Luis Herrera: LJ's 2012 Librarian of the Year

“We know Luis Herrera will win this award someday because he is a fabulous leader,” wrote Catherine Bremer, the chief steward of the Librarians Guild of the Service Employees International Union, Local 1021, about the city librarian who directs the San Francisco Public Library. That support was echoed by many others, from the very recently reelected mayor of San Francisco, Edwin Lee, to members of the city’s Board of Supervisors, citizens who represent library branches, and the chiefs of other city departments. Such broad consensus made Herrera the clear choice for the 2012 LJ Librarian of the Year, selected by the editors of LJ.

“We know Luis Herrera will win this award someday because he is a fabulous leader,” wrote Catherine Bremer, the chief steward of the Librarians Guild of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 1021, about the city librarian who directs the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL). That support was echoed by many others, from the very recently reelected mayor of San Francisco, Edwin Lee, to members of the city’s Board of Supervisors, citizens who represent library branches, and the chiefs of other city departments. Such broad consensus made Herrera the clear choice for the 2012 LJ Librarian of the Year, selected by the editors of LJ.

The fiscal foundation

Herrera took over in 2005, five years after the 2000 bond issue for the Branch Library Improvement Program (BLIP), the largest capital program in SFPL history, had been approved by voters. The BLIP program had stalled.

“We put together a team, got a new deputy and branch head, and put a system in place to build a better relationship with the folks at the Department of Public Works (DPW) who were getting the program started,” Herrera recalls. There was a huge and growing gap, $35 million–$40 million, because of cost escalation and other issues. “We were running out of money.”

Herrera took a bold step and went back to the voters. He asked them to extend for another 15 years a property tax set aside that was going to expire in 2009. In the same charter change, voters approved SFPL’s authority to issue revenue bonds to help get the buildings done.

“The measure passed. In fact, 75 percent of the voters were for it,” says Herrera. “There was tremendous cooperation with the mayor’s office. We all came up with creative solutions.” Now, 22 of the 24 branch projects covered by the BLIP have been completed.

“Luis inherited a capital program that was severely behind in its goals and turned it into a model public works program that has rallied the community. The projects are on time, within budget, and have won numerous awards,” says Donna Bero, executive director of the Friends of SFPL, an organization that contributed $4.1 million to SFPL in 2011.

A citywide renaissance

“I call it a library renaissance. It will be a $200 million effort when it is finished, and it gives us authority to use revenue bonds if we need more for other buildings or to fix up the main library,” says Herrera.

“Luis’s leadership has been instrumental in achieving such an intense schedule. He is intimately familiar with all aspects of each project, from budgets to designs to public art selection to environmental features,” writes Mohammed Nuru, interim director of public works, and Edward Reiskin, director of transportation and former director of public works. “He meets weekly with the BLIP project team and monthly with DPW management. His team-building skills and steady positive attitude in dealing with challenges and unforeseen circumstance have greatly helped every member of the project team stay focused, motivated, and appreciated.” That collaborative spirit and team building are indicative of Herrera’s tenure.

The buildings, themselves, are notable. The American Public Works Association (APWA) acknowledged the renovation of SFPL’s Bernal Branch with a national historic Preservation Award. That branch and the one in Eureka Valley were also recognized by the Northern California APWA.

“San Francisco’s new libraries are also models of sustainability and diversity, using green construction practices, providing open access to all users; ensuring the collections reflect the languages mixture of our citizenry; and, as Luis often says, embracing and enriching the cultural narrative of this city,” writes Mayor Lee.

The mayor’s praise echoes the 2011 Alice B. Toklas Democratic Society’s “Partner in Public Service” award for service to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.

The extension of the SFPL set aside of city tax revenues has meant fiscal stability for the library in a difficult period. Library hours increased for three years until 2010. The main library and half of the branches are open seven days a week, and the goal is to have that schedule at every library. All the others are open six days a week.

Sharing management

One of the most compelling aspects of Herrera’s leadership is his understanding of teams and his willingness to work on them with SFPL workers. “Luis Herrera is a director who understands that the workers (the union) and the library are both dedicated to our mission of ‘free and equal access to information, independent learning, and the joys of reading for our diverse community,’ ” says the union’s Bremer. “Knowing that we are not working at cross purposes makes it possible to work out solutions to everybody’s satisfaction.” Such a strong endorsement of a director from a union leader is rare in urban library circles.

Herrera has set up monthly meetings between the management team and SEIU local leadership. Both sides bring issues to the agenda, and during the six years of Herrera’s tenure they have solved some dicey problems. For example, they set up temporary staffing during the closing of branches for the BLIP renovations, and civil service testing was revised to reflect better the “real work” of library workers. “[Herrera] welcomes input from all...and he listens!” says Bremer.

Consistent communication is all important. “I work hard to earn union backing. After all, that is in the best interests of our public. We sometimes disagree, but we work in out,” says Herrera. “We develop the agenda for our regular meetings together. One time, no one came up with anything for the agenda, so I asked if we needed to meet. The response was an emphatic, ‘Yes, we always need to talk!’ I agreed. It is all about communicating.”

With success in mind

That inclusive touch extends to the future as well. For instance, Herrera created GenPL, an SFPL program to engage the city’s “Next Generation of Public Library Leaders.” The program’s fourth cohort has just started. The goal is to create SFPL’s future leaders from among its staff. This internal leadership development and succession planning effort draws from all levels of the SFPL workforce, from custodians to librarians. It provides access to upper management, engages staff in team efforts to find solutions to SFPL’s toughest challenges, and gives workers at all levels new skills to allow them to navigate the organization.

GenPL has improved internal communication among divisions and created a new network among participants. According to Herrera and deputy city librarian Jill Bourne, who nominated Herrera for LJ’s annual award, it has already produced some good leaders and developed “a kind of cultural engagement with staff at all levels who feel they can contribute to library progress.” Many participants have been promoted and nearly all have been involved in taking on “really tough projects.”

One group was assigned to improve collection management, often spread throughout the divisions of urban libraries where it gets mired in process. In some 18 months the SFPL team restructured collection management and moved it into technical services.

Another GenPL team changed SFPL’s mobile outreach. Bookmobiles in the children’s division, the main library, and the branches were consolidated into one unit.

“The GenPL teams look at a problem from the viewpoint of the user. They change the way we do business, and in the end they own the change,” says Herrera. The Urban Libraries Council agreed, honoring SFPL with a Top Innovator award for the program. In a National League of Cities Award to San Francisco’s Human Resources Department, the GenL program at SFPL was singled out.

“Luis’s management style is tremendously participatory. It is all about team building. He really focuses on empowering people, building confidence, and then trusting their input,” says Bourne, herself an LJ Mover & Shaker. “Some of the projects were things a manager could have come in and forced, but there is power in having them come from a staff team. When it comes from the staff, people feel they are able to make changes.”

Building partnerships

In his first conversations with staff at SFPL’s main library in 2005, Herrera heard how they felt “a little under siege” owing to the huge number of library visitors who had both mental health and shelter issues.

“We didn’t have the skills to deal with them. We’re not social workers,” says Herrera. He opened discussions and created an opportunity to work with the Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Police Department to deal with the problems.

SFPL hired social worker Leah Esguerra, paid in part by the DPH, who is at the library to help people who may need referrals to appropriate agencies or other kinds of assistance. The program has proved successful. Esguerra has the skills and sensitivity to work with people without invading their privacy or bothering those who don’t want help.

“It is not about the homeless; it is really about anyone who may need some housing or mental health referrals,” says Herrera. In any quarter, Esguerra aids some 250–300 people, finding permanent housing for many. (For more on this initiative, see Stephen M. Lilienthal’s feature article, “The Problem Is Not the Homeless,” LJ 6/15/11, p. 30.)

In another instance of cross-department creativity, Herrera asked the Police Department if SFPL could “borrow” a sergeant to train and oversee SFPL security personnel when the library’s head of security position was vacant. The person they hired is still in the job. SFPL pays the salary, and the sergeant provides training. All three departments—police, public health, and SFPL—worked together to create the SFPL public safety plan.

“We also have partnerships with the city Department of Environment, the Parks Department, and the schools,” adds Bourne. She says Herrera’s willingness to partner is unique and points to SFPL’s Wallace Stegner Center in the main library. It has collaborated with the Department of the Environment to split the salary for the environmental librarian to make that job full time. Her programs, like one on urban gardening, are gaining in popularity.

Models and mentors

Herrera earned his MLS in the Graduate Library Institute for Spanish-Speaking Americans created and run by the renowned professor Arnulfo Trejo at what is now called the School of Information Resources & Library Science at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Trejo also founded REFORMA (the National Association To Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking). “Trejo never gave up. He fought the good fight, and my first training ground was in REFORMA,” says Herrera.

During his time in Tucson, Herrera roomed with Martín Gómez, who now directs the Los Angeles Public Library.

Through those connections he met other mentors, like Elizabeth Martinez, former Los Angeles City Librarian and past executive director of the American Library Association (ALA), now director of the public libraries of Salinas, CA.

Cordelia Howard at California’s Long Beach Public Library gave Herrera what he calls his “first break,” making him branch head there. He remembers mentoring from former New Jersey librarian, Rutgers professor, and past ALA president Betty Turock and three other ALA past presidents. E.J. Josey gave Herrera the opportunity to work on his Equity at Issue ALA Task Force. Patricia Schuman (Neal-Schuman Publishers) has been a regular mentor, along with Brooke Sheldon, former dean of LIS programs at Texas Woman’s University and the University of Arizona.

“I really admire Susan Hildreth, my predecessor at SFPL,” Herrera says. He credits Hildreth, now the director of the national Institute of Museum and Library Services, with getting SFPL started on the path to all the progress he has made.

“I have a great team. My mentors all said, ‘Surround yourself with good people,’ and I did,” says Herrera.

Such humility and kindness is key to Herrera’s success in San Francisco and to winning this award. In short, he got voters to extend SFPL support for 15 years. He employed his participatory management style to create a rare alliance between management and union. He invoked an ability to build strong and effective partnerships with other city departments, while his unusual brand of courage let staff teams make major management and organizational changes and decisions. Herrera is LJ’s 2012 Librarian of the Year because of his joyous spirit and infectious optimism about libraries and his willingness to communicate that optimism to all those involved, especially the citizens of San Francisco. n

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Ray W. Hartz, Jr.

It is difficult to play the part of "Devils Advocate." This is particularly true when you attend meetings of the Library Commission on a regular basis and see the audience made up of Library Staff, interested parties and a very few members of the "Public." When most in the audience have a vested interest in the decisions being made, it is difficult for them to be objective. When you have nothing to gain, it is sometimes possible to hear the lines and also read between them. While Mr. Herrera, at least from appearances, has been a good steward of the San Francisco Public Library, he has minimized and marginalized the "Public" in the SFPL to whatever extent possible. This is evident in how few members of the "public" bother to attend. It is too easy to dismiss that fact by saying "things must be going well" or people would show up. That simply places the burden of oversight on the few that do attend and are willing to "take the heat," as are two previous commentors, Mr. James Chaffee and Mr. Peter Warfield. I have filed several complaints with the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, the local open government ajudicatory body, regarding the censorship of persons public comment and the withholding of public records. I have had several findings of Sunshine violations against both the Library Commission and the City Librarian, Luis Herrera. When you attend the meetings on a regular basis, you start to see a pattern of accepting much of what is presented without question. Those of the public that do raise questions, are not refuted on the substance of their comments, but, are challenged on their style, or worse, their character. When a member of the public attempts to see public records to verify what is presented, both the Library Commission and the City Librarian, Mr. Herrera, fight to withhold those public records. It is most important to note that any attempt to get a "dissenting opinion" into the minutes of the meetings is prevented. What makes it into the minutes, the official record of the meetings, is the Commission Secretary's interpretation of what was said, watered down until meaningless. That cannot be done without the imprimatur of both the Library Commission and the City Librarian. It is my position that any member of the public has a right to attend, participate in, comment upon (having those comments fairly represented in the record), any meeting related to the San Francisco Public Library. I only wish that the record showed any degree of openess to that concept. As Voltaire said: "I may not agree with what a man says, but, I will defend to the death his right to say it."

Posted : Feb 03, 2012 02:22

Robyn Huff-Eibl

Congratulations! Excellent selection and well deserved.

Posted : Jan 20, 2012 03:09

Peter Warfield

Draft Comments for Library Journal This is a sad story that sounds more like Chamber of Commerce fluff, rather than an appreciation based on independent journalistic review -- and above all, service to the public. It appears that library users and the library establishment live in two different worlds, and Library Journal didn’t even bother to pick up the phone and talk to independent patrons and critics of SFPL. Book de- emphasis, corporatization and disdain for the public appear to be in the ascendancy, and Library Journal appears to have signed onto the program. First, all of the people quoted in the article have financial or political relationships with the awardee, e.g. union, mayor, etc. Those sources are fine as far as it goes -- but it's not good that no independent voices or patrons were included, such as James Chaffee, Library Users Association, homeless advocacy groups, and the like. Second, the article does not analyze standard measures of library service to the public -- "output measures" such as book expenditures, number of books and books per capita, open hours, and the like. Does Library Journal no longer value any of these supposedly objective measures that help assess a library's success? Luis Herrera's priorities have not favored these important public services. For example, early last year (2011) Herrera presented a FY 2011-2012 budget to the Library Commission that cut funding for books by $500,000, or about 5% -- even as the overall library budget went up more than $2 million! And there was no increase in open hours, not a single minute anywhere in the system, nor had there been for several years. Yet Luis said and wrote that the library's top three priorities were books and materials, open hours, and technology. From his list, only technology got an increase. As Executive Director of Library Users Association, I am proud that it was our effort, along with that of others, that resulted in the rollback of book and material funding cuts, with a final vote from the Library Commission to zero out the cuts completely on February 17, 2011. Another example: When the city was flush with money, in the mid-2000s, we at Library Users Association urged more branches to be open on Sundays at a time when many had only five day service. Herrera actually resisted the Board of Supervisors when it wanted to give him extra money for more branches to be open on Sundays. That money would otherwise have been taken out of the library’s proposed budget. When the Supervisors allocated the money despite Herrera’s repeated opposition, he spent none of it for the entire year. Only when the Supervisors again allocated additional money in a second successive year, did the library finally add open days to branches. Now you give Herrera credit for the increase?! Herrera has presided over a GenPL program that management boasted included how to “win” meetings. He diminished reference service by reducing reference desks at new branches, combining them with circulation desks, and removing patron chairs. He provided a social worker -- good -- but also supported a Civic Center “community benefit district” whose chief function appears to be rousting the homeless and other “undesirables” through a privatized street patrol that has also interfered with free speech. Centralized book ordering may seem efficient, but it also can diminish branch librarian control that can customize materials selection for local populations and patrons. Herrera wanted the Procrustean solution of ending all mailing of paper notices, no matter what the patron preference; Library Users Association opposed this as potentially hurting some patrons, especially the poorest, and those with language difficulties -- and it was stopped. Herrera has presided over the destruction of landmark-worthy libraries, even as the Historic Preservation Commission considered whether they should be formally landmarked, and the new buildings have cost double and triple what the originally-planned renovations would have cost. Herrera has worked to allow the destruction of a branch library’s 30-year old community-created, multi-cultural mural featuring Victor Jara, Holly Near, and an unnamed African American singer, plus panels honoring working women and the history of the neighborhood -- to be replaced by what a library worker close to the creation of the original called a sanitized, gentrified design. How is that “embracing and enriching the cultural narrative of this city,” as the mayor is quoted as saying? And Herrera refused to provide Branch Library Improvement Program plans to a critic, one of multiple violations of open government laws for which San Francisco’s official “sunshine” watchdog group has cited him over several years. As for the $4 million the article says was donated by the Friends of SFPL -- check out the SFPL’s website, which is required by law to show annual contributions of $100 or more: the Friends have never given even $1 million, and their tax returns show that in many years they have given to the library less than 10% of their income. There is much more to be said, but for now we can only agree that Herrera has a great deal of charm, and skill, and many library workers like him better than his predecessors -- but we, and others, fundamentally disagree with some of the directions in which he is taking San Francisco's public library, and with the example that some of his programs may set for other libraries.

Posted : Jan 18, 2012 11:44


Thank you Peter for having the courage to write an objective comment (along with James Chaffee) regarding the awarding of Librarian of the Year to Luis. Your comments are right on the mark. It was a sad day when he was appointed director of SFPL.

Posted : Jan 18, 2012 11:44

Maureen Sullivan

Congratulations to one of the best leaders in our field. Luis is a model transformational leader who has gained the respect and trust of his staff, his Board, his colleagues in city government and the many people of San Francisco who are served by the City's libraries.

Posted : Jan 17, 2012 06:24

Karen Downing

Congratulations to Luis!! This is such a well deserved honor. I have known Luis almost since I started in the profession (in the early 1990s), and I have watched his career progress as I have grown up in the profession. What a wonderful role model and leader--he provides us with the perfect model of how to lead people and organizations with humility, humor, vision and kindness to achieve amazing things in the face of many obstacles. GO Luis!!!

Posted : Jan 14, 2012 05:54

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