Crosby Kemper Prepares to End His Term as IMLS Director

In January 2020, Crosby Kemper III stepped into a four-year term as director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). At the time, one of the main concerns at IMLS was then-President Donald Trump’s repeated efforts to zero out the agency’s budget; less than two months later, libraries across the country would shut down for COVID-19 safety precautions, and, soon after they began to reopen, a surge of intellectual freedom challenges would escalate. Kemper’s term ends on March 8; LJ caught up with him to hear his take on the past four years and find out what’s next.

Crosby Kemper standing in front of American flagIn January 2020, Crosby Kemper III stepped into a four-year term as director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). At the time, Kemper had served as director of the Kansas City Public Library, MO, since 2005, and chair of the board of directors of the Washington, DC–based Schools, Health, & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) from January 2017 to July 2019.

LJ spoke with Kemper shortly after his confirmation by the Senate, as he prepared to take on the new role. At the time, one of the main concerns at IMLS was then-President Donald Trump’s repeated efforts to zero out the agency’s budget; less than two months later, libraries across the country would shut down for COVID-19 safety precautions, and, soon after they began to reopen, a surge of intellectual freedom challenges would escalate.

Kemper’s term ends on March 8; his successor, who will be chosen from the museum sector, has not yet been selected. Until that time, IMLS Deputy Director for Library Services Cyndee Landrum will serve as acting director. LJ caught up with Kemper to hear his take on the past four years and find out what’s next.

LJ : We’ve heard a lot of pandemic pivot stories about how public, academic, and school libraries needed to begin looking at their work differently in March 2020. What did that look like at the agency level?

Crosby Kemper: I expected to jump right into a travel schedule to bring libraries’ and museums’ messages to the people, and, of course, the pandemic interrupted that. I expected to talk about some of the issues that I did end up talking about, but in a different way. Reading has been central to what I see as the library mission. Today it’s more, in particular, about equity. And now it’s about the learning loss that so many children experienced during the pandemic, especially the children on the other side of all our divides.

One thing that was already clear to me in one way, but there was a huge demonstration of it during the pandemic, is that the virtual has huge drawbacks because it’s not as good as in-person learning. And it’s particularly not as good for people who lack educational resources, economic resources, family resources. The pandemic was terrible for those kids, and libraries have got to realize that. I think at a visceral level, most frontline librarians and library directors know this. But it’s got to guide us going forward. Connectivity is important, but it’s not the answer. The answer involves in-person things like reading groups in the library, story times, in-person events in daycare centers, schools, and throughout the community.

I think that the biggest lesson for me was that the things individual librarians do, children’s and youth services librarians in particular, is enormously important, and we’re not focused on it enough. A phrase that I was using at the beginning of the pandemic was: The library is the Swiss Army knife of the community. Homelessness is a is an important problem in this country—[libraries are] charged with helping to solve that problem. The opioid crisis, we’re charged with helping that. The mental health crisis, which the pandemic of course doubled down on. The loneliness crisis, the Surgeon General has been brilliant on the importance of that—28 percent of our households in the United States are one-person households. That’s got to be a record number for any place anywhere anytime in our history, and it’s not a good thing. Libraries need to be aware of that and become a refuge and resource in the community in a more targeted and more mindful, more intentional way.

Did you have any plans that you had to put aside or defer?

I wanted to talk about the debate between publishers and libraries, the Internet Archive, and others. That was a big issue right as I was coming in, and I think it’s important issue. Copyright issues are important, fair use issues are important. I think a couple of things happened. One, a lot of publishers understood that the pandemic was going to be hurtful to children, and the rules changed, to some extent, in the library’s favor—or really in the patrons’ favor—for a while. It was an issue that was so pandemic-driven that I didn’t think there was much point to our being involved in it. Going forward there will be, and I was hoping to do a convening around that.

On the flip side, what did you accomplish in spite of COVID? What are you proudest of?

Number one, I’m proud of the fact that the IMLS reacted quickly to the pandemic. We did a webinar the first week of the lockdown with the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] in which they couldn’t answer librarians’ questions, and then we were in a webinar with Johns Hopkins in which they couldn’t answer museum folks’ questions. So we did our REALM project—Reopening Archives, Libraries and Museums—in which we worked with Battelle in Columbus, Ohio, thanks to Pat Losinski, and OCLC, thanks to Jim Neal, to do a serious research project with the virus on books, on computers, on surfaces in libraries and museums. And that was important to give confidence to library and museum directors that they could reopen. You don’t hear anything about fomites anymore, and that was partly because of our research on surfaces. You do hear a lot more about airflow, that was partly because of our research. We reacted quickly, we raised money inside the library community from Carnegie, from Mellon, and did this important project which ended up with a publication in the Journal of Applied Microbiology—so, I’m proud of that.

The second thing is this focus on reading. The first convening we did here in DC was called Empowering Readers, Empowering Citizens. We had [political scientist] Robert Putnam and [literacy advocate] Maryanne Wolf, and a lot of library leaders and library partners, talking about reinvigorating the focus on reading as central to library work, particularly to libraries’ equity work.

You have a good vantage point from the helm of IMLS. What do you think libraries need to be looking out for?

One of the things we’ve been working on—we were tasked by the United States Congress with doing this and I think there are a lot of aspects to it that are important: information literacy. Over the last 20 years our information function, the reference librarian, has gone away as a focus inside libraries. Now we have these problems with misinformation and disinformation, financial literacy, public health, the pandemic itself, vaccinations, the sort of things that become major issues and people need help sorting them out: What is public health about in my community? What is financial literacy about my community? What’s the climate doing in my community that I can do something about, or that I need to be aware of? I think that’s a huge issue going forward.

In addition to that, we now have in front of us artificial intelligence, AI, and how is our library going to use that, and how are we going to help people protect themselves from being overwhelmed with AI’s misuses? Yesterday Google released their Gemini project, their equivalent of ChatGPT, and it was such a disaster, and it shows what can happen in the AI world. Libraries, again, can play a significant role in what I would call the moderation of the extremes in our artificial intelligence world. We ought to be able to find some ways to help people with artificial intelligence and reinvigorate the reference librarian to use artificial intelligence to help people.

What are your thoughts on recent intellectual freedom issues?

There is a problem with banned books, obviously, the Moms for—and against—Liberty, but there’s also a problem where we have librarians who want to keep out the Harry Potter books, or rewrite the Willy Wonka books, or keep Kirk Cameron’s books out of the library. So I’ve written a letter to all the all the culprits in in this, including three United States senators—Senator Rubio, Senator Bond, Senator Cramer—and said, “Let’s do a demonstration of what libraries should be all about. Let’s all get together and read something we all believe in.” I think libraries have a problem right now, in that we’re becoming oppositional. And rather than embracing our communities and embracing the true diversity of our communities, which includes intellectual and political diversity, we need to embrace that. That is the huge value of libraries traditionally, and why we are among the most trusted institutions in America, because we are welcoming to everybody in the community. We need some demonstrations of that. I would like to bring everybody together.

What’s next for you?

I want to stay involved—the issue of literacy is deeply important to me, and this information literacy question is important. And then there’s a third thing that we did that that really relates to both museums and libraries and that I had a lot of fun with, America250, [commemorating] the 250th anniversary of the founding of the country. We did a series for PBS Books and Detroit Public TV in which we went to four sites. We went to Miami Dade College, to the Freedom Tower, where 640,000 Cuban exiles came in. We went to Kansas City to the Negro Leagues Museum and the American Jazz Museum. and talked about the great gift of African American culture to the country. We went to the Wing Luke Museum and talked about Asian American history and the Nisei Regiment, the most decorated regiment in American military history—kids who volunteered out of the internment camps. And then we went to the Heard Museum in Phoenix, where we saw their great Native American collection and I talked to Walter Echo-Hawk, who has spent 40 years creating the notion of Native rights and Native American sovereignty that exists today. I hope I can do something with that—I thought that was a noble effort on our part, and PBS liked it. [“Visions of America” recently won the Michigan Association of Broadcasters’ Broadcast Excellence Awards “Public Television: Use of Multi-Platform Media—Long Form” category.] And I look forward to doing a lot of reading.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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