For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
July 23, 2003 - Pueblo Library
Recently, I was asked to facilitate a staff meeting in Pueblo. My task was to help them "process" a lot of change in a short period of time. This is their story.
Act I. When I first arrived in Colorado some 16 years ago now, I learned that the consistent winner of the Colorado reading program awards was the Pueblo City-County Library District.
Later on, I met Chuck Bates, its director. He was a good leader. Here's how you tell: staff keep doing great things. Pueblo was one of the early adopters of an innovative automation system. It was one of the first independent library districts, well-supported by its community, as tested by several elections.
Over the next decade or so, I had a chance to work with Chuck on several statewide library projects. He was a pro. And his library continued to rack up one success after another: lots of use, lots of new buildings, lots of good people doing useful and impressive work.
Chuck was also a swimmer, a man in excellent physical condition. So it came as even more of a shock when he was diagnosed with cancer. He fought it for several years, bravely and with dignity. At last, after 22 years of effective leadership, Chuck succumbed. He died in Denver last year.
Act II. When someone is fighting a terminal illness, he or she must of necessity disengage, pull back from some things to focus on the essential business of life. In Chuck's case, this created two power gaps: one at the staff level, and one at the board level.
On the staff side, Richard Lee, the Associate Director, stepped up. Pueblo was working on a big library project, and Richard had extensive construction management experience with libraries. Richard is a gentle, humorous man who got things done. Staff liked him. After Chuck's death, Richard was appointed Acting Director, then offered the permanent job. The transition looked as if it had gone with surprisingly smoothness.
On the Board side, the power gap was filled by the Board President. He was a high-powered fundraiser -- and in fact had been instrumental in getting a $4 million pledge from the local newspaper publisher for the new downtown library.
The problem the new library director faced was this: the Board president was also getting some $6,000 a month from the library for marketing services. State law says that library board members can't get paid; but presumably, he was being paid for other services. Richard began to set that bill in front of the Board every month for approval, believing that the situation raised some ethical issues.
That's when Richard's problems began. His contract wasn't signed. Conflicts seemed to be escalating between the Board President and him. Attorneys began to be involved.
Then, one day, Richard showed up at work to find an unsigned piece of paper informing him that he had lost his job. No explanation, no severance pay.
The library staff went through a range of emotions: shock, outrage, fear. But then something unexpected happened: they got organized. About 80 of the 100 staff members got together at a rally and discussed their options. They kept meeting regularly over the next three months. They wrote letters to the paper, they attended city and county commission meetings, and often spoke, with both emotion and intelligence. They were interviewed on television.
The issue became one of the hot topics of the town. Independent investigations revealed that more money that had been steered to the Board president -- over half a million in contract kickbacks.
In succession, the Board President resigned. Then the whole board resigned. Then a new board was appointed. Then, finally, the new board offered Richard Lee his job back.
All of this, to my knowledge, is completely unprecedented in the library world. For one thing, library boards are pretty upright. But when faced with significant breaches of process, ethics and public finance, this particular staff risked a great deal -- their jobs, not to mention the challenge of speaking out publicly against some very powerful people. And they won.
During the three months this was going on, however, Richard did have to feed his family. He had applied for other positions, and got several offers. Finally, he accepted one in Illinois.
So he agreed to come back for just a few weeks, as an interim director, trying to leave the library in as good a shape as he can.
Act III. What happens to the library now? Well, it will recruit another director, who will find a staff that can rise, once again, to greatness.
But what's to stop them? They've done it twice before.