Many 21st Century Library Directors Are NOT Librarians

That headline snapped into my brain yesterday when I read that The new head of Ottawa’s library is not a librarian,

Danielle McDonald took over the Ottawa [Canada] Public Library and its $50-million budget this week. She’s a departure from her predecessor, Barbara Clubb, who started out shelving books and capped her career with a national award for her service to librarianship. McDonald is a lifelong administrator specializing in behind-the-scenes work in the city bureaucracy.

With a rich history of service to a population of now over 880,000, and a $50M budget, what kind of experience and/or education would a librarian need to direct such a large operation in Ottawa? Obviously, these library decision makers/boards of trustees/ community leaders believed that it is not necessary for their library’s director be a librarian. One could easily make the argument that they believed it was more important for the leader to be a leader, have some business acumen, be an experienced manager, and be able to direct the library’s activities in a successful direction.

When one looks around at all of these mega-library systems, one finds many library directors who are not librarians. Every librarian should ask themselves “Why?”

Salt Lake County Library Services has been headed by Director James D. Cooper, MBA, since 2001. In 2005 the system garnered the Best in Utah Library title, and the system has grown significantly under Jim’s leadership, building two new branches since 2008, making a total of 20 throughout the County of over 500,000 customers. According to Hennen’s American Public Library Ratings for 1999 to 2010, SLCoLS ranks fifth in the nation.

Would anyone realistically expect the President of New York Public Library to be a librarian?

Dr. Anthony W. Marx, President of Amherst College and a distinguished political scientist, became The New York Public Library’s President and CEO on July 1, 2011. … A native New Yorker, Dr. Marx attended P.S. 98 and the Bronx High School of Science. He then attended Wesleyan and Yale, where he graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in 1981. He received his M.P.A. from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University in 1986, then earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton in 1987 and 1990.

The former Director, St. Louis Public Library, Glen Holt did not have an MLS degree, but directed the multimillion dollar operation for 15 years, that included initiation of a $70M library renovation, before turning over the leadership to his deputy director in 2004. Associate Professor and Chairperson Dr. Mary E. Brown, Department of Information and Library Science, Southern Connecticut State University, uses a Holt publication in her coursework.

Holt, Glen (2002). A way to the future: reorganizing library work, The Bottom Line: Managing Library Finances, 15, 1.
[Summarizing:] Holt argues that traditional library work tends to entangle librarians in chores that do not take advantage of their training and abilities and encourages library management to make structural changes that will allow librarians to do intellectual work rather than less significant tasks. This intellectual work should include old and new tasks that require full use of librarian expertise while using non-librarian employees for most other work. Mr. Holt discusses steps that his institution has taken to evolve the traditional role of librarians into knowledge managers. Although these steps may not be appropriate for every institution, there are several principals that may serve library administrators attempting to transform their institutions in a similar fashion. Principally applying business principals for cost-benefit efficiency and using technology to improve the communication and services of a library institution. [Emphasis added.]

Several states like Wisconsin have laws that require library directors to be certified – with one notable exception.

Administrators of public library systems, county libraries, county library services, and municipal public libraries except Milwaukee Public Library must hold certification as described in this manual. An “administrator” of a library or system is, according to administrative rules, the head librarian or other person appointed by the board of the library or system to direct and administer the library or system. [Emphasis added.]

IMHO, the major issue is leadership and executive experience required for larger library systems. Where does a librarian get that? OJT? I don’t think so. SLIS? Definitely not!

It appears to me that this trend toward hiring non-librarians to fill high level library director positions will continue until the profession begins to develop its own – its own visionary leaders and executives – and takes mentoring very seriously.

If anyone has examples of librarians ascending to these high level library director positions, please share.


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15 responses to “Many 21st Century Library Directors Are NOT Librarians

  1. High Level Library Directors:
    Luis Herrera, San Francisco Public CA
    Marcellus Turner, Seattle Public, WA
    Bill Ptacek, King County WA
    Sari Feldman, Cuyahoga County OH
    Pat Losinski, Columbus Metropolitan, OH
    Vaile Hoelke, Multnomah County, OR
    Ginnie Cooper, District of Columbia
    Brian Bannon, Chicago Public IL
    Jose Aponte, San Diego County CA
    Deborah Barrow, San Diego City CA
    Rita Hamilton, Phoenix AZ
    Rhea Lawson, Houston TX
    and numberous others

    • Thanks for that information. These librarians have made achievements of which the profession should be very proud, some of which I was able to find on the Internet. One common theme that seems significant to me is their personal drive, leadership, ability to accept and triumph over challenges, some advanced education and service outside the profession.

      “Luis [Herrera] is happy to be participating in the Eureka Institute [2010]. He has a strong passion for leadership development as demonstrated by his involvement in PLA’s leadership development task force since its inception and in supporting SFPL’s own leadership academy which is creating a culture of change in the library.”

      “[Marcellus] Turner is the former executive director of Jefferson County Public Library in Lakewood, Colo., where he managed a $27 million budget and a staff of 250. Prior to joining Jefferson County Public Library in 2002, Turner was assistant executive director of the Rockford Public Library in Rockford, Ill. He also served as a departmental supervisor at both Tacoma Public Library in Tacoma, Wash., and Atlantic City Free Public Library in Atlantic City, N.J. SPL

      “Bill [Ptacek] began his career at the Chicago Public Library and worked as the Director of the Idaho Falls and Louisville Free Public Library Systems before coming to KCLS. He has a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Illinois, a Masters Degree in Library Science from the State University of New York and an Advanced Degree in Administration from the University of Chicago.” KCLS

      “Previously, I was the deputy director of Cleveland Public Library, where I oversaw the neighborhood branches. Marilyn Mason, former director of CPL, recruited me to come to Cleveland ten years ago. I grew up in a small town 100 miles outside of New York City called South Fallsburg, located in the Catskill mountains. I attended The State University of New York at Binghamton, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison with my Master’s in Library Science. I worked outside of Chicago and Syracuse New York before coming to Cleveland. I’m also an adjunct faculty member of Syracuse University’s School of Information Science.”

      “Ms. [Ginnie] Cooper has worked in libraries in five states, most recently as Executive Director of the Brooklyn Public Library. A librarian since 1970, Ms. Cooper is a past president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. Ms. Cooper was named 2001 Layperson of the Year by the Portland, Oregon, Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and is a recipient of the Charlie Robinson Award made by the Public Library Association to recognize a public library director who has been a risk-taker, an innovator and an agent for change.” ALA Spectrum

      “Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel named Brian Bannon the new Chicago Public Library Commissioner, the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Library System. … On WBBM News Radio 780’s Web site, described Bannon as the former “chief technology officer” of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL). His actual title was Chief Information Officer (CIO). Before he was CIO of the SFPL, Bannon was the SFPL’s Chief of Branches from 2006 to 2011. On March 15, 2009, Library Journal named Bannon and his boss, Deputy City Librarian Jill Bourne “2009 Movers & Shakers.” … From 2000 to 2006, Bannon was a branch manager with the Seattle Public Library. Before that, he worked from 1998 to 2000 at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, …. He earned his Bachelor of Arts at Pacific Lutheran University in 1997 and his Master of Library & Information Science (MLIS) degree at the University of Washington in 1999.”

      “Jose Aponte, who served as the city of Oceanside’s library director from 1996 to 2000 and deputy city manager from 2000 to 2002, left North County to become director of the Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado Springs, Colo. Aponte is also a member of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science and was appointed to the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries in 2002. … As deputy city manager, he helped organize councils to represent low-income areas such as the city’s Eastside, Crown Heights and mobile-home communities. As library director, he expanded library hours, began literacy and cultural programs, and helped finish the city’s branch library at Mission Avenue and El Camino Real. … Aponte grew up in New York, went to Bard College and eventually acted and wrote plays off-Broadway for a couple of years. But Aponte said his first love was always libraries, and it was not long before he moved on to the University of Arizona to get his graduate degree in library science.” North County Times

      “Deborah Barrow serves as the City’s Library Director/City Librarian. … Most recently she was library director for the City of Sunnyvale, and prior to that she was the director for the City of Watsonville. She also was responsible for technology as Principal Librarian for the City of Chula Vista. Barrow holds a master’s degree in Library Science from the University of Southern California and a bachelor’s degree from Scripps College.”

      “Phoenix City Manager David Cavazos has named Rita Hamilton Phoenix city librarian. Hamilton will manage a $36 million budget and more than 400 employees. … “Rita has a proven track record of leadership and the knowledge needed to guide the library as it continues to develop and implement programs to serve an ever-changing community,” said Cavazos. “I am confident that she will do an outstanding job leading our library system that has been recognized nationally for its visionary services.” … Hamilton has served as the library director for Scottsdale Public Library since 2002 and produced two award-winning library branches. Prior to that, she served for two years as the public services administrator for Phoenix Public Library, in charge of branch services. She also spent nine years as a library manager and assistant director in Nashville and managed a $115 million capital building program, six years as a library manager in Tucson, in addition to prior years of service in a variety of library roles. Hamilton holds a master of library science degree from the University of Arizona…”

      “Rhea Brown Lawson, Ph.D.” Houston Public Library

  2. Directors or Heads of many big libraries may not be Librarian. It does not mean that those Directors are suitable for their Position. I want to request to think once that the Library is built by an experienced and dedicated Librarian. The work of Library, advancement is already running, after that if the authority appoint any X Y Z officer definitely it will run but by the force of dedicated Library Professionals inside the Library. If the Authority put a Shopkeeper or Vegetable vendor then also Library will run but only by the force of the dedicated Library Professional. Now a days the authority is doing as per their willingness all over the World.
    T. B. Ghosh, Retired Librarian, S. V. National Institute of Technology, Surat, India, Ex Librarian, IBS, (ICFAI Business School), Librarian, Auro University, Surat, India

    • You make excellent points. I agree that non-librarian directors may not be suitable for the library director position, but just as equally as librarians also may not be suitable for the director position. In most organizations, of whatever type, the daily operations are accomplished by knowledgeable and dedicated staff. In order for the organization to be successful however, the director position requires an individual with leadership and vision. One recent example of a librarian not being a suitable director was the Salt Lake City Public Library. One example of a non-librarian being an excellent director is the Salt Lake County Library System (see the brief summary within the Post).

      The point I was trying to make was that the librarian profession needs to dedicate itself to developing better leaders so that we can lead ourselves, not leave our organizations vulnerable to be led by non-librarians. Granted decision makers will do as they choose, but if they are unable to find suitable leaders within the profession, or have had unsuccessful experience with librarians as leaders, they will search outside our profession for suitable leaders.

  3. Jeannine

    It certainly is a disturbing trend. The small town that is close to where my one older sister lives has a library director who is nothing more than a mouthpiece (his degree is in public relations) for the library. I was passed over for that same position and I have an MLS. I guess librarianship was only the next area where those without experience in the area would be landing the lead jobs (we really should be having medical people directing our hospitals but, as we often see, they are usually MBAs and, in education, more often than not, the people with the top position usually don’t have educational experience–New York and Chicago, for example). Arne Duncan, Sec’y of Education and, before that, the man in charge of Chicago Public Schools, is a lawyer and his only qualification for any of his positions was that he plays basketball with Pres. Obama. Disturbing trend but it seems to happen quite frequently.

  4. Bob Farwell

    The emphasis in MLS programs is on skills that prepare one to be qualified, competent librarian, not a director or a potential leader. It does not surprise me that some exemplary libraries are headed by non-MLS holders who are well acclimated to management and that their expertise is considered of paramount importance. Neither is it surprising that others are well managed by MLS holders who have prepared themselves either through experience or education to grapple with the challenges of guiding institutions whose community role is evolving and requires skill sets that are more likely found in an MBA program. I do wonder how many of the candidates who are drawn to librarianship envision a future that involves management and leadership and set those as career goals.

  5. It was interesting to me to read this article and the comments. I am a library director for a smaller public library (11 employees) but am NOT a librarian, according to your definition. I wasn’t hired for a lack of choice – when I went up for the position, I went against 20+ other people, several of whom had an MLS. But the board hired me, and I can tell you why: Sometimes, boards hire non-MLS library directors because they want someone who has focus and leadership skills, who can think creatively but logically, who can help move the library forward and help it grow. The MLS candidates didn’t happen to have those traits, but I did.

    A degree alone does not make you any better of a person, nor does it make you a better leader. I am continuing my education and will eventually receive my MLS (I attend part-time since I work full-time) but it will be a while. In the meantime, I shall endeavor not to burn the library to the ground. 😉


  6. Sara Jane Lowry

    Someone missing from your list is Mary Frances Cooper, MLS from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (
    Since libraries federal affiliation is the Institute of Museum and Library Service, I thought I’d mention that Museums too have gone through a catalytic shift over the last 20 years as an industry that had only curators as directors. They now have museum professionals who may or may not be curators, but instead understand best practices in museums, care of collections, business, education, fundraising, and service to the public — and may have another type of degree.

  7. A skills-to-work gap issue being addressed at the most senior levels of librarianship! Being (A) a good librarian does not equate to (B) being a good library manager. This is a common theme in management literature. Aquired achievement (good job performance) does not translate into positive social power (ability to influence others/leadership). Should, then, libraries be run by MBAs? No, Renaissance Librarians! OTJT might suffice for small libraries, but to run a large operation one should receive additional training, certification, education, or all of these. As you note, schools do not do this now, but they should! And they should start at the MLS level.

    • I agree Mark. Thanks for sharing that insight.
      Powers that Be equating good job performance with leadership ability has always been a problem, but in this 21st Century environment when SO MANY other skills are necessary beyond basic librarianship, leadership is even more important than ever – even in smaller libraries. Without exceptional leaders the smaller libraries won’t survive, and the larger libraries won’t become 21st Century libraries.

  8. Angharad

    Here’s another example, the appointee in question being a distinguished scholar in the field relevant to this particular library.

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