Jason Kucsma: Moving Forward Through a Difficult Transition

When Clyde Scoles, longtime director of the Toledo Lucas County Public Library (TLCPL), OH, died unexpectedly in February, Deputy Director Jason Kucsma stepped up as acting director for the 21-branch system. Scoles had announced his retirement only a few weeks before, and Kucsma was already considering his next steps. On August 1, the TLCPL board of trustees voted to appoint Kucsma as executive director and chief financial officer. 

Jason Kucsma head shotWhen Clyde Scoles, longtime director of the Toledo Lucas County Public Library (TLCPL), OH, died unexpectedly in February, Deputy Director Jason Kucsma stepped up as acting director for the 21-branch system. Scoles had announced his retirement only a few weeks before, and Kucsma was already considering his next steps.

On August 1, the TLCPL board of trustees voted to appoint Kucsma as executive director and chief financial officer. And on September 26, the stretch of Michigan Avenue running along the east side of the library’s Main Branch was renamed “Clyde Scoles Way.”

Before assuming the role of TLCPL deputy director in 2015, Kucsma had served as executive director of the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO). Prior to his work in library administration, Kucsma founded and copublished Clamor Magazine, a bimonthly devoted to underrepresented voices, news, and ideas.

LJ : You’ve had a pretty rapid-fire career.

Jason Kucsma: I knew that when I came here, it would be very deliberate succession work. It was exciting to learn from Clyde, in preparation for potentially being a candidate to take over when he retired. I think he took a very calculated risk in bringing me on because I was someone with zero public library experience. I had experience working with libraries via METRO, but I didn’t have the decades of experience that people have who report to me.

So when I came here it was a yearlong tour of the best part of our strategic planning process, to own what I didn’t know and learn as much as I could from staff. From day one, Clyde let me helm the strategic planning process. So when he announced his retirement in January, and suddenly passed away in February, we all owned so much of the work here. As hard as it was to lose him, functionally and operationally, he had prepared us for that.

That sounds like a rough transition for everyone.

Our trustees had to hire a new director, and they’d never had to do that before. [Scoles] had been in his role for over 30 years. Some of our trustees had known Clyde and worked with him for decades. I can’t imagine how hard it was for them, to be not only feeling pressure to do this search but also still grieving.

They knew that I had been working with Clyde, but they felt an obligation to the community to still conduct [a] national search. I got a lot of support from my colleagues. Other directors said to just trust the process, let it work its way through, and if it’s meant to be, it’ll be. It’s easy to say those things when you’re on the outside—it was hard to internalize. Fortunately, I was really busy keeping this place moving along.

People powered through that transition, but we’re fortunate to be able to share his legacy with our community, with his family, and professionally with his colleagues at [the American Library Association] ALA. It gave us a chance to close up that chapter and move on. I think my appointment was an interesting sort of cap to that long grieving process for a lot of us, and even for some of the trustees.

That evening when he died, we didn’t have a firm crisis communication plan. We’d always had that on a list of things to do. I and a handful of other administrators were here long into the night working on communicating out, and making sure that staff and other stakeholders and trustees knew what was happening.

I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from staff who really appreciated being the first to know everything, as we knew it, through that whole process. For me it was a really firm lesson that even communicating incomplete information was more valuable than trying to sit on whatever information we had and waiting till we had something complete. The staff just needed to hear something. Absent sharing information with them, they’re left to fill in the blanks themselves, and that’s not always productive.

Was it challenging to keep the library running during that crisis and have your hat in the ring for the director position at the same time?

It was awkward because I was still at the table during our monthly board meetings. There was a need to keep some distance, so we were all pretty careful about how our communication happened. We didn’t want there to be any hint of an unfair advantage, so my meetings and conversations with them were pretty limited to standard committee meetings and trustee meetings. We still worked through some pretty big challenges.

There was all kinds of complicated work that needed to be done at the committee level and with our trustees, and [we] were able to do that, put the search aside. Our HR manager was the primary conduit between the recruiters and the trustees, and he was perennially in a difficult position, because he was reporting to me and managing this process.

There was a big sigh of relief, I think, when we got to the other side of the process and we could move on with business as usual, and continue building those relationships. Clyde had me working and presenting at the board meetings, every meeting for over a year, in preparation—getting them to know me a little bit better. We had to put a lot of that on hold through the search process.

What do you see as the differences between acting as deputy director and being the director?

The deputy, typically, in most organizations, tends to be the operational side, while the director is out in the community being the face of the organization and making big, difficult decisions at the top. But with Clyde, he had deliberately stepped back in a lot of ways, so I was doing a little bit of both through most of my time here. That’s partly because I had strong administrators reporting to me as deputy. I was there to remove obstacles for them, but they were skilled professionals doing their work, and it gave me more opportunity to be out in public, and be managing our community relationships with other institutions.

I think the biggest difference is having to start to do some of the quiet but necessary infrastructure work that needs to happen, whether it’s around policy that we need to bring to the library, or updates, managing board or trustee relationships, managing community relationships. It’s a lot about that quiet, less sexy work, in comparison to interesting new programs or ways to change the way we serve our communities—it’s a lot of critical infrastructure and planning work.

TLCPL recently went fine-free. How is that working out, and what would you say about that process to other libraries considering doing the same?

The no fines thing was something we had worked on for a couple of years. We had read the literature that fines tend to be more of a barrier to access than an incentive to bring back resources. I had asked Clyde early on in my tenure, what’s our tolerance here for removing fines, and he was interested in moving towards that.

When we finally removed fines, we equipped our staff with talking points. We educated them about why we were doing this, so they could educate the public. And we honestly heard not one peep. Within the first couple of months, we saw a little over 2,000 people come back to the library. I think that number has plateaued a little bit. We had a handful of people that wanted to still pay fines, and we encouraged them to donate to the Friends of the Library.

Everyone is different. Directors know how the community is going to respond. I’ve heard very clear, cogent reasons why some systems simply can’t do it, whether it’s because they’re a municipal system and they are not able to work with their city in that way, or for [other] reasons. I don’t think it’s fair to hold that standard up to all public libraries, because some of it’s just physically or logistically impossible for them to do. But where we can, I think it’s really beneficial.

What parts of your work at the library do you see as Clyde Scoles’s legacy that you want to maintain, and what do you want to make your own down the line?

Clyde was a very quiet and humble traditional library director—traditional in the sense of his management style and the work that he did. He was always, even late in his career, thinking about how we change the way we provide services based on the community’s needs and expectations. I’ll certainly carry that forward.

Clyde passed away as we were finishing up new construction [TLCPL’s Mott branch, which has been called “Clyde Scoles’s legacy”] and right in the middle of a tremendous main library renovation. We were ecstatic to reopen our main library—it was closed for about a year. We renovated about 150,000 square feet of our 300,000 square foot building, and opened it on September 28 to great acclaim. So we’ve been able to move those things forward in pretty difficult times.

One of my biggest priorities is work that I’ve been doing around our internal culture and organization, trying to build and move towards a culture of empathy and accountability for our staff—knowing that we’re an empathic organization and can only serve our community better. I think part of that is focusing on stronger internal communication and more of an understanding of how we all bring so many different things to our workday, and to the experiences we have at the library and our customers.

Everybody wants to know what’s next for me, and I tell them that Clyde had given me so much free rein in the past couple of years that tomorrow’s TLCPL looks like what it is today.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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