Mid Continent Public Library’s Steven Potter on the Digital Shift, Partisanship, and Retirement

At the end of February Steven Potter, CEO and director of Mid Continent Public Library (MCPL), Kansas City, MO, announced his plans to retire after 34 years with the library—12 of them as director—effective June 30. LJ caught up with him shortly before the PLA Conference to talk about his tenure at MCPL and his plans on retirement (spoiler alert: nothing).

Steven Potter head shotAt the end of February Steven Potter, CEO and director of Mid Continent Public Library (MCPL), Kansas City, MO, announced his plans to retire after 34 years with the library—12 of them as director—effective June 30. Under his leadership, the 35-branch system launched the MyMCPL.org website in 2010; was awarded the Institute of Museum and Library Service (IMLS) National Medal for Museum and Library Service in 2014; helped pass Proposition L, which increased the library’s funding for the first time in more than three decades, in 2016; and launched its Capital Improvement Plan in 2018.

Potter currently serves on the Board of Directors for the EveryLibrary Institute, and is a member of the Missouri Library Association, Public Library Association (PLA), and American Library Association.

LJ caught up with him shortly before the PLA Conference to talk about his tenure at MCPL and his plans on retirement (spoiler alert: nothing).

LJ : It’s rare, these days, to hear of someone spending more than three decades at the same library. What kept you at MCPL?

Steven Potter: I never expected to come back. I worked here when I was finishing my undergrad degree, and that’s when I discovered that librarianship was a profession and something that I could do. I went away to library school, and I thought I was going to be working on the same career path—academia, working on a history PhD. I’d have this library degree as a fallback. As I was getting toward the end of my MLS, I was beginning to think about applying to small liberal arts colleges in New England, and this opportunity [at MCPL] arose. I told them when I took the job that I I’d be here five years or so, and then figure out where to go next.

Within a five-year period, that’s when the internet started coming to public libraries in a big way. I saw that there were opportunities to do data reference and things like that, which were interesting, and Mid Continent was looking to start moving in that direction. It seemed like every time I was ready for a new opportunity, someone retired or there was an opportunity for me here. So I didn’t have to look, even though I was constantly making myself ready to make that jump. I just never had to do it.

Did you ever consider picking up your academic career again, or taking a different path in librarianship?

Not after I’d been here for about 10 years or so. By that time I was working on the internet, and I wrote our library’s first website—actually wrote it on a text editor, because there were no HTML editors. The code was terrible. I took some classes so I could be more effective at running our web presence, and it was very clear to me: I’ve got to get more education. The question was, do I want to make myself all about metadata and running servers? Or do I want to do something else?

At that point I got my Master’s in Public Administration, because I felt that was better for me—I really didn’t want to be a computer scientist. I kept thinking that the MPA would put me in a position that, if I wanted to go work in city or county management, I could do that. If I wanted to work for a not-for-profit, I would have the skill set. What it ultimately did is it made me a more effective library director. Because in my library degree program, there was just the three-hour management course. And I’m running a $16 million organization with [at the time] 33 outlets, and an employee count of over 1,000 people—that’s a lot to run [on] a three-hour management course. So having that full Master’s of Public Administration really helped me broaden my horizons.

You did a very effective job transitioning the library to being a digital presence early on. How did you know that was the direction to move in?

I started playing around with the internet, online communications, bulletin boards, and things like that. The first computer that I personally owned was a Commodore 64, and it had a 300 baud modem, which was so slow—I had no idea how slow that was until I was doing a chat session with somebody, and they started telling me how slow my text was. I can type 60 words a minute, but they could actually see each letter coming up on the screen.

I could see that that’s where the future of communication was going. So I kept looking for opportunities when I was a young branch manager here. The management was still very traditional. The guiding principle that Mid Continent had was that we wanted to try to provide the same services at all of our locations. [But] in the 1970s and 1980s, you just couldn’t provide the exact same services at every location without [disadvantaging] certain locations, or building size would make a difference on the types of services that you could offer. As we began to be able to deliver things through the internet, we began to realize that you really could provide the same service at some of our rural libraries. The next director was a strong advocate against Sunday hours, and one thing he and I kept talking about was, a way that you could provide library service on Sundays without actually opening on Sundays was if we provide all the digital content 24/7.

[Libraries] were not terribly different from 1900 until about 1985, and then things really changed and they’ve never slowed down. Technology came and changed the paradigm, but it’s also that it made things constantly fluid, so there’s always new media. Our public became a lot more demanding: I want the information how I want it, when I want it, and where I want it. That was a really big shift in terms of the way libraries had to provide service.

What are you proudest of during your time at MCPL?

The team. The thing that is most important to understand is that it’s not about me. When I think back, by and large, it’s the big team that has helped us stay relevant. We talked about the idea that it wasn’t about us being in every community, but we had to be of every community. Now if I happen to pop into a chamber of commerce meeting, I’ll see two or three of our staff there. That’s not the way it used to be. So the thing I’m most proud of is the fact that I worked with a really good team that always kept our community first, and always tried to start engaging with the community so that people understood that the library was not a warehouse for books, not a book delivery system, but a place that builds stronger communities.

What are what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

It’s very challenging right now to work in a public library or a school library, with all the questions of content. Last summer, we had a little bit of an issue, but the library to the south of us had a huge issue. I was talking with the library director [about] all the details of the book challenges, and I immediately had this flashback from 1991, when I first became a library director. It was exactly the same. It moved a lot slower back in 1991, but: really angry parents obviously had never read the book, but were very upset about it and knew that it needed to be gone. [They] were convinced that we were doing the wrong thing with the children of the community. And, of course, as soon as this hit the news media It created such a huge demand that I couldn’t buy enough copies of the book to keep it on the shelf. The big difference is that everything’s so much faster now. That’s probably the most exhausting thing.

The generation of librarians that lived through COVID, particularly those in management, I’m going to be really interested to see what happens to them long-term. When we were coming to the end of the 2019–2020 fiscal year we were not sure what was going to happen in terms of the economy because of COVID. I kept telling my staff, this was the fifth economic downturn that I’ve been involved in, and I kind of know what to do with an economic downturn—but I’d never been involved in a global pandemic before. So, I’m still curious about how all of this is going to play out. In one way, it’s allowed libraries to get out of a rut and to realize that we had to do curbside delivery, we had to start doing virtual programming, because we had no choice. I think it’s going to force libraries to have to do what we did in 2019, but now also what we did in 2020 and 2021, because people know we can, and so they’re going to expect us to do both. That’s going to be challenging economically and in lots of other ways as well. I might be wrong, and maybe I’m being glass-half-full on this. But I’ve got to believe that the challenges ahead, no matter how challenging they’re going to be, are going to be somewhat easier because the managers and leadership went through COVID.

We did things here at Mid Continent that we’d never thought about doing, in terms of crisis communication and crisis management, which we had a plan for but we’d never actually done. So now the senior leadership team knows how to manage this stuff. Even if the senior leadership team’s not around, say, five years from now, there’s going to be a lot of middle managers and frontline managers who’ve been through that who’ll go, “Oh, yeah, I remember back then that that’s what Steve and [Assistant Director and COO] Susan [Wray] did.” I think that there was some learning that occurred industry-wide that is going to bear fruit in the future as new challenges arise, because people lived through this really hard time.

You’ve had some differences with your board lately. Was that a major part of your decision to step away?

I want to be really clear that there’s no one issue. There are lots of reasons, and it’s a cumulative effect. The thing that I’ll say, not specifically to my board but in general, is that local governments are becoming a lot more politicized, whether it’s city council, school boards, or in some cases library boards. Twenty years ago, when I first came on the library board, I remember one of my board members pulling a new board member aside and saying, “We aren’t Democrats or Republicans here, we’re about providing library service.” It’s very concerning to me that culturally we’ve gotten to a point where everything must be binary, everything must be red or blue, even at the level of the local sewer district. That is a change. I feel like things are more partisan than they’ve been. And I would apply that to my library board.

Some of that has to do with the appointing authorities. But I think it’s making things challenging, not just for library directors, but it’s also being reflected in school boards, ambulance districts, fire districts, all over. People just need to be paying closer attention. It’s not just about Washington, DC, or your state capital. You may want to be watching the people that are that are running—or wanting to run—your local government, and making sure that they have your best interests at heart. Because I don’t think they all do. I think some are doing it as a springboard for further politics, and they’re looking to go and fight. We don’t need people to fight. We need people to do. If your goal is to go to fight, then you tend to draw a line in the sand and you don’t look for compromise, and you don’t look for ways to meet at middle ground. And that’s what local government’s always got to be about.

The bottom line is, a lot of us are just tired. I felt like I just need to step away because I was just really worn out—it wasn’t fair to the world, it wasn’t fair to my community. They deserve a library director that can be on point, and can be reactive and reflect, the way I was five years ago.

What’s next for you?

Nothing. There’s a longtime Kansas City news anchor, and when Phil retired, I asked him the same thing: “What are you going to do?” And he said, “Nothing.” He said, “You are going to think that if you don’t accept people’s offers to do things, then they’ll forget about you, and then nobody will ever come and talk to you again. But that’s not true. If you say yes to everybody, then you’re going to be busier than when you were working. And if you’re going to do that, you may as well keep working, because the pay is better. So do nothing, do absolutely nothing, for six months. Say no to everybody.” He said, “On the seventh month, people are still going to show up, but they’re going to be the people you’re going to want to work with, and you’re going to be able to pick and choose. You’re going to be energized again.” And he said, “Sometimes your perspective changes, too. What you think you want to do the day after you retire is not what you actually want to do once you’ve had a chance to push that reset button.”

My initial plan is to do nothing. Catch up on reading. I’ve got a whole bunch of old digital stuff that I need to clean up, that sort of stuff that you push off to the side. My father-in-law has a big farm in northwest Missouri—I’m going to clean out file cabinets, and we’re going to put together a burn pile of all of those old documents that I needed to destroy but never did. Figure out how to get rid of old cans of paint in my house that I should have done years ago.

And then we’ll see what happens. This time two years from now, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find myself at PLA again, whether I’m working for a library or working as a consultant or something. But for the next six months, nothing.

Author Image
Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


RELATED 

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?

We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?