View from the Top: Susan Hildreth’s insight on collective impact | Editorial

When President Barack Obama appointed Susan H. Hildreth as director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in 2011, many in the profession knew we were in for a robust four years of activity by that federal agency. Hildreth had already been influencing the library landscape for years in major leadership roles, including time heading major public libraries (San Francisco and Seattle) and the California State Library.

Rebecca T. MillerWhen President Barack Obama appointed Susan H. Hildreth as director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in 2011, many in the profession knew we were in for a robust four years of activity by that federal agency. Hildreth had already been influencing the library landscape for years in major leadership roles, including time heading major public libraries (San Francisco and Seattle) and the California State Library.

Now, as Hildreth prepares to exit her role at IMLS when her four-year term comes to an end this winter, she spent time talking with me and senior editor Meredith Schwartz about what she has accomplished while at the agency (see the Q&A, “Collective Impact”). Expressive, smart, and on point, Hildreth voices a holistic view of what libraries and museums can and do deliver for our society. She provides insight into the vast impact of these institutions and the political work required to make them top of mind with stakeholders.

ljx141002webeditorialHildrethCV1In four years, Hildreth has overseen grant programs and initiatives that have resulted in $857,241,000 in financial support for libraries and museums, according to the IMLS. In the library sphere, just like library services themselves, the initiatives involved span lifelong needs: from the first years, working with Campaign for Grade-Level Learning and the BUILD Initiative on early learning, to ongoing issues adults face, partnering with the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services to support workforce development and the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, respectively. Along the way, she has kept her sights on skill development for those who work in these institutions, and so much more.

Her savvy approach to Washington—connecting the agency to the Obama administration’s goals around STEM and the Maker movement, for one—exemplifies what can happen when a leader understands how to expand influence by bringing solutions at the right time and in the right place.

The last time she graced LJ’s cover was in her capacity as the head of the San Francisco Public Library in 2001 (“SFPL Faces a Host of Challenges,” LJ 6/1/2001, p. 60–62). Even back then it was clear that we had a cool and collected powerhouse among us, as she navigated a tumultuous political environment. That was its own accomplishment, and, Hildreth noted in our interview, it proved to be a valuable training ground.

Later, as the state librarian of California, her thoughtful approach to the complexity of library services across the spectrum was clear, as was an emphasis on building capacity. Notably, the state library supported the re-visioning of the organization that is now the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL). During our conversation Hildreth recalled how, after failing to get IMLS funding for the project, the state library put staffer Carla Lehn on it anyway, despite it being a project that reached well beyond state borders. This move led to a planning meeting in Clarion, PA, in 2007 that remapped the future of the association and initiated Lehn’s role as convener of ARSL, which she held until this very fall. I was very lucky to take part in that visioning meeting due to my work on the Best Small Library in America Award, and have no doubt of the positive impact of that particular decision. In short, it was work that needed doing, and Hildreth and her team saw a way forward and committed themselves to it.

Such initiative and follow through made her effective in California, and it has made her time in Washington rich for all of us. Hildreth’s view of the vast network of initiatives can help us all see just how meaningful our work is, and, indeed, can yet become. I am most inspired by her articulation of what she refers to as collective impact—what we can accomplish when we partner effectively with others to address society’s needs. As we continue to get better and better at understanding connections, knitting our work together, and communicating what we have done, our collective impact will be impossible to miss.

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