Remembering Bill Ptacek, Calgary Public Library’s Visionary CEO

Bill Ptacek, former head of the Calgary Public Library, Alta., Canada, died on October 15 of cancer, at age 69.

Bill Ptacek head shot
Bill Ptacek
Image courtesy of Calgary Public Library

Bill Ptacek, former head of the Calgary Public Library, Alta., Canada, died on October 15 of cancer, at age 69.

A Chicago South Side native, Ptacek began his career at the Chicago Public Library (where he met his wife, Margaret) in 1978. The following year he took a job at a library in Idaho Falls, IA, and then Louisville, KY. In 1988 he and Margaret moved to Seattle, where he served as director of the King County Library System (KCLS), WA, until 2014. Under his tenure, KCLS—named the busiest library system in the United States in 2010—was selected as LJ’s 2011 Library of the Year.

Julie Acteson, KCLS director of community relations and marketing, had fond memories of the 15 years she worked with Ptacek. “Not only was he a visionary, always pushing us to challenge our thinking, but he was a fun, thoughtful, and kind man,” she told LJ. “I'll always think of him coming in with his bicycle, as he would ride many miles through any sort of weather just to get to work.” In addition, she recalled, “He loved diet Cokes and Oreos.”

Ptacek became CEO of the 21-branch Calgary Public Library in 2014, stepping up to lead a number of initiatives that made it the second largest library system in Canada and the sixth largest municipal system in North America. These included a full rebranding, a new catalog and website, free library cards for all, the growth of the library’s foundation, a focus on safety, and a system-wide collection refresh and redesign—all in spite of recent budget cuts. He oversaw construction of 12 early learning centres across the city and two new locations, as well as the flagship New Central Library, opened in 2018.

The 240,000 square foot Central Library, designed by Snøhetta and Canada-based DIALOG, won instant acclaim. In addition to taking one of six 2019 AIA/ALA Building Awards, the building was celebrated in LJ’s 2018 Year in Architecture and 2017 Library Design roundups, and featured in the New York Times’ “52 Places to Go in 2019.” Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi deemed it “a new icon for the city.”

Janet Hutchinson, the former Calgary Public Library chair who led the selection committee that hired him, remembered that he was not even on the library’s radar at first. When Ptacek expressed interest in the job, she recalled, the recruiter—who had hoped for an up-and-coming leader, rather than one of the top directors in the country—was “blown away.”

Although Ptacek’s initial Skype interview was plagued with technical glitches, “When we hung up, it was unanimous—he was who we wanted,” she told LJ. “When he came for a second interview, he had the cabby take him to several of our libraries—and then he came and told us what we needed in order to achieve our vision. It took a few more months (we had a flood to contend with—and [Ptacek had] immigration processes to go through), but in the end, he arrived in Calgary in February 2014, during one of our brutal cold spells. Which he said was ‘refreshing.’”

During his time at Calgary Ptacek “re-imagined our libraries into what they are today,” said Hutchinson, nearly tripling patron registrations and hiring a raft of enthusiastic and talented new staff members. “Bill's enthusiasm for new and different approaches to creating welcome environments in the library netted us a firetruck in our old central branch,” she said, “and a helicopter in our newest one. Bill was like a little kid when these ideas came to fruition.”

Bill Ptacek in front of fire truck
Bill Ptacek
Image courtesy of Calgary Public Library

Ptacek was named the 2018 Calgary Citizen of the Year, and the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) presented him with the 2019 ULC Executive Board Award in recognition of his outstanding leadership. “Bill was a leader among leaders,” ULC president and CEO Susan Benton told LJ. “His commitment to libraries and the people we serve was palpable. He challenged the status quo. Bill was a tireless innovator and his enthusiasm for the work we do will long be remembered and treasured.”

He formally stepped down from his role in 2019, and was succeeded by Mark Asberg in September.

 

REMEMBERING PTACEK

“Bill was a visionary who came to Calgary to bring the new Central Library to life but left his mark in ways we are still counting. He played a pivotal role in re-imagining how Calgarians connect and use libraries and he will be deeply missed,” a statement on the library’s website read. “We will remember Bill for the incredible energy and vigor he brought into libraries by creating spaces that are lively, spark discussion, and are welcoming community hubs. But mostly, we will miss his infectious personality and his ability to inspire greatness in all of us.”

"He was passionately committed to the eternal values of public libraries and possessed a unique and special ability to make those values meaningful and important to 21st-century users, funders, stakeholders and partners," said Ellen Humphrey, recently retired president and CEO of the Calgary Public Library Foundation and the library's former deputy CEO and interim CEO. "At Calgary Public Library, he was a breath of fresh air in every possible way."

That personal warmth is constant in recollections of Ptacek. He revitalized the library, said Hutchinson, “But it is his qualities as a person that I enjoyed the most. When we travelled anywhere, Bill insisted on taking public transit from the airport. And it was great to watch him engage with riders along the way. He was like a Pied Piper on these trips—he gathered up any and all who were interested, and off we would go to a novel restaurant or bar.”

During the annual Alberta Library Conference Ptacek would host a Friday night party, she recalled, where Ptacek would make a lamb roast, his wife Margaret would provide pies and ice cream, and anyone who wanted to could stop by. “And he was always enthusiastic about wine and coffee. It seemed like two or three times a year, he would have discovered a new coffee roaster that ‘You absolutely HAVE to try, Janet,’ or a new red wine, or a new butcher.”

"One of my favorite memories of Bill is from our trip to ALA in Chicago in 2017,” said Sarah Meilleur, Calgary Public Library director of service delivery. “Chicago was Bill’s hometown, the city where his career in libraries began, and the city where he met the love of his life, Margaret.”

Not only did they spend time in the conference itself, where everyone they met wanted to talk to Ptacek, but there were also “many Uber trips across the city to find the grittiest (and best!) blues bars. Each night brought a new adventure, until finally we found an Uber driver who flat out refused to take us to the place Bill suggested. Seems that some places Bill used to hang out just weren’t places tourists should be in 2017.” Their odyssey wound up with a rambling walk to the Billy Goat Tavern, during which Ptacek told Meilleur, “If we stick together, we probably won’t get mugged.”

“Bill was an early mentor and friend to me when I was a new editor at LJ—generous with his time and his insights into the field over the years,” said Library Journal editorial director Rebecca T. Miller. “His creativity and his passion for the potential of libraries will be missed.”

“It was hard to watch him have to leave a job he was passionate about,” Hutchinson added, “and I'm sure, had he had his way, would have continued doing much longer.”

“Bill’s vision, spark, and passion transformed Calgary Public Library,” Meilleur told LJ. “We will continue to honor his legacy by building the best library system, and making sure to enjoy every minute of it along the way.”  

Ptacek is survived by his wife and three daughters. The library plans to celebrate his legacy at a later date.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor, News for Library Journal.

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