Support Crosscut

A new librarian faces tough economic times

Susan Hildreth, Seattle's new City Librarian Credit: Seattle Public Library

It seems just a few years have passed since the search for a new City Librarian brought Deborah Jacobs to Seattle. She came from Corvallis, Oregon without experience in big city libraries, or the management skills to administer a massive building program. It was a courageous move on the part of the Library trustees to put her in charge of Seattle’s Library and, at that time, the largest library building program in the nation. The result was an acclaimed new central library and new and renovated branch libraries. The trustees chose well then and appear to have done it again.

When Jacobs announced that she would accept the challenge of bringing libraries to people worldwide by joining the Gates Foundation, the Seattle Library trustees began a nation wide search for new City Librarian. The choice was Susan Hildreth, whose last post was State Librarian for all of California and before that City Librarian for San Francisco. She holds degrees in both librarianship and a graduate degree in business administration. She has worked her way up through the ranks of smaller libraries and has faced and gained experience that has prepared her well for Seattle.

Many, including Mayor Nickels when he was first elected, thought the Library was a City department, meaning a new mayor could replace department directors with people of his choice. On Nickels’ replacement list was popular and competent Jim Diers, director of the Department of Neighborhoods, as well as Deborah Jacobs, the new and very well known City Librarian. Why two of the most effective administrators in the City were to be dismissed caused many to speculate. The leading theory was that Mayor Nickels preferred people who would bend to his authority.

Under state law (RCW 27.12.210), the City Librarian is appointed by the five Library trustees, not the Mayor. The budget is set by the City, however, and the Mayor appoints the trustees to staggered terms. Jacobs stayed at her post, working effectively with the Mayor.

While Hildreth won’t have Nickels as a boss, her role as CEO or leader of Seattle’s libraries is, in some ways, more challenging than a city department head. That’s because, while the Mayor and City Council can’t micromanage the library, the library must get operating funds from the City. With the City holding the purse strings it’s a real challenge to be independent. It’s somewhat like standing in front of City Hall with a tin cup. Besides the Mayor, and the City Council, the City Librarian must address the interests of the Library Foundation, The Friends of the Library, and the Library Workers Union. Other than that, library management is a piece of cake.

Library staff and their unions, not always on the same channel, are highly educated, very independent, and self motivated — not to mention dedicated and smart. An effective administrator needs to win their trust. Seattle’s libraries have an incredible and loyal staff, but make no mistake they can’t be taken for granted.

With all the administrative challenges the most difficult challenge to our new librarian is the state of the economy. The library never has been fat with operational money and the recession has dealt a wicked blow. How to deal with the lack of funds and still maintain library services will be a true test.

While contemporary library administrators recognize the changing role of libraries those who hold the purse strings may not. The image and role of the public library in the last century has changed rapidly. University libraries and corporate libraries now absorb much of the specialized research and storage of information. The internet and search engines have made it possible for people to access information never before possible without the specialized training of librarians who worked only in public libraries.

It would be natural to think that the need for libraries has declined, but exactly the opposite has occurred. The total amount of information and materials has grown exponentially with the growth of technology. More intriguing is the way libraries have absorbed overflow responsibilities from social service agencies and schools. Increasing numbers of emigrants find the library their best source of help in learning about this country, searching for jobs, and learning to manipulate the intricacies of a new environment and technology. Persons who have lost their job soon discover that most employers do hiring applications electronically. Those without computers are left out, if not for the library internet access.

Seniors now flood the libraries for many reasons including taking computer classes and attending special programs. Young people find willing, friendly help at the library and an environment for doing homework that may be better and safer than at home or school. And yes, though, the library wasn’t designed to be a hygiene center or daytime shelter, some homeless people find the library the most welcoming place to spend their days.

The point is that 100 years ago libraries were often seen as a luxury for the educated class. You could cut their budget with little impact. Today’s libraries provide services that go far beyond libraries of old and they perform functions that other agencies haven’t fully addressed. Libraries are now as necessary to a healthy city as much, or more so, than dozens of other city departmental functions.

Here in Seattle we are city folks; the affluent, the poor, the capable. We are coming to the awareness that Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat is our new reality. Its message is that there are smart, well educated, productive people all over this planet and that we must compete educationally or lose our place in the world economy.

The free public library and its atmosphere of education and self improvement are essential to continuing our place in the future. Our libraries absolutely must keep pace, both technologically and in their efforts towards community building. We seem preoccupied with building new housing, but fail to understand that a quality of life and mind is equally important. We must make it possible for those in our city who want to educate themselves to have a place like libraries to accomplish it.

So, are we keeping up with this task? Based on the level of education, management efficiency, and overall rate of pay, the library is the lowest paid department in the city. If, when determining the percentage of budget cuts, the Mayor equates libraries’ performance with other fat departments that are over-administrated and overpaid, he is making a serious lapse in judgement.

As for our new City Librarian, Susan Hildreth appears to be the real deal. She is all grown up, not full of herself, and has the quiet confidence of having “been there” before. She understands the political challenge. She is comfortable with people and confident of her abilities. She knows how to listen. She is first to say “I don’t know,” or to be honest in saying “I need to understand that better before I answer.” A candid, competent politician is a rare quality; and anyone who must answer to multiple bosses must be a such a politician.

Read more about:

Share On:
Support Crosscut