February 16, 2018

Librarian of the Year 2003: Raymond Santiago

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 01/15/2003

The key is being aware of the political realities. If you don’t capture and understand the politics of your situation and organization you won’t go far,” says Raymond Santiago, director of the Miami-Dade Public Library System (MDPLS), FL. That is the essential knowledge needed to manage a library system serving 2.2 million people in some 30 growing communities, some incorporated, some not. A widely experienced library manager and a teacher of collection development, public library services, and library administration at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of South Florida, Tampa, Santiago has a definite point of view about what it takes to manage a public library system. His swift success in implementing an innovative business plan and gaining increased support for MDPLS has earned Raymond Santiago the 2003 LJ Librarian of the Year Award, but that is only part of his story.

Local politics comes first

“You really have to understand the political process in the jurisdiction. You can’t be a shrinking violet and be a library director anywhere—not anywhere!” he says, his voice rising. “You have to have or develop the personality to get out there and glad-hand, introduce yourself. That means endless numbers of meetings. I’ll speak anywhere!”

Soon after his promotion to director in 1998, Santiago got the MDPLS staff to develop an ambitious Strategic Plan for 2000–04 entitled Seizing a Better Future. They used their own comprehensive study of community needs and the book Planning for Results: A Public Library Transformation Process (ALA, 1998) to develop the first MDPLS community-driven plan. In individual sessions Santiago made the case for the system to the county commissioners, who govern the library district. They saw the importance of MDPLS to their constituents.

Proving our value

“The initial political challenge was to prove the system’s value to our commissioners and governing authorities and then let them participate in the service and be excited by that. We get them into the library all the time to observe, to read aloud, and to interact with people,” Santiago says. “Once that was done, I think we got the budget increases because the political leaders wanted us to shorten the time to complete our strategic plan. We are doing that now.”

MDPLS has a separate taxing district, but the county controls it. Support comes when the county officials know the value of the library, Santiago says, and convince them of that he does. “Library support is definitely nonpartisan here. I began with our county commissioners. Our county managers and county mayors have been incredibly supportive, too.”

Santiago is openly grateful for the support of Miami mayor Alex Penelas and Dade County manager Steve Shiver. He also works with Alina Tejeda-Hudak, the assistant county manager responsible for the library system. “Alina really pushes us to get things done. She moves us along faster,” he adds.

“At the state level we have a bigger challenge, politically. That will be our next push. Part of the problem there is that we have term limits. Legislators are not around as long as they used to be when we got better state support.” Years ago the State of Florida provided 25 percent or more of the library’s budget. Now it is down to about eight percent. “It ought to be a lot more,” Santiago complains.

Creative fund efforts

To augment the low state contribution and build on the increased county support, Santiago is pushing to establish a library foundation. It has been incorporated and is now “on the front burner.” Santiago says he’s after a different kind of fundraising: “We need a concerted, professional development effort, to fund our greater vision. The biggest problem is competition. We’re competing with other worthy institutions.”

While he welcomes the small gifts from the system’s Friends of the Library group, Santiago says he hopes they will do other things. “What we really need our Friends for is political support. I see them as a very valuable grass-roots organization.”

More than half of what the plan envisioned has already been achieved. The library budget, “stagnant at $29 million for 12 years preceding Santiago” as director, according to Jeff Donnelly, who chairs the MDPLS Advisory Board, has grown to $59 million since his appointment in 1998. Currently about $9 million goes toward capital funding and the building program. The operating budget is close to $45 million, up almost $20 million in Santiago’s four years as director.

Back to branches

An extensive building program continues under the MDPLS business plan. “The last time we built libraries here, in the early Eighties, they were permanent buildings with sites based on demographics of the Seventies,” Santiago explains.

“We’ve had an explosion of population since. There were fewer than 1.5 million people then, and now the population is nearly 2.5 million. Our new plan calls for 18 new facilities, eight of which will be leased spaces of 3000 feet or so. We’re ready to open four now, and we’ll have our fifth by June. They will be new to growing neighborhoods, in strip malls and places like that, leased for five years.”

Santiago believes that library space has to be flexible and movable to follow population growth. “We wanted to get away from building monuments. Sometimes they serve a nice political purpose, but in reality they don’t always serve the public that well. Financially we’re not in a position to build that kind of library anyway. We wanted to get back to building smaller neighborhood branches. Access became more important than monuments. When we open up the little storefronts they are packed immediately.

“The politicians saw how popular these early storefronts were, and they wanted them in their communities as quickly as possible. As soon as they open, the people start pressing for permanent facilities, and that’s a good thing, too,” Santiago asserts.

For the people

In addition to the increased hours and days of service, MDPLS has launched a new Saturday tutoring program in all 34 branches. In its first six months the program served some 34,000 students. A new assistant director for community outreach has hit the ground running and is developing programs.

MDPLS has installed some 1200 public access computers with Internet capability. They are so busy that, as Santiago puts it, “it looks like a bus terminal in some of our branches, and it really isn’t enough. People complain that we still don’t have enough PCs. We’ll keep adding more—the demand is so great.”

A federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant of $400,000 was secured to build two state-of-the-art computer training laboratories. “We came up with the rooms and about $100,000 of our own to get them built. It was worth it. We do both staff and public training there. They are very heavily used. There is such a huge thirst for this stuff!” Santiago says proudly.

Autonomy and support

“There are very few mistakes a library administrator can make that will cause damage to anyone. Once in a while we stick our foot in our mouth, or make a bad decision. The only way to learn about decision-making is to make some bad decisions.”

Santiago holds to the refreshing view of the importance of staff autonomy. “Part of my job,” he says, “is to shelter the staff from their mistakes. We’re all learning, and there must not be any penalties for that.”

Not only that, he listens to staff. “I may come up with some of the ideas, but they have more. They’ll challenge me, too. I have some really stupid ideas sometimes, but I feel secure enough in my position that I don’t need to be surrounded by ‘yes people.’

“I’m 53. If a staff person says, ‘Raymond, this is not a good idea!’ you bet I listen. The staff, especially at the upper-management level, have to know that I will support them.”

As if to validate his view, Santiago delegates most of the administrative load. “A lot of my time is spent with politicians, out meeting the public. I do anything I can to ensure that this system keeps growing. That’s my main concern, growing the system, not necessarily running the system. I have four incredibly capable assistant directors. They take care of everything.”

Building staff

Santiago is especially proud of MDPLS staff development efforts. The increased budget includes more money for staff training. Like every library, the system has trouble finding staff. With Santiago’s enthusiastic support, MDPLS runs an intern and trainee program. Many candidates for the MLS come from the staff. Anyone who works there can enter library school and become an intern at a salary a little below that of a beginning librarian. When they finish 18 credits, they get a boost and they get another when they get the degree.

This year the MDPLS scholarship fund raised about $10,000 for nine staffers. The county provides reimbursement for about half of library school tuition. MDPLS gives enrolled students a flexible schedule to fit their classes in with work.

“We know that we are going to get our librarians from our own staff,” says Santiago. “That’s good because they come with a commitment to the community. They have been working with us, so they know what they are getting into. We have about 23 people working for their degrees now.”

Santiago plans to develop programs to encourage staff to get bachelor’s degrees. “We’re starting to recruit at the college level and trying to get people to come to work for us as library assistants and paraprofessionals even before they have degrees,” he states. “Once they get that first degree, we’ll encourage them to go on to library school.”

At MDPLS staff educational achievements get recognition at the same time the scholarships for the library programs are awarded. “When staff get AA degrees or college degrees the library benefits enormously,” Santiago says. “The field has neglected paraprofessionals, and when you add to that all the changes librarians are finding in their roles, you know staff development at all levels is an essential investment.”

The MDPLS director would welcome certification programs if they set some standards for the practice. “Certification will be truly valuable if it gets to the point where I can convince our personnel people across the street that someone with a certain certification merits special consideration. Right now it doesn’t have that kind of clout.

“I think it would be very, very valuable with paraprofessionals,” he continues, “because that is the one group for whom we don’t have an educational track. If we did, I could show the county that we now have a program to provide a career ladder for a big group of employees.

“For directors it won’t mean much, librarians certifying librarians. But if it can be a step up a career ladder for someone, it could really have some bite. As directors, we have to say that if someone gets certified, there is a reward. Otherwise, it makes no sense. If we just give it lip service, it isn’t useful.”

A leadership career

Born in New York City, Santiago grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood now called Clinton, near Lincoln Center. In 1969 he became a VISTA volunteer and was sent to Rochester, NY, to work with migrant workers. He earned a degree in photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology but was recruited to MLS studies by the librarian who became his wife, Crystal.

In 1975, he began studies to earn the MLS at the School of Library and Information Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His talent was already spotted by John Ellison, professor. Santiago had already developed political skills and social concern.

“I know the classroom is not the same as out in the field, but I think you can see leadership characteristics in both places,” Ellison says. “In Raymond I saw enthusiasm for the profession, a deeper dedication, and a lot of creativity and innovation. That all carried out into the field. I’ve followed him ever since, as a close friend and as a professional.”

Santiago spent six years directing the Learning Resources Center at the now defunct World University, Learning Resources Center in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He learned about the flexibility needed to work in a multicultural setting, having duties that took him to the institution’s campuses in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and San Juan.

Then he rose through the ranks at the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System. There he directed the clerical and support services personnel for the system’s branch libraries, after working in adult services and serving as a reference and foreign-language specialist in branch and central libraries.

In his seven years as assistant director at MDPLS, Santiago’s contribution was huge. Beyond his responsibility for systemwide collection development and main library operations, he negotiated and implemented the new $3.6 million automation system, now an epixtech installation. He managed the library’s Book Trust of over $60 million, spending an average of $5 million a year for library materials and automation. He formulated and administered the MDPLS collection development plan and managed the operation of the main library, including all reference services and the physical plant. He was credited with getting six years of Library Services and Construction Act collection grants totaling over $100,000 per year, plus negotiating a $7 million insurance settlement for collections lost during Hurricane Andrew.

Libraries and Miami-Dade

“A friend of mine said libraries are one of the few places where you come into contact with government but it is not confrontational,” Santiago reflects, near the end of our interview.

“There is something noble about that. We librarians do serve people, and more than anything else I believe that service has to come first. It comes first at [MDPLS].” And it works. “There is a respect and a love for libraries in this community. The biggest complaint we get is, ‘Why don’t you have a library near us?'”

Asked about his future, he is quick to reply, “I plan to stay here. I love it here. This community is exciting. I love the way we’re treated and, most important, the way the politicians and our government support us.”

Author Information
John N. Berry III is Editor-in-Chief, LJ