The Berkeley Public Library will soon have a new director, three years after the last director stepped down. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Almost three years after the last director of the Berkeley Public Library stepped down, the Board of Library Trustees is poised to select a permanent replacement.

Last week, BOLT members interviewed three finalists for the director of library services position and the board is “circling in” on a selection, according to BOLT President John Selawsky. All three candidates were outstanding, said Diane Davenport, a BOLT member involved in the hiring process.

BOLT will meet again virtually Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. They may select a new director then, said Davenport.

The person will be filling a position that has been fraught with controversy. The last two directors, Heidi Dolomore and Jeff Scott, resigned less than a year into their respective tenures. Scott left after a swell of community protest about what many considered the indiscriminate “deaccessioning” of books. Dolomore’s reason for leaving has never been made public.

But after the sting of two failed directors, and despite hiring a professional search firm to help select them, BOLT decided in 2017 not to rush into the hunt for a new director. In September 2017, they appointed the-then deputy director, Elliot Warren, as acting director of library services.

First library in California to go fine-free

From the start, Warren said he did not want the job permanently. But that did not mean he was not active. Under his watch, the library focused on equity issues, he said, becoming the first library in California to go fine-free. Research had shown that 11,000 library patrons, most from lower income areas, had been blocked from checking out books because they owed late fees. Eliminating fines resulted in a 15 to 20% jump in circulation, Warren said.

After that, the library instituted the “Easy Access” card that enabled people without a fixed address to take out items. The library also ramped up its electronic resources by adding services like Kanopy, which streams movies. That move turned out to be prescient because the shelter-in-place directive closed the library and drove patrons to check out books online.

After Dolomore’s departure, BOLT embarked on an organizational assessment to help the board determine what had gone wrong in the previous two hires and why there was widespread staff dissatisfaction. BOLT itself had some mending to do as the Berkeley City Council, for the first time in the history of the library, had removed two BOLT directors. The City Council also disregarded BOLT’s recommendation for a new board appointee, instead appointing Selwasky. Council members said his depth of experience (he was elected to the school board three times, to the Rent Board, and had served on numerous commissions) would be an asset to the troubled board.

A “culture characterized by low levels of trust”

BOLT hired the consulting firm, Moss Adams, to do an organizational assessment and the company found many areas in which the library could improve in “management, staff relations, operational performance, policies and procedures and community partnerships.”

A “lack of leadership alignment, defined priorities, and constructive employee engagement at the Library has contributed to a culture characterized by low levels of trust, collaboration, and cooperation,” was just one of the areas of concern noted by Moss Adams.

Since the report was issued, in December 2018, the board, library management and some staff have spent considerable time revamping policies in the hopes of making the library a more open and transparent place to work, according to several interviews. The BOLT board worked on the way it communicated with each other (a workshop that Davenport called “Civility 101”) and how members brought items to the agenda. Moss Adams also helped BOLT members understand that their job is to offer strategic direction to the library and the director and not to play a role in managing its day-to-day affairs.

BOLT has also developed a plan to help “onboard” the next director to set him or her up for success, said Davenport. BOLT did not offer that kind of support for the past two directors, she said.

entrances to Berkeley Public Library
Families leaving the Central Branch of the public library in March. Photo: Ally Markovich

BOLT also developed a new mission statement and set of values for the library. It reads: “We believe free, universal access to information is fundamental to a healthy democracy and that reading and learning are key to a well-lived life. The Berkeley Public Library is a trusted hub of reading, learning, and community engagement.”

It was only after the library as an organization had examined its strengths and weaknesses that BOLT members felt prepared to start the search for a new director, said Davenport.

Andrea Mullarkey, a shop steward for SEIU Local 1021, which represents library workers, said she is optimistic about the library’s next phase.

“I do think that the library is in a better position now than they were three years ago to select a new director,” Mullarkey, a teen librarian at the Tarea Hall Pittman branch, said in an email. “In those three years, the Board of Library Trustees has put time, attention and other resources into making a clear-eyed assessment of where we are at as an organization. That laid a foundation for what has been a thoughtful, conscientious selection process that engaged stakeholders from across the community in a meaningful way. As a union member leader, I am grateful that the BOLT heard and responded to the Union’s requests to ensure that our members could be part of the process, to give us many ways to provide input and to be authentically included. “

Search for new director began in December

In December the library hired CPS HR Consulting out of Sacramento. The group tasked with helping the library find a new director included Susan Hildreth, a former state librarian, head of the San Francisco and Seattle public libraries and President Obama’s appointee to head up the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Hildreth and Pam Derby, an executive recruiter for the consulting firm, reached up to recruit candidates. Thirty people eventually applied for the position, said Davenport. Hildreth and Derby interviewed all the candidates and whittled the list to six.

The library set up two panels to interview the candidates. Each panel had a community member, a city of Berkeley department head, a “stakeholder,” like a representative from the Berkeley Public Library Foundation or the Friends of the Library, a library director from another locale and a union representative.

The panels interviewed the six candidates with the same set of six questions on July 2. The contenders were whittled down to three candidates. They met with city department heads and the BOLT board last week, said Davenport. Now the search firm will do background and reference checks, she said.

“The firm found fantastic people for us,” said Davenport, who added that she is confident the board will be able to select a director from among the finalists.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...