April 19, 2018

Craig Buthod: Librarian of the Year 2010!

Louisville Free Public Library’s director named LJ‘s 2010 Librarian of the Year

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 01/15/2010

An ability to convert setbacks into opportunities is the key to the successful career of Craig Buthod, director of the Louisville Free Public Library (LFPL), KY. Buthod possesses a unique combination of optimism, managerial talent, political savvy, and a willingness to do battle, even after serious losses. This uncanny mix is why he was singled out from strong competitors to be LJ‘s 2010 Librarian of the Year.

Fulfilling promises

“Less than two weeks after two-thirds of the voters of Louisville defeated a tax proposal to support and change the governance of LFPL in November 2007, Buthod went public with a vow to move forward with the library’s master plan to renovate or rebuild the main library, refurbish or rebuild most branches, and add five new ones…to improve library services countywide,” reports Toni Garvey, city librarian of the Phoenix Public Library and LJ‘s 2004 Librarian of the Year, in her letter nominating Buthod for the award. Last August, the Newburg Library, a branch of about 8300 square feet in a neighborhood that has never had a branch, opened—less than two years after the defeat of the tax proposal and just one week after “the flood of the century,” to quote Garvey, had devastated the city’s main library.

The Newburg neighborhood, mostly African American but with a growing Hispanic population, had only had bookmobile service. People there felt they deserved better.

“We counted the number of people who lived closer to that site than any other branch, and it exceeded our base numbers for how many people it takes to justify a branch,” Buthod says. “We looked at the number of schoolchildren because it is tough for children from remote neighborhoods to get to our other branches. The neighborhood had the largest percentage of families with children in the county.”

The first library built in Louisville since 1996, Newburg Library has smart technology, self-service kiosks, geothermal heating and cooling, and daylight harvesting interior lighting.

Building back at 200%

The flood that hit right as the branch opened in August 2009 wrecked LFPL’s main library. The $5 million in damage included several bookmobiles and library vehicles, all Internet connections, and tens of thousands of books.

Typical of Buthod’s style, he turned it into an opportunity. “I like to say we’re going to repair 200 percent of the damage from the flood. We’ll rebuild everything that was destroyed, even the heating and air conditioning systems. It’s hard to get public appropriations for that, so we’re lucky to have insurance money to do it and to buy years of maintenance,” Buthod says.

In addition to capital funds, the library is raising private dollars to enhance the children’s wing and add a teen center and auditorium. “We’ll restore the façade of our 1908 building and some interiors,” he says, also remarking with a laugh that “we’ve learned a lot about mechanical systems and elevators.” Amazingly, he expects to have it all finished this spring.

A vision of community librarianship

What Buthod calls “community librarianship” is crucial to library success. “The public sees us as a community-based educational agency. So do I. That is what justifies millions of public dollars.”

Beyond that, he says, “The library is a service in a community with myriad interests. There is a constant transfer of information and influence between the institution and the community. Our obligation is to enhance that flow…. The community should participate in the programs of the library, and the library should participate in the life of the community,” Buthod asserts.

An example of that vision is how the library went about creating a new outreach program at the Iroquois branch, serving immigrants.* “The first person we hired,” says Buthod, “was an outside salesperson. Her job was to go out to places in the community where the target clients would be—the grocery stores, street fairs, everywhere there is local activity. They told her what they needed from their library.” That concept of community librarianship is overriding.

Partnership for student power

The unique alliance LFPL has developed with the Louisville schools is a source of pride for Buthod. A key feature is the Student Power Plus Card, spurred by Buthod and LFPL. The idea was to make sure kids had access to all LFPL resources, especially the electronic databases. Vendors require access through a library card. Buthod noticed all the homework required of kids and thought about the logistics of getting every student a library card.

Working with Polaris, LFPL’s system vendor, LFPL got the schools to agree to a massive data dump. The schools immediately realized it would also meet their need for a student ID card. Instead of an expiration date, the card has the student’s high school graduation date. The card also gives students admission to after-school activities, many sponsored by the local United Way and churches, half-fare on the local bus system, and a big discount on fees for the GED and other tests. Those fees had been a barrier to kids who needed the tests to finish or go on in their education. In short, everyone in town can use the same card, the one with the LFPL logo.

The card brought a spectacular increase in student use of the library that has continued now into its second year. Parochial schools and other private schools joined the program, and 120,000 students now have the card.

LFPL targets that group with many programs, like test preparation courses for the SAT. Buthod got LFPL to set up practice tests on its web site, too, and librarians went into the schools to show kids how to use the practice tests and offer tips on taking the exams. Classes, conducted by outside test prep firms, are paid for by the library and administered in its buildings.

Buthod serves on the board of the GED program run by the adult education division of the public schools.

Programs for the people

After 11 years as LFPL director, Buthod’s vision has reenergized the place and its staff. Garvey says he’s “articulated a vision of educational opportunity for every person in the county” and created a “culture of success.”

Among the LFPL initiatives that have emerged from that vision are Gutenberg Louisville in 2000, when LFPL developed an exhibit of rare broadsides and a facsimile Gutenberg press seen by 100,000 people. The LFPL Words for Music program brought a series of famous songwriters to the library for audiences that averaged 700. The grant-funded Iroquois Reads program developed and delivered something unique to Louisville’s often underserved international population, revitalizing the Iroquois Branch of LFPL. The LFPL summer reading program reaches more kids than similar programs in cities twice the size of Louisville.

“Donors fund change!”

Louisville has taught Buthod “one of the great secrets of fundraising,” he says. “Donors fund change. Public, city funding sustains the continuing services for which the library has an established constituency.”

As he points out, governing officials tend to be risk averse. “I can’t undertake a new and risky program through the government budgeting process. It could take six months to develop and justify, and then I might find out that there won’t be enough money or support that year. Or I can go to a donor and say we really need to serve the immigrant population in one neighborhood and tell how I think we can do it,” says Buthod.

He knows donors like to see the effect of their donations, that they have to believe in the purpose of the institution, and that they have to see how their donations impact the progress of the institution. “One of our largest donors once said to me, ‘Not a nickel for budget relief!’ but he is extremely generous when it will advance the mission of the library,” Buthod reports.

At LFPL, they use donor dollars to extend the library into the future, or for things you simply can’t pay for with tax dollars. “You can’t give away public assets. I can’t give our staff tuition, but the library foundation underwrites the complete cost of library education for our staff,” says Buthod.

“Our donors believe in Craig’s work and in Craig. Foundation contributions are all directly related to his enthusiastic and infectious love for our library system,” says Paul Thompson, chair of the LFPL Foundation.

“It is impossible to know Craig without being awed by his single-minded devotion to the library profession and his profound belief in the power of the library to raise and to enrich the quality of every life in the community,” echoes Bruce Maza, executive director of Louisville’s C.E. & S. Foundation. Kentucky assistant deputy attorney general Tad Thomas remarks on Buthod’s strong relationship with donors in his letter to LJ, noting that the LFPL Foundation has seen record giving the past few years.

The foundation, an independent 501(c)(3) organization, has no political appointees on its board. Buthod says it has “just the right people” on the board: they can give or can raise money with their peers, and they hold strong leadership positions in Louisville.

Working at politics

Buthod understands city politics and its relationship to LFPL. “Timing is everything,” he says of the disappointing loss in the funding election. “It takes six months to get something on the ballot.” The operating levy increase would have created an independent library district, which has many advantages and avoids party politics, but, as Buthod says, “It fell apart with the economy.” He is still proud of the strong library support from the Louisville city council and Mayor Jerry Abramson.

The feeling is mutual. “Our future depends on a strong library system, and thanks to the leadership, the creativity, and the unflagging energy of our director, Craig Buthod, we feel confident that we can achieve our goals,” writes Abramson, advocating Buthod for this award.

Buthod reports to the mayor and serves at the pleasure of the mayor. Abramson, who has been in office for 20 years, plans to leave the post next year, so Buthod is uncertain what will happen under a new municipal administration. “My job is very political,” Buthod admits.

Each of the 26 members of the Metro Council represents a small district of about 26,000 people. Buthod was surprised to find that neighborhood pressure is not as strong as it was in Seattle, where he served as deputy city librarian, chief operating officer, and acting city librarian during a difficult period of political upheaval in the city and in the library in the 1990s.

MS&R, Ltd., architect Jeffrey Scherer, who has worked with Buthod on many projects, writes to tell LJ of his special political skills. “What is unique about Craig is his ability not to let life’s day-to-day aggressive problems interfere with the necessary possibilities of a great library system,” states Scherer.

Mentors and teachers

At his first job at the Tulsa City-County Library System (TCCL), Buthod met and worked with some of the greatest librarians in U.S. history: Allie Beth Martin and Pat Woodrum. They were his bosses and important mentors. “Their leadership and the public service commitment in which they believed and which their actions reinforced gave me values and principles when I was a very young reference librarian.” Buthod worked at TCCL for 17 years.

Another mentor from whom Buthod learned a great deal is renowned bookwoman and librarian Nancy Pearl. They were a team after he hired her in Tulsa and later when he convinced her to come to work with him at Seattle Public Library.

In her enthusiastic letter about Buthod, Pearl starts by saying, “After our short initial interview in Tulsa, I went home and told my husband that I had finally met a librarian who thought the same way I did about libraries.”

Just a year or two after that interview, this writer (then LJ editor in chief) was visiting TCCL. “I want you to meet two of our best and brightest young librarians, who will clearly become important leaders in the profession,” TCCL director Woodrum told me.

The now famous Pearl was one of the two young librarians. The other was Craig Buthod.

*Correction, Jan. 6, 2010: This article originally stated incorrectly that, “An example of that vision is how the library went about creating the airport branch, serving immigrants.”

Author Information
John N. Berry III is Editor at Large, LJ