 25, 2018

Lisa Rosenblum, New King County Library System Director

On January 16, Lisa Rosenblum became the new executive director of the King County Library System (KCLS), the 2011 Gale/LJ Library of the Year. Rosenblum, a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker, previously served as director and chief librarian at Brooklyn Public Library since July 2015, and as director of library and community services for the City of Sunnyvale, CA from 2009–15. Rosenblum, the first female director of KCLS in 56 years, replaces Gary Wasdin, who resigned in March 2017 and is now executive director of Chicago’s Leather Archives & Museum.

LJ caught up with Rosenblum to hear more about switching libraries, coasts, and communities.

LJ: What was the draw to get you to move across country?

Lisa Rosenblum: I’m east coast originally—I grew up in New Jersey and my parents were from Brooklyn—but I spent most of my career in California and the west coast. I was really enjoying my time in Brooklyn—Brooklyn does amazing work. But King County is one of the pinnacles of directorship. It’s a wonderful system. It’s got great community support. The buildings are beautiful. They’ve always done innovative things. I remember when I was working in California, how a bunch of us from San José went up and looked at their big sorting system in Preston that was [former KCLS director, now at Calgary] Bill Ptacek’s idea. They’ve got this great reputation, and when the job came up, I put my hat in, and I got it.

All of my experience has led to this job. I’ve learned something about finance and [human relations] from my work in California as a director of a municipal government. I’ve learned a lot about nonprofit work working for Brooklyn, and fundraising and government affairs. I felt I had a lot of skills and that I could use them all by coming to King Country.

How does the political landscape at KCLS—situated between some fairly conservative areas in Washington state and very liberal Seattle—compare to Brooklyn?

Although in Brooklyn we did have pockets of areas such as south Brooklyn that were more conservative, [KCLS] has a little more range politically. We have some rural libraries, and we have some suburban—I would say more like Seattle—libraries. I’m making a great effort to meet with every one of the county council members. And when I can, also meeting with mayors of different cities, because I have one mayor that politically feels one way in one part of the county, and a mayor that is diametrically opposed to what that other mayor thinks [in another]. They come from different places. Their voters are different. So it’s a real challenge. I can’t assume anything. [In Brooklyn] I could pretty much assume, when I would speak to a politician, what they thought. Here I have to listen more and really see what they’re getting at.

For instance, I just got a letter from a mayor and he was objecting to homeless in our libraries. This might not be something I would hear in Brooklyn. Now, the things he was objecting to might be behavior issues that we can modify. Maybe we need to retrain our staff in a different way. But the basic beliefs that all are welcome in our libraries, that doesn’t change. I might say [to him], “Well, you know, libraries are for all.” And I might have to work with him a little longer to get him to that place. Whereas in Brooklyn I could just assume this is not going to be even a topic of conversation.

It’s interesting because a program that you wouldn’t think twice of offering in Brooklyn might get some pushback here.

How does it feel to move from a large urban system to a slightly less large rural and suburban system?

It feels very familiar. I think Brooklyn was a great jumping off point because big systems don’t scare me anymore. There are 49 libraries, so I’m ten short of what I had in Brooklyn, but it’s still pretty big. I often say the great thing here is [that] it’s a big system, but these are community libraries.

I get two reactions when I tell people what I do, and it’s the same every time. They say, “Oh, I love the King County library system. I love King County libraries!” And, “Wow, you have a big job!” But if you look at each library as important to that community, it makes it manageable. [Patrons] don’t really care that I’m the director. When they go into their library, when they go into Snoqualmie or Bellevue, they [care about] their relationship with the staff and the services they got. And as long as I remember that, it’s manageable, because it’s all about relationships.

The other thing is how important rural libraries are to some of these really small, remote communities. I knew it in theory, but you see in some of these small communities the library is really is the only community center in town. It’s the only place that people can go to gather, to meet, of course to get on the Internet. It just goes to show that it’s not about the number of people in the transactions, all those measures that we used to hang our hat on. It’s more about how we need to be in all of our communities. And I think we do a great job here.

How has the work been going on KCLS’s Capital Improvement Plan?

We have one more library to build and one to renovate.

The interesting thing about our libraries, they were designed with the Pacific Northwest in mind. So there’s a lot of light in them. There are a lot of windows, but also, all of the shelves have little lights so there’s this warm glow when you walk in. I didn’t realize how important that is until I spent my first winter in the Pacific Northwest. It’s really dreary, but you come into this beautifully lit place with these soft lights coming on, and you just want to stay all day and cozy up to a book. They’re beautifully designed.

The next part of this, of course, is maintaining these libraries. That’s really going to be important, and my job is to figure out a way, because our capital funding has ended—how we can operationally maintain these beautiful libraries and keep them in the manner that people expect?

What are your plans for that?

It’s budgeting. This is where my experience has come in. I speak often with the director of Seattle Public Library, Marcellus Turner, and [Georgia Lomax,] the director of Pierce County [WA], and we were talking about how we have these wonderful directors that came before us, they did these beautiful capital builds, and we have these wonderful libraries. Now our job coming in—this next generation—is, how do we maintain them? It’s not as cool or sexy, but that’s our job. We were laughing—but it takes some creative budgeting. It also takes us looking at where we should be spending our money. And, of course, leveraging partnerships. That’s one of the wonderful things I learned in Brooklyn. Brooklyn does an amazing job of partnering with organizations, and I’ve taken that lesson with me.

I just met with the sheriff of King County, because a number of our libraries are in unincorporated areas where her department serves, and I was talking about how, when I was in California, we made it a point to have our public safety officers come in and teach about cyber bullying or teach about [online] privacy. I said, I would love to have you come to our libraries in a more positive way, not always come when we need you for an issue. And she was really excited about that. So that’s my job, too, to try get them to come into our library, especially police and fire [personnel], to see how they can connect with our communities.

What do you think Brooklyn could learn from KCLS and vice versa?

Because they’re a nonprofit, Brooklyn has a little more leverage in their fundraising, but maybe we could take some of their best practices. Brooklyn has been very successful with IMLS grants and bigger grants. So I’d like to see us—and I’ve said this to our foundation director—seek out some of those bigger grants. We’re already doing the stuff, it’s just we need to get to that level that Brooklyn has.

Now on the Brooklyn side, what they could learn from King County—KCLS does an amazing job in the design of their libraries and in the architecture. It’s not Brooklyn’s fault because of their funding—it’s really hard for them. They have this infrastructure issue that’s really difficult to overcome. But we have some beautiful libraries, their consistency and their look. To a certain extent Brooklyn can’t do that because they’re dealing with Carnegies, they’re dealing with Lindsay boxes. But this feel—when you go into a King County library up north in Woodinville, you know you’re in a King County library. If you go to one [in the] south, in Auburn, they all have a certain look. There’s a branding throughout the system that’s not just in signage. It’s also in within. All of our children’s areas have the same kind of format and subject areas and labeling. This minutiae takes a long time to develop [and]  is pretty expensive, but once you get it down it’s branding through top and bottom, all over.

What are you reading?

When I came out here, I asked the staff to create a book list for me as a newcomer to the Pacific Northwest. Because I’ve lived all over the country, but I’ve never actually lived up here. So they created this ten book [list] for me to read. Now I’m reading The Boys in the Boat [Daniel James Brown, Penguin Pr.]. It came out a couple years ago. As part of my visiting around, I was just at the University of Washington, and I just saw the Lake Union where they rowed.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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