Taking the Helm at Urban Libraries Council: Q&A with Brooks Rainwater

Brooks Rainwater recently stepped into his new role as president and CEO of Urban Libraries Council (ULC). LJ caught up with him as he settled in at ULC to find out more about his move to libraries from a career in public policy.

Brooks Rainwater photoBrooks Rainwater recently stepped into his new role as president and CEO of Urban Libraries Council (ULC). Rainwater has an extensive background in public policy, coming to ULC from a position as senior executive and director for the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities (NLC), a Washington, DC–based advocacy organization that provides support to city leaders across the country. At NLC, he led a team of experts in urban policy, overseeing technical assistance efforts and leadership education. LJ caught up with him as he settled in at ULC to find out more about his move to libraries.

LJ: What did your work at NLC involve?

Brooks Rainwater: I ran their research, best practices, leadership, education, and technical assistance division within the organization. I had a team of about 30 policy experts across a wide range of issue areas. We did everything—housing and community development, infrastructure and transportation, economic development in public finance, urban innovation, entrepreneurship, as well as local democracy and some international engagement. Rounding that all out, we did leadership education, ongoing training for city council members and mayors throughout the year, as well as at annual conferences.

The work was shaping the national message around city policy, thinking about the macro-level impactors happening within cities. There were annual research reports, whether on city finances or looking at mayoral state of the city speeches. There was a forecasting initiative called City of the Future, looking at the future of work, retail, the environment, and many other issues. And finally, the bread and butter of the organization was best practice and toolkit work, to provide mayors and council members with resources that they could use to do their work better.

Throughout all of that, we were thinking, how can we shape the national conversation on cities? How can we work with city leaders to help them do their jobs better? Whether it was the best practice work, [or] technical assistance funded by philanthropy, [the goal was] to get resources into community members’ hands to help make cities better. We grew the center from a team of eight when I started nine years ago to 30 by the time I left, upped the budget, built a lot of partnerships, and ultimately tried to make an impact in cities. It’s been a through line throughout my work that I want to be able to create impact and make a difference.

What attracted you to the position at ULC?

I had done a lot of work around innovation districts, economic anchors and cultural institutions, and I see libraries sitting directly in that space. That was the policy work that I did that intersected directly with libraries.

ULC has a long history of being an innovation action tank on behalf of libraries—doing the on-the-ground work together with library directors to push forward and think about the next things that we’re going to see in the library sphere, how that intersects with cities and counties, ways that we’re able to convene leaders within the library space to come up with new and better ways of approaching the work. Also the strong stance on anti-racism and racial equity. I focused within the work that I did at the National League of Cities on racial equity, both in the research that we did, as well as leading the implementation of NLC’s strategic plan on racial equity and anti-racism. To me, the fact that that’s such a core piece of the work that ULC does was really a draw and attractor.

What will you be bringing with you from your work at NLC?

A lot of partnership development, building out large-scale programs on entrepreneurship and innovation. We worked with the Kauffman Foundation at NLC to build out a project called Commitment to Action that we did with about 80 mayors in a given year, thinking about ways you could build out entrepreneurial ecosystems within those cities, bringing together local philanthropy, libraries, other place-based institutions that would be core to that work. When I think about that work of bringing together partners in order to make a larger impact, that’s what I want to be able to do at ULC. I want to take the great work that’s happened here over the last 50 years and accelerate it.

What are your plans to get up to speed?

We have 164 [ULC] members, so within my first six months I plan to speak to every one of them. I’m going to get out there and meet people at their libraries, have the chance to see what’s happening on the ground.

One of the pieces of work that I’ve done at NLC over the last year was something called On the Frontlines, which was looking at the challenges mayors, council members, school board members—as well as public health officials—were facing. Coming to ULC and seeing that very similar things are happening with librarians, I want to draw on that knowledge I have from there to figure out effective ways that we can counter some of those challenges. I have a lot of things that I plan to do in the next six months, but first and foremost it’s getting to know the members, and really making sure I’m taking the pulse of what library directors and CEOs are thinking.

How do you feel ULC is positioned to dig into those challenges?

I think ULC has already done the work of forming an action team to talk about democracy and many of these challenges. The team has been meeting over the last six or eight months. That gives us a basis for some of those conversations. Having worked on [challenges to democracy] in the past, it’s something that I’m passionate about myself. But really, it’s fundamental to what libraries are. They’re places of knowledge that want to share all of that knowledge, not have it diminished by those who would fear books. We need to have an active stance on being supportive of democracy.

Are you planning to bring in partners from your time at NLC?

Absolutely. I plan to reach out to many of the partners I’ve worked with and see if there’s opportunities to bring them into this sphere, and reach out to other partners. it’s always good to look within the space that you’re in, but to also figure out some of those adjacent partners that are out there actively trying to do the work, thinking about how you can build those partnerships.

Philanthropy is key to the work that I’ve done throughout my career, being able to build those partnerships and find philanthropy to support the work you do. you want to make sure that any philanthropy that you partner with is not just writing the check, but is there alongside you as you do the work. And I’ve been able to work with some core philanthropies over the year that have been critical to the work I’ve done within entrepreneurship, innovation, housing, economic development, and democracy. Being able to have that kind of partner at the table with you, bringing the dollars to help support the core work that you want to do, as well as your constituents is just critical. Being able to explore that type of work would be important for the future of ULC.

What would you like to see happen at ULC during your time there?

It really centers on this idea of libraries as the centers of our community. Ultimately, I would like to be out there helping to drive the narrative for the value that libraries bring to cities and counties throughout North America. there’s a lot of intersecting pieces from a fundraising perspective and partnership perspective that will help support that work over time. being able to drive a coherent narrative of the immense value that libraries bring to communities is what I want to do.

ULC is observing its 50th anniversary—are there any plans to celebrate in the works?

That’s what I am starting to do right now, to dig into that and figure out exactly what the 50th anniversary is going to look like. We have plans to hold it here in DC in November, and we should have news on that very soon.

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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