Crosby Kemper on Becoming the Next Director of IMLS

R. Crosby Kemper III, director of Missouri’s Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) since 2005, was nominated in November 2019 by President Donald Trump to serve as the next director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. He was endorsed by the American Library Association (ALA), and voted into the position by the U.S. Senate on January 9.

Crosby Kemper standing outsideR. Crosby Kemper III, director of Missouri’s Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) since 2005, was nominated in November 2019 by President Donald Trump to serve as the next director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). He was endorsed by the American Library Association (ALA), and voted into the position by the U.S. Senate on January 9. Kemper assumes the four-year term at the federal agency this month, succeeding previous director Kathryn (“Kit”) Matthew, and will step down as KCPL director.

During Kemper’s time at the helm of KCPL, the library developed a wide range of special events programming, and played a major role in the founding of Digital Inclusion KC, a coalition of more than 70 area nonprofits, government agencies, and other organizations. In 2008, KCPL received a National Medal for Museum and Library Service from IMLS.

Kemper also recently served as chair of the board of directors of the Washington, DC–based Schools, Health, & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB), which supports open, affordable broadband connections for local community organizations.

Each IMLS director has been selected, alternately, from the museum and library sectors. Kemper, who has experience across both spheres, will encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration during his time at the agency, said KCPL Deputy Director for Public Affairs and Community Engagement Carrie Coogan.

“He sees the value in more partnerships and collaborations,” Coogan told LJ. “We've done it [at KCPL] and it's been magical.”

The KCPL board will be conducting a nationwide search for the library’s next director; the board's and Kemper's shared vision for the KCPL will help ensure continuity, noted Coogan. Kemper’s increased visibility at the helm of IMLS will help draw more attention to the library’s work as well.

LJ caught up with Kemper the day after the Senate’s vote to find out a bit more his next steps—and how the nomination caught him by surprise.


LJ : What led up to your nomination? Was this a position you actively sought?

Crosby Kemper: This was not something I had ever thought about. I've worked with IMLS over the years, and the library's been a fairly significant grantee of IMLS going back some time. We won the medal in 2008. So I'm very aware of IMLS and have been engaged with it. But the first I knew about this was from Jennie Stapp, who is the Montana state librarian and the chair-elect of COSLA [Chief Officers of State Library Agencies], and is a good friend of mine because she was my predecessor as the chair of SHLB.

Jennie and I were talking about SHLB stuff, and she said, "You know, I think you're on an ALA list for the IMLS." This I think was last March. I said, "Oh, really? That's interesting." She said, "You ought to talk to [former IMLS director] Susan Hildreth about it," so I said, "Okay." It was a surprise to me.

I called Susan. She said, "I think you're on the list, and I think you may be near the top of the list." Probably because I may have been the only Republican librarian they could find. She said, "Would you be interested?" and I said, "Well, I've never thought about it, but, sure, it might be an interesting kind of coda to my career."

I talked to some folks at ALA, and they said one of the reasons this might be a good idea is my relationship with Senator Roy Blunt [R-MO]. Roy has always been a huge fan of libraries. ALA said, "See if he would be willing to back you." I talked to Roy, and he thought it was a great idea. He wrote a letter to the President, and that's what led to the nomination.

I wasn't sure how this would end up until October, when the White House sent a letter to Congress, nominating me. We went through the FBI investigation, and then things just stopped for a while and I thought, Oh, the FBI found something they didn't like, or there are other candidates. It just rolled along like that until the White House sent the nomination forward, and then it got caught up in the fact that Congress is not—how shall we say?—fully focused on matters like this. So the final push was a surprise, too.

I've been surprised by everything through this whole process. I didn't campaign for it. I wasn't even aware that it was a possibility until ALA suggested it, and then each step along the way it seemed like there was a roadblock. That I finally got here is interesting, amusing, and a little startling to me.

Given the fact that the president’s proposed budget has tried to zero out IMLS three years in a row, do you think libraries—or you—are on the president’s radar right now?

I doubt the President's thinking about me. I was looking at the organization chart with some of the staff at IMLS, and I said, "Does it show who I report to?" And they said, "Well, technically you report to the President." I said, "Do you think he's aware of that?" They said, "Well, maybe not."

The most senior person I talked to in the White House—who will remain nameless but all the personnel decisions went through him—made a point of saying to me, "You know that in the last two years, we've increased the budget of IMLS twice." And of course they've now done it a third time. I thought it was interesting that he was selling me on that. I think in the White House, in the administration, and in Congress, there are a lot of defenders and promoters of libraries. Senator Blunt obviously, but also folks like senators [Jack] Reed [D-RI], [Patty] Murray [D-WA], [and] [Lamar] Alexander [R-TN]. I got the sense from Sen. Reed and Sen. Blunt directly, and from the staff for the other senators on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, that there is very strong support for libraries and museums in Congress. And also for some of the things that relate to us—in particular broadband. I think the administration's got a very strong focus on that, and I think you'll see an infrastructure bill at some point in which rural broadband, and therefore rural library broadband, is going to be important.

How do you feel your time the helm of KCPL has prepared you for this next step?

Google Fiber came to Kansas City, and the library became a focus of a lot of the development of anchor institution broadband, which led to my being chair of SHLB and spending time with the FCC on USAC [Universal Service Administrative Co.] and E-rate. It's prepared me for the challenge of technology in libraries for the 21st century. We have problems with electronic books right now, which is something I've paid attention to and I think IMLS can play a role in, along with the Library of Congress and partnering libraries and organizations.

The other thing we've done at KCPL is our public programming. As the physical book and access to information have both changed dramatically, and with the vision of some people that libraries were becoming redundant in the internet-based information economy, I think we've proven that that's not the case. And we've proven it because we've begun to focus libraries on community-based information gathering and promotion in a society that's atomized in a lot of ways. Libraries are vibrant places now, where people come together and meet each other face-to-face and do communal things. KCPL has been a leader of that.

And I know who else is doing a good job—not only the urban libraries, but rural or smaller libraries that are doing a great job for their communities. So I think I can call on the tremendous reserve of intellectual resources out there in the library world.

Fortunately I have a long-time involvement in museums as well. My father created a wonderful modern art museum, the Kemper Museum, in Kansas City. I've been very involved with other museums over time—the Nelson here in Kansas City, the Spencer in Lawrence [KS], the Addison at Andover [MA], the Whitney in New York, and others. I think I'll be able to maintain a great relationship and leadership role on that side as well as the library side.

How did your time at SHLB inform what you’ll be doing at IMLS?

I think there are a number of things. One, I probably have a better sense than most librarians who are outside of the Beltway about the way the Hill works. I've always been interested in politics and ran for office myself once long ago. The interaction of Hill staff and congressmen and senators with other regulatory agencies, and with various interest groups and the lobbyist world, is fascinating—I've learned a lot about that. And I learned a lot about the specifics of things like E-rate, and broadband as infrastructure. I think I can play a role inside the administration in helping them craft the next step.

As an example, a year ago in October I got Roy Blunt and Jay Ashcroft, John Ashcroft's son, who's the current Secretary of State in Missouri, to keynote the SHLB conference, talking primarily about the importance of rural broadband and focusing on libraries for education, for economic development, for keeping our rural areas and small towns in places like the Midwest engaged in the economy and in the rest of the world. Those are voters who voted for President Trump, so [the region] has the administration's attention, and is a direction that I think I could have an influence on in the expansion of what federal government does in those areas.

What are you doing to get up to speed for the new role?

First and foremost, I’ve spent time at the agency itself, talking to staff. There's an advisory board, some of whose members I know. [Former San Francisco City Librarian] Luis Herrera is a good friend, and Bob Wedgeworth [founding president of ProLiteracy Worldwide, former university librarian, and former executive director of ALA]—his career is really stunning, and he started as a page at KCPL at 14. [Library copyright expert] Mary Minow. I spent some time with the staff, and also some people on the Hill. So, those people who care about libraries and museums inside the Beltway, I intend to get to know them and know what they know.

Can you talk a bit about the funding challenges IMLS and other library-adjacent agencies have faced in the past few years?

The IMLS, the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts], the NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have all been zeroed out of original budgets and had to fight back. I've already said this, but I think it's important to address it head-on: I think there's support inside the White House—I'm not predicting anything the President might do or say, but I think there's support inside the White House and very much support inside Congress on both sides of the aisles for IMLS—for libraries in general and museums. I don't think there's a danger of our going away.

Having said that, we're running a very large deficit in the federal government. There is a struggle for funding everywhere, so one of the most important roles I have is to make sure that the library story and the museum story are told, and told well, and told by as many people as are necessary from as many places around the country, to our leadership in Congress and inside the Executive Branch and elsewhere.

What are you reading?

As always, I've got a lot of different things going on. The latest issue of the American Historical Society's journal has got an interesting article on museums and history, the curation of history, which I'm beginning to read. But actually, what I read at breakfast this morning was Plato's dialogues, the Philebus. The Philebus is the dialogue in which he, Socrates, tries to teach Philebus and Protarchus the different values, the different centrality, to the soul of wisdom versus pleasure. I thought that was probably an appropriate thing for the future director of IMLS to be reading.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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