February 16, 2018

Librarian of the Year: Susan Kent, Los Angeles Public Library

Librarian of the Year

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 01/15/2002

“I love my job. It is the best job I’ve ever had! I work with the greatest group of people,” says Susan Kent, City Librarian of Los Angeles. She had just been asked how she liked being head of the library system that serves the largest population of any library in the nation. It is no surprise that she loves the job, but the joyous enthusiasm with which she talks about it and the city bowled us over. Susan Kent possesses a unique mix of skills, talent, and élan that has turned a very tough, exhausting job into an elated experiment. Here at LJ we have watched her spirited and impressive achievements as City Librarian and on a national level. Her strong commitment to public service, her obvious political acumen, her clear vision for libraries, and her ability to realize that vision have earned Susan Kent the 2002 LJ Librarian of the Year Award.

Experiments and politics

“My job is basically to be the outside person,” Kent says. “We’re lucky here; the administrative staff of this library are probably the best in the country. They are dedicated, creative people who work well together in a very respectful and supportive way. They know how to get things done.

“I’m not a good maintenance person,” Kent continues. “It is not my strength to maintain the status quo. I can deal with good times, and I can deal with adversity. I like the idea of making the investment and trying to do new things. We are constantly in that mode of experimenting here in Los Angeles.”

While Kent repeatedly gives her administrative team credit for much of the achievement that follows here, it is clear that Kent’s management talent and optimistic experimental style delivered the margin of success.

“John Anderson gave me the maxim for my career,” says Kent, referring to the director of the Tucson Public Library (AZ), where Kent served as deputy director for seven of her ten years there.

“The day I started work as coordinator of adult and young adult services in Tucson, John called me in and said, ‘I hired you to be creative. There is no wrong way to do anything, as long as you learn from your mistakes.’ I have always followed that advice,” Kent says.

Kent also picked up the model for the external role she plays at the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) from Anderson’s example. “We worked it so that I was the chief operating officer of the library and John did the external stuff.” Asked if she misses close contact with the daily operation of LAPL, Kent says, “I don’t miss it…. I spend a lot of time with the others working on internal operations, even though I spend more with elected officials, with fundraising, and with the library foundation.”

Her schedule the week we talked included groundbreaking ceremonies for three new branches, several meetings with foundations, a library board meeting, and a meeting of the bond issue oversight committee. There were two meetings at the mayor’s office, the weekly administrative meeting, a second meeting with one foundation, and a meeting on the LAPL budget. “Then there’s you and after that, another board meeting!” she exclaims, breathless.

Kent’s constituents

Directing LAPL carries more than the challenge of managing a $96 million annual operation serving 3.8 million people. In addition to the Angelenos, Kent’s constituencies as City Librarian include a highly supportive mayor and a large city council and numerous foundations and donors, including the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. They also include a huge library staff and its union.

“We have a mayor and 15 council members in this huge city, which covers 470 square miles,” Kent says proudly. “We work with all the council offices and the mayor’s office. We involve them in every community event we hold.” Each member of the council has a fairly large staff and field offices in his or her district. Kent has deep understanding of city politics. Neighborhoods dominate Los Angeles—municipalities in their own right in any other place.

“Think about it,” Kent explains. “Our city councilors each represent 250,000–300,000 people. They are like mayors of small cities. We spend a lot of time informing, discussing, and working with the council and mayor’s office…. The library is sometimes the only public institution in a neighborhood. We try to involve all the people.”

Jim Hahn, the new mayor, replaced Kent ally and strong library supporter former mayor Richard Riordan, whose name now labels the Central Library. “Jim Hahn has been city attorney for a long time, so I’ve known him for years. He’s very supportive of education and libraries,” says Kent.

Building and bettering branches

Among Kent’s achievements is her work aggressively championing and winning a $178 million bond issue in 1998, after which she got it augmented by another $5 million. She now presides over the resulting building program. Since passage of the bond issue, Kent and Fontayne Holmes and her facilities staff have held 149 community meetings to interact with people, introduce architects, and discuss such things as design, sites, and public art.

LAPL’s 67 branch libraries reflect the city’s neighborhood focus. The bond issue means that 28 of them are to be rebuilt and/or expanded and renovated. Four new libraries will become neighborhood centers to bring the LAPL system total to 71, plus the beautiful, recently rebuilt downtown Central Library. The LAPL branch program may be the largest in U.S. history. The library will demolish and build 17 new libraries on their current sites. New sites will be acquired to build eight new libraries to replace and reposition existing branches. There will be brand new libraries on new sites in four neighborhoods, and three branches will be renovated and expanded.

Right now 27 of these projects are ahead of schedule, and most are coming in on or under budget. “We will have had five groundbreakings in two weeks,” Kent says. “Seven projects are in the design phase, six in the bid and award phase, 18 in construction, and one is finished.”

Public and private funds

The library’s $96 million operating budget is virtually all public money, primarily from city taxes, with some state and some small federal grants. That level of support is among the very highest of U.S. urban libraries. In 2001, LAPL received $6.3 million from the state, but predictions are that state money will be reduced.

“We’ve been in a very good economy, and our elected officials really believe in libraries,” Kent states. “That’s because their constituents get good library service and tell them how pleased they are with the library. To get public support, you need to start at the most basic level, providing very good customer service, and that story moves through the community.”

Kent works daily with and serves on the board of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, a separate, eight-year-old nonprofit organization. It has raised $35 million since its inception, most of which has been spent on library service. The foundation funds special projects and new initiatives.

“It funds all of our special reading and after-school programs for teens and children, our literary programs and exhibitions, and our technology initiatives,” says Kent. “I do some work for them on a daily basis…. I love fundraising.

“Donors want to know that the foundation is a credible organization,” she continues. “They want to know that when they donate to the library, the money will be spent as they have directed. They want to be sure that we can successfully pull off the projects to which they have made donations.

“The foundation money is the difference between a very good library and an excellent library. It gives us research and development money. It makes new initiatives possible. It allows us to expand our operating resources to do those things that make a significant difference….” Funds from about four foundations allowed LAPL to mount “Destination Success,” a program in which YA librarians hold useful and popular career and college fairs for young people all over the city.

LAPL’s unique response to children’s access to the Internet reflects the political savvy that gets the library both solid fiscal and popular support. When their children first register for library cards, parents are asked to sign a statement that they understand that terminals are not filtered and that it is their job to monitor their children’s use of the Internet. To assist with that task, several terminals in each branch take children to selected Internet resources through LAPL’s “Kid’s Path” set-up. It is a principled but helpful solution to a touchy problem.

The staff and union

A strong, aggressive, and vocal library union represents one other Kent constituency, the 1400-member LAPL staff. Labor negotiations are long and difficult at LAPL, and the litany of concerns of the Librarian’s Guild, Local 2626 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is both lengthy and complex. It includes what the guild views as understaffing of some facilities during some hours, pornography on the Internet, and the usual bread and butter concerns. LAPL’s Human Resources Director Al Clark deals directly with the union, but the buck stops with Kent.

After years of negotiation with the guild, Sunday hours have begun at the Central Library and eight branches. They are very popular. The current Memorandum of Understanding calls for librarians on Sunday shifts to get paid for eight hours when they work five. Librarians are required to work only one of four Sundays a month. Despite the union’s concerns and criticisms and the difficult negotiations, Kent sees the guild as an ally.

“I think that on the bottom-line level, the library administration, management, and union all want the same things: good working conditions, salaries and benefits, and to develop the way to deliver the best service to the people,” she says.

Public and professional

Since 1998, Kent has served on the Bertelsmann Foundation International Network of Public Libraries, an unusual group of 16 library people from all over the world. Kent talked about the program: “We are so U.S.-centered. We believe the way we do everything in the United States is the right way, the only way to do it. This has been an eye-opening experience. People are doing fabulous things everywhere, and we need to share with them and learn from them. This foundation has been incredibly supportive of international public library development.…”

Kent has also served as chair and in several other posts for the U.S. Urban Libraries Council. She is a past-president of the Public Library Association and has chaired its national conference. A former member of the American Library Association (ALA) Council, Kent has chaired its conference committee.

The list of her community work is huge, and she also serves on advisory boards for the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and on the Advisory Committee to the Chairman of Public Programs of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Kent is also frequently employed as a library consultant. She has successfully worked on very difficult jobs, e.g., the Post-Occupancy Report on San Francisco’s new main library and the huge, complicated building program in Seattle.

Career influences

Except for a short term as managing director (1987–89) of the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson (“I learned a lot about marketing, board development, and fundraising there”) and a brief stint at the public library of Spring Valley, NY, Kent’s entire career has been in urban libraries.

Kent really wanted a job in publishing, but all of the many interviewers asked her if she could type. “I had a degree with honors. I wasn’t going to settle for that!” she says.

When she inquired at the New York Public Library (NYPL), she was asked when she could start. She entered its trainee program the next month. She worked through many jobs at NYPL. The first was deeply influential. It took her to NYPL’s Grand Concourse Branch [in the Bronx].

“Starting when I did at NYPL was the best experience anyone could have had to become a librarian,” Kent recalls. “My wonderful first job…put me in a neighborhood in the midst of a demographic shift. An Italian and Jewish neighborhood was becoming an African American and Puerto Rican one.”

She learned the fundamentals from branch librarian Bernice MacDonald, who later became head of NYPL branches. “She was dynamic and always reaching out, and it had a wonderful influence on all of us. MacDonald taught us what it meant to give true public service,” Kent reports.

While working in the NYPL training program, Kent earned her MS at the Columbia University School of Library Service. “I thought library school was boring. The only reason I didn’t leave it was because I loved what I was doing at the library. That was the seminal experience for me, right at the beginning,” she declares. Her classmates there included Pat Schuman (former ALA president and head of Neal-Schuman Publishers) and Art Plotnik (the editor who revitalized ALA’s official organ, American Libraries).

In addition to Tucson’s Anderson, Kent’s predecessor as Tucson deputy, Agnes Griffen, whose career has brought her back as Tucson director, was her teacher as well.

Kent especially admires Griffen and colleagues like Toni Garvey (Phoenix city librarian) and Mary Dempsey (commissioner, Chicago Public Library). She singled out Deborah Jacobs (Seattle city librarian), who “has changed Seattle in terms of libraries. Her skill as a politician and her enthusiasm have been amazing.”

Problems and potential

Despite deep concerns for the profession’s problems and direction, Kent is incredibly optimistic about its future. “The most serious problem we face is how to replace ourselves. Where will the next librarians come from?,” she asks. “What is the future role for librarians? How will they be educated? How are we going to find them? We haven’t made a strong enough case for salaries. We’re talking about master’s degree people, and we’ve allowed ourselves to be sold too cheaply. Librarians have important skills and knowledge.”

The same problems suggest opportunity to Kent: “We are very active in recruitment here at LAPL. I think this is the best time for people to go into libraries. A huge number of people will retire in the next few years. There are tremendous opportunities for growth and advancement in the field. Where else but in public libraries do you get the opportunity to put so many pieces together?…”

Susan Kent is bullish on libraries. Here’s how she puts it: “I see more people using libraries than ever before…. After September 11, it quickly became apparent that more people were coming than earlier in the year. Whether it is the result of the attacks or the economic downturn, two Sundays ago the library was more crowded than ever. There were long lines…. The whole idea that libraries are going to disappear has been negated by the public.”

“Get that old lady out of here!”

The demands of Kent’s job are huge, almost unbelievable. When we asked how long she can take it, she says, “I’m not complaining about it, but there are times when I would like to go home at night. I’m here from 7:30 in the morning until God knows what time at night, including weekends. I think about taking a vacation.”

“How about your future?” we ask. “I work at the pleasure of the Mayor,” Kent replies quickly.

“My plans are to stay here. It is the perfect job for me. I haven’t thought about any other jobs; I hope I’m never in a position where I have to. I worry that one day, mabe when I’m about 83, they’ll say, ‘Get that little old lady out of here!'”

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