Events

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Update: New Director at the Jones Library (and some advice on new media needs)


August 10

As noted in last night's brief update, the Jones Library has a new Director. Scott Merzbach of the Gazette has now provided a thorough run-down of the deliberations, which corresponds to the sense that I was getting throughout the process: Christopher Lindquist enjoyed strong support from those whose focus was on professional librarianship, financial issues, and management skills. Sharon Sharry, by contrast, was more popular among those who placed a premium on personal style and presumed ability to connect with employees and patrons.

The Library’s interim management team thus unanimously supported Lindquist, while a preponderance of staff favored Sharry. Among those with formal votes, the Search Committee favored Lindquist by 3-2, and the Trustees split 3-3 on the first ballot, but unanimously chose Sharry on the second.
Recommendation of the Search Committee in favor of Lindquist, by a vote of 3-2:

for Lindquist 
  •  Trustee President Sarah McKee
  •  Trustee Austin Sarat
  •  Head of Information Services Matthew Berube
for Sharry
  • Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tony Maroulis 
  • President of Jones Library Friends Lucy McMurrer 
Among the Trustees, President Sarah McKee, Austin Sarat, and Michael Wolff supported Lindquist on the first ballot, while Chris Hoffmann, Emily Lewis, and Carol Gray supported Sharry. On the second ballot, the vote was unanimous for Sharry.

Thus, McKee praised Lindquist for his attention to (as Scott summarized), “budgeting, long-term action planning and Town Meeting processes”—what she called “the sorts of things I want a director to know about.” Carol Gray, by contrast, was more drawn to (again, in the Gazette’s wording) “Sharry's monthly reports to trustees in Greenfield and her responses to questions about how to deal with boisterous teens and homeless people in the library.” Gray, recently returned from her studies (and adventures) in Egypt, declared Lindquist unacceptable and said she could not have voted for him: "I would have grave reservations about hiring someone like that." (not clear what "that" means)


Tough Choices

Clearly, it was a complex choice, and I’m glad I didn’t have to make it. It’s a tall order at the best of times, all the more so under straitened financial circumstances and when coming out of a period of great internal discord. In the first place, it’s a question of how one defines qualifications. In the second place, it’s a more subjective matter of personal “fit.” Comments by Trustees Emily Lewis and Austin Sarat nicely summarized the contrasting approaches to the task and the candidates:
Trustee Emily Lewis . . . was extraordinarily impressed with both candidates, but [said] that Sharry's ability to attract library patrons was evident during her public interview. "She won the hearts and minds of the community and the staff, the businesses, and the schools," Lewis said. 
Sarat said Sharry is articulate, passionate and compassionate as well as engaging. But her weaknesses were more evident in specific questions by the search committee focused on financial planning and budget numbers. Even if Lindquist did not connect with the public or staff, this was not a concern, Sarat said. "We're not hiring an interviewee, we're hiring a director, and the interview is one part of the search process," he added. 
The choice then, is both a practical and a philosophical one: a matter not just of how one views the internal and external role of the director, but also of whether to go instinctively to one’s comfort zone or to make a choice that may require more adjustment and entail some risk but offer the prospect of bolder action and long-term gains. I know that, in academe, administrators and search committees occasionally (but not often enough) worry about a tendency “to keep replicating ourselves” by safely hiring people whose profile is “just like us” rather than opening themselves to the challenging possibility of the new and different. Clearly, the Search Committee and Trustees had to grapple with precisely this issue. There is no single “right” answer, and much depends on both personalities and circumstances.

What is clear is that there were two good choices, and that both the participants and the public seem satisfied with the ultimate choice and inspired at the prospect of new permanent leadership.


Encomium

In a formal announcement of the choice to the Select Board this morning, Trustee President Sarah McKee declared, "We thus embark on a new chapter in our common, but surely uncommon, history." Repeating the analogy of the voyage two sentences later but switching images from tomes to time, she commended to us Frank Prentice Rand's history of the Jones Library (1919-1969), and observed, "As we embark on a new era, I think its opening Apologia worth our recalling":
Every library is entitled to publish its history. For a library is something more than a repository and exchange center of printed matter. It is an incarnation of the wisdom within a community, and an embodiment of the communal personality as well. Its card catalog is an index to the dominant interests of the citizenry. Thus the widely known and highly regarded Jones Library is a manifestation of the widely known and highly regarded village of Amherst, Massachusetts -- a physical revealing of the men and women, living and dead, local and distant, who by their utterances and influence have made the little town what it is today. President Calvin Plimpton of Amherst College has said: "Good libraries are the extension of great people." So this library is in various ways the extension of people of varying degrees and kinds of greatness, all the way from the Medici to Samuel Minot Jones, from Thucydides to "Tip" Tyler. Its annals are short, but not simple. 
She concluded:
Now, you will probably have to google "Tip" Tyler. But I invite you to glance back, for a moment, at the long and noble history that you all have kept alive and thriving in Amherst during the past year, day in and day out, in spite of stresses of a sort that the Jones has probably never before seen. 

My two cents' worth of advice

Now I'm sure that Ms. Sharry has more than enough to do, but at the risk of adding to her burdens, I'll mention just one pressing task: Take prompt and firm charge of the Library's digital presence. In its current state, it is both primitive and chaotic.

Money is tight, and the taxpayer is not going to pay for the glorious geothermal heating and cooling system you mentioned (I crave it, too, but Amherst College can afford that; the Town of Amherst cannot). Fundraising from private donors will be crucial for any big projects, including capital ones. Of course, before you can persuade either public or private parties to make major new investments in your undertakings, you will have to start by demonstrating that you have, at long last, put your own house in order: implement effective long-range planning (quite overdue), and finally start budgeting fully for maintenance as well as operating expenses. (The Community Preservation Act Committee, for example, is not a piggy bank. Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency need, as far as the Town is concerned.) Recent practices have not been sustainable. They need to change now.

By contrast, investment in digital media is a relatively modest expense and, if done right, gets you a lot of bang for the buck. Especially given that you were selected because of your ability to connect with current patrons and other residents, this is your real opportunity to sell the Jones—and make the public buy in. The more you publicize what the Library gives to the Town, the more its residents will be eager to use it and willing to give back.

For example, hire a good web designer. The Jones Library homepage has long been a mess: clunky, old-fashioned, badly laid out, hard to navigate. It communicates an antiquated air as well as indifference to both the taste and the convenience of the user. It's at least a decade out of date. One need but compare this throwback with the updated sites of the Town of Amherst (public) and Amherst History Museum next door (a private institution whose resources, by the way, are but a fraction of those of the Jones, which enjoys support from both a public budget of $ 2.19 million and an endowment worth nearly $ 8 million). They're not perfect or pioneering, but they are modern in look and functionality. If they can do it, why can't you?

The Library web page is an embarrassment. The only exception is the award-winning Digital Amherst, which shows what one can do—and it's an instructive example. That took luck and energy, but relatively little money because it was the work of a dedicated and creative visiting employee funded by an outside grant (acting on the ideas and with the guidance of head of Special Collections Tevis Kimball, of course). Take a lesson there.

First of all, though, make sure your current new/social media presence is up to date. It is ironic that the topic assigned to the director candidates was the library in the age of the internet and digital media—and yet, the news that the Jones has hired a new director is nowhere to be found on its web presence.

• The Library homepage is its homely self. A visitor would have no clue that the search had been successfully completed (or even taken place).



• A visitor who knew the URL of the page for feedback on candidates would be no better served: That page informs us that it was last updated on July 19, before either candidate spoke, not to mention, before the feedback deadline was extended to August 3. And there is of course no indication that the search is now over.

[Update:] In fact, I just visited the page again, and was able to submit feedback even though that deadline passed more than a week ago and the new director was chosen yesterday. Ouch.


The Facebook page is not much better: It is now a week out of date. Thankfully, this one (but why not the candidate feedback page?!) does tell us that the time for public comment on the search has been extended to August 3. However, the last entry, from August 4, deals only with a staff reading recommendation about cancer survival (uplifting, I am sure). Nothing more about the search, the final meeting, or the outcome.



The Library should have led with and controlled the story of the hiring of its first new director in 30 years. That it somehow failed to do speaks volumes (to use a metaphor drawn from the era of print) about its strategic reasoning and positioning in the modern world.

The news of the hiring of a new director should have been trumpeted to the public via all new media as well as old: Library web page, Facebook updates, Twitter. As we've seen, the Library does not pay proper attention to the former two and apparently does not yet use the latter tool, though almost everyone else in the field of public humanities and cultural tourism now does. In fact, Twitter is ideally suited to quick communication of breaking news: a few moments and 140 characters, and your story is out there.

One might take as a counterexample the Springfield Library, a reasonably typical midsized New England small urban library: Its web page, though not a model of design or execution, is at least clear and contemporary—not revolutionary, but not antediluvian, either. Above all, you can actually use it easily. And its Facebook page is not only up to date (revised 10 hours ago, last I checked): It reports news of general literary-cultural interest, not merely local happenings, e.g., the appointment of the new Poet Laureate, Philip Levine (Jones Library, take note). In fact, it's even got a special teen page (a model that would interest Trustee Carol Gray, I assume), and a lively Twitter account, which I gladly follow.

The thing about modern digital media is that, once one starts to employ them, one has to do so regularly and consistently. We expect these resources to be up to date, and when they are not, users become frustrated or lose interest, or both. Even if one does not rush headlong into use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking tools (after all, the activity has to be purposeful, not mindless), one can at least keep the website up to date. (Example: at least take down the public feedback page after the candidate has been hired.)

It is a rather revealing state of affairs when our public library lags behind the Amherst Brewing Company in its use of new/social media. The latter, an almost equally beloved institution, has a rigorously maintained website, Facebook page, and Twitter account. Why should residents of Amherst be able to get day-by-updates of the move of a private microbrewing enterprise from North Pleasant Street to University Drive—but not of the search for the Director of a publicly funded cultural institution? It's really an irony and a disappointment.

Fortunately, that's easy to remedy. In any case, that's in the past, and we should look to the future.

Let's combine the best of both topics: raise a foamy glass in toast to the library, with best wishes for a successful partnership between the new director, her staff, patrons, and the town.




Recent Posts

Initial report on the choice of Sharon Sharry as Director
• Report on candidate presentation by Sharon Sharry
Report on candidate presentation by Christopher Lindquist

[11.VIII. update: new screen shot]

Updated news coverage:

• Diane Lederman covers the story here: "Amherst trustees offer Jones position to Greenfield Library Director Sharon Sharry," Springfield Republican, 11 Aug. (posted Wednesday evening on masslive.com)

• Scott Merzbach offers further coverage in the current issue of the Amherst Bulletin (12 August) as "New Jones director impresses staff, public." This version contains a few additional quotations.

No comments: