Susan Hildreth on Life After IMLS

On January 15, 2015, Susan H. Hildreth completed her four-year term as director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Under her leadership, IMLS provided nearly $1 billion in support to libraries and museums, with a strong emphasis on early learning, STEM-related projects, and connectivity in libraries across the country. Prior to her tenure at IMLS, Hildreth served as Seattle City Librarian, California State Librarian, and San Francisco City Librarian. On March 1, she will return to California, her “adopted home state,” to serve as executive director of three linked organizations: the Peninsula Library System, a consortium of public and community college libraries in San Mateo; the Pacific Library Partnership, a California Library Services Act system; and Califa, a nonprofit membership cooperative that provides services and programs to libraries throughout California.
ljx141002webHildtreth2bOn January 15, 2015, Susan H. Hildreth completed her four-year term as director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Under her leadership, IMLS provided nearly $1 billion in support to libraries and museums, with a strong emphasis on early learning, STEM-related projects, and connectivity in libraries across the country. Prior to her tenure at IMLS, Hildreth served as Seattle City Librarian, California State Librarian, and San Francisco City Librarian. On March 1, she will return to California, her “adopted home state,” to serve as executive director of three linked organizations: the Peninsula Library System, a consortium of public and community college libraries in San Mateo; the Pacific Library Partnership, a California Library Services Act system; and Califa, a nonprofit membership cooperative that provides services and programs to libraries throughout California. LJ caught up with Hildreth shortly before she departed Washington for the West Coast, and she shared her reflections on four years at IMLS and her plans for the future. LJ: When you spoke with LJ in October about your time at IMLS, it was still a work in progress. Now that it’s finished and you’re moving on, do you have any additional insights? SH: I’m proud of everything we’ve been able to accomplish. I think the agency’s in a good position to move forward, and I’m looking forward to the president’s announcement of the ’16 budget, which will occur in early February. It’s sad to have to step away, particularly as in the last few years of the president’s service I think a lot of great things can be accomplished—and I know that will happen. But I’m looking forward to new challenges. You mentioned initiatives that could be used in many different settings, at the federal, state, and local level. Which do you plan to bring along to your new roles? We’ve done a lot with early education and libraries. I’m still committed to that work, and continuing in some capacity to make those connections between libraries and early learning—particularly, since I’m going back to California, identifying the early learning networks at the state and maybe regional level, and trying to ensure that they have good connections with their libraries. Early learning is a space where libraries can shine. I’m also a fan of the whole Maker space movement. I think it’s a really good way for kids and families to be able to create together, and Maker spaces are being used to do preliminary planning on 21st-century manufacturing, where you don’t have to retool a whole shop to make a new product. So I think it’s a great way to introduce our young people, and also their parents, to the concept of creating and making things. We also have a great opportunity with some of the work that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has done with modernizing the E-rate program. IMLS has been able to support that work, and the FCC has relied on some of the data we collect, how we organize and identify libraries, to help support their work on that order of increased funding. I want to try to continue to support that. Libraries have a great chance to take advantage of the E-rate, and I want to make sure that all the libraries I’m working with are able to do that. Which of the strong partnerships you developed during your time at IMLS do you hope to continue working with in California? One partnership I look forward to continuing is with an organization called the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (CGLR). It’s a national effort to shine a light on the challenge of reading skills for young people, particularly low-income, at-risk youth. It focuses on reaching that benchmark ability to read effectively by third grade—it’s such an indicator for success in the school system. IMLS and the CGLR partnered to publish a really good framework to show how libraries and museums are [well-positioned] in the early learning space, called “Growing Young Minds.” Some of the key factors in the campaign are focused on successful early learning experiences, as well as making sure that kids have great learning activities in the summer so they don’t have that slide in capacity. The campaign has cities and counties all across the country that are participating, and I think their work is really important. I want to try to support that as much as I can. I was one of the individuals on the task force that helped craft the Aspen Institute report on libraries, funded by the Gates Foundation, Rising to the Challenge. I’m going to continue working with the Aspen Institute, as well as some other members of the task force. What we’re doing now is looking at the possibility of some states using it as a framework for a discussion about the future of their libraries. There are a lot of different places where you can go into that document and start a discussion about important issues for libraries, and I’m going to continue to work with the Aspen folks on that. The MacArthur Foundation really is focused on the concept of connected learning, which is well represented in the work that IMLS and MacArthur did in the digital media learning labs that we created across country over the last several years—there are 24 of them. The funding for creating those labs is no longer available, but we have supported a community of practice for participants in the labs, and we’re going to open that up to other interested parties fairly soon. Education is really changing. It’s a much more interest-driven approach, as opposed to “this is the curriculum that you have to do.” I think connected learning is figuring out what kids are interested in and taking advantage of that interest to help them build skills. You’ve spoken of how your time in the public library system made you a more effective communicator when you got to Washington. Now that you're back on the other side, what do you feel you'll be bringing from DC? When you work at the local level, you get a very clear insight into what drives your local scene, wherever it is, and the same thing happens at the state level. For me, I have a much better understanding of how the federal government works in terms of policy development, funding, and priority, and although it has been with one administration, I think my general knowledge is going to be very transferable. I think I have a better understanding of the federal ecosystem for libraries and other topics as well, so I can utilize that and it will help me when I think about things and strategize how to move forward. As a political appointment, for at least two years I’m not able to officially lobby in any way on behalf of IMLS or to IMLS. I can use my knowledge behind the scenes, or advising others, but I have specific restrictions and limitations as to how I can use that knowledge for the next couple of years. You’ll be taking over management of the Peninsula Library System (PLS), the Pacific Library Partnership (PLP), and Califa. Can you explain how they all work together? In the late ’70s a number of public library resource sharing systems were established in California. There were about 15 or 16, and one of them was the PLS, made up of all the public libraries—and they extended their membership to some non-public libraries—in San Mateo County. At this point the PLS is organized primarily to support a shared ILS for all the libraries in San Mateo County. I’m going to assume the role of executive director of the PLS. The second organization that I’m going to be serving as the director of is the PLP. About eight to ten years ago, for a variety of reasons, it was challenging to sustain so many different [public library] systems and they began consolidating. So the PLP is a consolidation of a number of the former California Library Services Act systems, one of them being PLS. The PLS is its own system for the purposes of working with those libraries in San Mateo County, but PLS is also part of the PLP. Califa is a 501(c)(3) membership organization of libraries. Califa primarily works through negotiating vendor contracts for libraries in California, but it also provides other kinds of services and activities. It’s interesting because for many years, California tried to develop a framework for library multi-type resource sharing. And for lots of reasons it never was successful, but one of the key goals of that work on resource sharing was to try to create some kind of aggregated or consortial buying for libraries in California. Even though this multi-type effort wasn’t successful, the approach and the business plan of Califa came out of that work that never got funded, didn’t get traction—it was bounced around different administrations. Califa is much more than a buying consortium, but that’s probably the easiest way to describe it. Do you have any specific plans for your directorship? These organizations are working well and they’re very successful, and I want to make sure that we continue that success, make sure we’re meeting the needs of the members of Califa, and are good stewards of the state resources these organizations receive, particularly PLP. These three organizations have been led by Linda Crowe for many years, and she has decided to retire. She’s left a very important and impactful legacy, and I want to try to honor that and continue that. What can we expect from your interim successor at IMLS, Maura Marx [an LJ 2006 Mover & Shaker]? Maura is very intelligent, driven in a very good way, and I think she will keep steering IMLS on a steady course during her term as acting director. She is very dedicated to advancing the work of a national digital platform. Maura came to IMLS having been the project director at the Digital Public Library of America. She believes, as I do, that in order to provide equitable access to information for all our communities we really have to find a much more cost-effective and convenient way to provide and build on all the digital collections around the country, connect those, and make sure it’s easy to access them. I know that’s a big priority for Maura, and I’m sure she can speak to that more eloquently than I can. But I think that will be something that she’ll work on, and possibly one of her key priorities. Is there anything else you’d like to add? It’s really been an honor to be able to serve the library community in this capacity at the federal level. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. And I’m very excited to think I’m going to be able to continue to leverage some of that knowledge and relationships in helping libraries nationally, but particularly in what I think of as my adopted home state of California—I’m not from California, but I’ve spent a great deal of my professional life there. I think we’ll be able to do many exciting things there that hopefully we can share with many libraries around the nation.

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