I have always enjoyed reading dark, brooding mysteries. But in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and this polarizing, high-stakes election, the headlines lately have been dark enough. These days, I’ve found myself choosing instead to get lost in exquisite novels like The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett and Love by Roddy Doyle. And I’ve tried to focus my attention as much as possible on stories of courage and generosity. In particular, my mood has been lifted by the reports of resilience and courage coming from public libraries and library workers around the country, who continue to demonstrate their commitment to public service and to their communities.
I live in New York now, but I remain an avid supporter of my former library, the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) in Ohio, where executive director Tracy Strobel has done an extraordinary job leading the library through these trying times. “Staff is focused first and foremost on maintaining a safe and healthy environment and they are urged to keep their own safety as their top priority,” Tracy told me on a recent call, when I asked her how she is managing.
After a difficult spring that forced some tough decisions, safe and effective curbside service began at CCPL on June 1, with staff returing to a daunting task: filling some 50,000 holds that were placed while the library doors were closed. A month later, on July 6, CCPL was able to reopen all of its 27 branches with new safety practices in place—building capacity restrictions of 25%, a mask requirement, and new cleaning practices, to name a few. And in another positive development, Sunday hours resumed at all CCPL branches on September 13.
When she took the job, Tracy could never have expected that her first year as executive director would be consumed by such a dangerous public health crisis. But her steady hand and compassionate heart have demonstrated that the CCPL Board of Trustees made the right call in choosing her to lead the system. Her disciplined leadership combined with CCPL’s strong history of collaboration with the library’s union has proven to be a recipe for success. And CCPL’s users agree: on November 3, voters passed Issue 70, a levy that will support and sustain CCPL’s library services well into the future, a strong recognition of CCPL’s value in the community.
I’ve been especially impressed and inspired by the work of new library directors around the country—people who have stepped into library leadership roles for the first time under these unprecedented and arduous circumstances. One such leader is Carlos Latimer, director of the East Cleveland Public Library (ECPL) in Ohio.
Carlos had already taken an early retirement from the Cleveland Public Library (CPL) when he decided to step in to become director of ECPL. In the best of times, leading ECPL is a demanding job—with a poverty rate around 40%, the city of East Cleveland ranks among the poorest cities in America, and the city’s economic challenges have historically been exacerbated by political corruption and incompetence. I know firsthand the passion and commitment to service that pushed Carlos to become a library leader. From 1997 to 2003, we worked together at CPL and I immediately recognized him to be a man of talent, integrity, empathy, and good nature. And he’s brought those traits to bear in dealing with the pandemic.
After the ECPL board made the decision to shutter the library back in March, Carlos says he quickly realized that the community did not seem to grasp the magnitude of the pandemic that was about to disrupt their lives. So he personally answered emails and voicemails to the library to ensure that accurate information was getting to community members. And he quickly got to work on a plan to address the health and safety practices that would be necessary for the library to move forward. Shortly after the library’s shutdown, Carlos was able to secure some 21 pallets of free PPE (personal protective equipment) from a local nonprofit, and organized a drive-through pickup to distribute it to more than 800 East Cleveland families.
By June, ECPL was able to begin lobby service for materials pickups, copy and printing services, and grab-and-go lunches. And in late summer, as the East Cleveland schools reopened for remote learning, the library placed tables outside until ECPL’s buildings could safely reopen, offering students a safe place to get help with instruction, homework, internet access, and tech support, including for ECPL’s newly acquired Chromebooks. ECPL staff also worked with local teachers to get more online content into the curriculum. And library staff have been actively promoting access to digital books through services like Hoopla, Overdrive, and Tumble Books, and pushing for library card sign-ups, and. And crucially for the community, staff also made time to ensure that local residents completed their 2020 census forms.
The key to ECPL’s efforts, Carlos says, is its staff. The ECPL team understands the needs of the community because they are part of the community, he insists, adding that his staff not only possess the skills and talent needed to do the work, they are people who “fundamentally understand libraries, and care about libraries.”
ECPL’s physical libraries are now open on a limited basis. But with the pandemic far from over and Covid-19 cases rising, the library remains committed to delivering library services outside the physical library, including virtual storytimes, crafts classes, concerts and experiences such as line dancing events. Broadly speaking, Carlos sees the library’s future as becoming “a beacon of African American culture and history,” and innovative programming (including “Virtual Sunday Jazz” performances) reflect that mission. And he remains committed to elevating the library’s profile in the community, secure in his belief that elevating the library will elevate East Cleveland.
Tracy Strobel had long served the CCPL community before she became director. Carlos Latimer had the opportunity to meet the community, as well as his library board and staff before Covid-19 forced the library’s doors to close. But imagine interviewing and taking a first-time director position without any face-to-face contact? That’s what faced Joslyn Bowling Dixon, the brand new director of New Jersey’s Newark Public Library (NPL).
NPL had only been open for pickup service when Joslyn arrived on the job on August 3. Her first order of business: to create an action plan to get the doors open again.
Having worked as front line staff at the Loudoun County (Va.) Public Library and as deputy director at the Prince William County (Va.) Library System, Joslyn drew upon her experience to guide her, organizing and setting a plan in motion with her staff and her board that put safety first for her staff and the public: periodic closings for cleaning throughout the day, temperature checks, and regular Covid-19 tests for staff, among other measures. Yet, in a sign of the tough times we face, a recent spike in Covid-19 cases in the community has again temporarily shuttered the buildings to the public.
Joslyn, however, remains determined, insisting that she and her staff will meet the requirements needed to safely reopen for both the staff and the public. And she is hopeful that the library can begin to reopen its doors as early as the week of November 16.
A natural leader, Joslyn says she always wanted to be a library director. Without a seat at the “decision table,” she says, she would never be able to set the agenda or realize her most creative ideas. And the decision to serve the city of Newark in the midst of a raging pandemic was not daunting to her, she says, noting that many of the pieces necessary for success were already in place—for example, NPL already had strong virtual programming in place before she came aboard.
Joslyn’s vision is to see NPL “grow as a thought leader, and as leader that other urban libraries can look to for ideas.” To get there, she says, she will draw on her experience working in other cities, including Chicago, which she says gave her a good understanding of how to work well with labor unions, and the necessity of good partnerships. And she is determined not to let the pandemic slow her down too much—Joslyn says she will take any interview or email introduction, and will accept any chance to connect with her community through virtual options like Zoom.
No question, the future is still uncertain, and caution is required as Covid-19 cases rise in many states. But with this contentious election now behind us and with the promise of new leadership ahead, I have resolved to look forward with optimism. I am inspired by and grateful for the frontline staff in public libraries across the nation, who are coping with an uneasy “new normal,” and still finding ways to support their communities, who need them now more than ever. These librarians deserve our praise, our gratitude, and our unqualified support.
I am grateful, too, for the steady leadership of directors like Tracy, Carlos, and Joslyn. In unprecedented times like these, there are no road maps for anyone. And with Covid-19 resurgent, there can be no looking back. During my career as a library director, I often quoted author Zadie Smith, who once observed that “nostalgia is the enemy of creativity.” Never has this statement been truer than now. Librarians today must listen to their staffs, to the scientists, and to their communities, and they must chart a new course for the library’s future.
PW columnist Sari Feldman is the former executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).