As I was reflecting on the message for this column, I was reminded of a recent anniversary celebration at a branch library in San Antonio that clearly illustrated how public libraries impact so many lives on a daily basis. To celebrate such a milestone—fifty years—members of the community were invited to join the program that kicked off the celebration. I know the experience in San Antonio reflects what other public libraries throughout the country are doing to advance civic engagement; but it served as a good segue to this column.
From the President
When I was asked to stand for election as PLA president, I remarked that I had never served on the PLA board and maybe that would be a barrier to serving. The nominating committee representative reminded me that I had served on other boards and certainly knew what might be expected. Had I ever led a meeting? Well, yes, many. Then there will be no problem, was the answer. Having served on PLA committees, I understood the organization, which should be helpful. So I ran. I appreciate being elected—thank you all who voted for me. Little did I know that I would be joining a group of some of the finest library superheroes I have ever known and would be dedicating my time, this new start, to a wonderful team experience.
One of my responsibilities as PLA president is to represent public libraries when we receive inquiries from the press. To be the voice for 25,000 libraries can be a bit daunting. However, as the year has progressed, it has turned out to be one of my favorite responsibilities. It is a privilege and a joy to represent this beloved, essential institution.
Recently, we hosted visitors from a public library in Texas. The library director,
the mayor, and their finance officer toured several of our libraries and spent
time talking with our team members. After asking us some thoughtful, probing
questions about the philosophical underpinnings of our services, the mayor noted,
“You need to come up with a new noun. My image of what a traditional library looks
like has just been challenged, and what you are doing here is not a library—it is something
else. It is intriguing and challenging, and I want to spend time here, but what you
are doing needs a new name.” I challenged him to help us invent a better descriptor.
Because our culture is so divided now, the role of public libraries as an anchor in our communities is even more important. Libraries are not only the center of our communities. They help us stay grounded. Public libraries are safe zones, places where all people are welcome and included. Places where it is safe to explore different cultures, food, and religions. Places to be introduced to ideas that might be different. Places where it is safe to have conversations with people you might not know and who you might disagree with. Places of civic discourse.
PAM SMITH is Director of Anythink Libraries in Thornton (CO). Contact Pam at psmith@anythink libraries.org. Pam is currently reading Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit by Chris Matthews. This has been the year of strategic planning at Anythink Libraries, where I work. The Anythink Board of Trustees challenged our team to reinvent the library once again, […]
I’d like to reveal an important lesson that all librarians need to understand by telling a story that opened my eyes to the power of libraries and of librarians. There are a number of lessons to be learned from this story, but most important may be the realization that we can’t keep underestimating our community’s respect and love for what we provide them.
Now transformation may seem like a strong word, but PLA is clearly transforming the way it serves its members and the way it represents public libraries as an industry. As the PLA spokesperson, I try not to be the hyperbolic salesman, but I’ve had the good fortune of presenting our new initiatives and services for the past year to library staff at all levels.
The Anythink Libraries bookmobile was part of the Memorial Day parade in one of our local communities. I was surprised at how people responded with such admiration and affection as the bookmobile closed the parade. Onlookers cheered, applauded, and shouted out, “We love our library!” I know that moments like this occur for public libraries everywhere. This sense of pride and heartfelt connection brings to mind the respect that public libraries garner in our communities. Public libraries are among the most trusted institutions in the United States. With this trust, I realize that libraries have earned the responsibility—and even the power—to help create sustainable communities.
During a recent Lyft ride to the airport, I was greeted by a driver who turned to me with a huge smile asking about my travel plans. It was quite early for an intense discussion, but with my mind full of thoughts on my upcoming work, and the current state of the world, I carefully asked her a question: “With all the divisiveness in our country, do you think that libraries have the power to affect positive change and bring people together?”
This will be my last column as PLA President, and I want to take the time to thank four special groups that have made my tenure so memorable. First, I want to thank my staff and board at the Cleveland Public Library for their support of my leadership journey. Second, I must thank my wife and daughters for their patience and love during the past twelve months. Third, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank you: the great people I have met this year, who work at and support libraries. You have been phenomenal. I’ve heard such great stories about how you are dedicated to making your communities better, it really reaffirmed my love for libraries. Finally, I want to thank the extraordinary PLA staff. Under the leadership of Executive Director Barb Macikas, the organization has made tremendous strides toward making PLA all that it can be, and I’m just thankful to have been a small part of this transformation.
If you’ve read any of my previous columns, you’ve probably noticed that I prefer to impart life lessons by telling stories. While this is a practice that drives my teenage daughters crazy, it has been effective for me in getting my point across. I’d like to reveal an important lesson that all librarians need to understand by telling a story that opened my eyes to the power of libraries and of librarians. There are a number of lessons to be learned from this story, but most important may be the realization that we can’t keep underestimating our community’s respect and love for what we provide them.
The focus of this issue is on fantastic failures, and boy, do I have a lot of those. To narrow it down, I will seek to define a “fantastic failure” for this column not as an instance of being extraordinarily unsuccessful, but rather as an instance of being unsuccessful that led to an important learning breakthrough. I’m fortunate to have many fantastic failures of this type, as well. I’ll focus on one in particular that stands out from deep in the past. The lessons I learned many years ago from this misstep serve as a foundation for my professional leadership and the lessons I pass on to others today.
PLA President FELTON THOMAS is Director of the Cleveland (OH) Public Library. Contact Felton at firstname.lastname@example.org. Felton is currently reading Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe. The focus of this issue is on fantastic failures, and boy, do I have a lot of those. To narrow it down, I will seek to define a “fantastic failure” […]
If the election has taught us anything, it is that standing quietly on the sidelines simply emboldens those who oppose our values. Join me and PLA as we ensure that public libraries are a safe place—free of intolerance for our communities and our staff.