Q & A with Nichelle Hayes, Indianapolis Public Library Interim CEO

When former Indianapolis Public Library (IndyPL) CEO Jackie Nytes stepped down in August 2021 amid allegations of systemic racism throughout the system, Nichelle M. Hayes was one of many employees advocating for change. On March 28, the IndyPL Board unanimously voted to appoint Hayes as the library’s next interim CEO, succeeding John Helling, who had served in the role following Nytes’s departure.

head shot Nichelle HayesWhen former Indianapolis Public Library (IndyPL) CEO Jackie Nytes stepped down in August 2021 amid allegations of systemic racism throughout the system, Nichelle M. Hayes was one of many employees advocating for change. On March 28, the IndyPL Board unanimously voted to appoint Hayes as the library’s next interim CEO, succeeding John Helling, who had served in the role following Nytes’s departure.

Hayes, an Indianapolis native, has been with IndyPL since 2015. She helped spearhead the creation of the award-winning Center for Black Literature and Culture (CBLC), located at the Central Library, and has led it since it opened in 2017. A 2021 LJ Mover & Shaker, Hayes is an alumna of the Indiana Librarians Leading in Diversity Fellowship Program (I-ILID), served as the President of the Indiana Black Librarians Network, and is currently the President Elect of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA).

LJ caught up with Hayes shortly after she stepped into the role on April 2, to hear more about her path to interim CEO.

LJ : Tell me about what’s happened since Nytes left IndyPL.

Nichelle Hayes: John Helling was the public services director, so he had knowledge of our system. There was a pretty smooth transition. We were, I would say, cautiously optimistic and hopeful about what would happen moving forward. The board was working closely with John, and the rest of us were just trying to continue to do our jobs.

At some point we started preparations for the climate study with Ice Miller, which utilized what they titled the Go team, members of IndyPL that could help them and give them insights to craft the survey: how to make it approachable, how to answer questions for people. That study was commissioned In September of last year. From October to February there were town halls conducted, office hours, and listening tours, to give people an opportunity to share what they had been feeling, [identify] some of the challenges that we needed to face, and then be able to move forward in a more healthy and productive manner. Then in March, John Helling gave us the news that he was leaving, and a [new] interim needed to be selected. That was a very quick turnaround—his last day was April 1.

What were you doing during that time?

Last year I was in the middle of our phase two, which was a technology immersion phase, at the Center for Black Literature and Culture. We were trying to give people an opportunity to do a deeper dive into the people and places and ideas that we had already talked about in the CBLC. For instance, Mari Evans is a poet, she was part of the Black Arts Movement, and she lived in Indianapolis for a very long time. We wanted to expound more on her life, what she did, why it was important. So we were able to use technology, physical kiosks. We have five of them, and also a website, which mirrors what’s in the kiosks. So you can do that deep dive in the space but also outside of the walls. That process culminated, for the most part, in October [2021]. We’re still doing some tweaks here and there. We celebrated the fourth anniversary for the CBLC and A’Lelia Bundles, and the great, great granddaughter of Madam C. J. Walker, was our keynote speaker. We’re working on Juneteenth Book Fest, and a lot of partnerships.

In between there was the National Conference for African American Librarians at the end of July/ beginning of August last year. There was quite a bit going on.

How did you come to apply for the CEO position? What was your reaction when you were selected?

I indicated my interest to the board chair, Judge Jose Salinas, and I gave him my CV and cover letter. I interviewed on a Friday, and then there was a second interview. After the second interview, which was another Friday, I was told on Monday morning, the day of the board meeting, that I was selected.

My reaction was shock and disbelief. When you’ve metaphorically been hit by a freight train, you kind of stop in your tracks. After the shock wore off, I was thinking to myself, “okay, this is real, and my hope is that I will be able to help support the employees and continue to bring the healing.”

What helped prepare you for this role?

I feel that I have a unique lived experience that is very different from any CEO—interim or otherwise—of the Indianapolis Public Library. I am a native of Indianapolis, third generation on my maternal side. I grew up going to the library, [doing] summer reading, having my favorite branch, having my favorite librarian.

I’ve got a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in HR. I was a recruiter, I was a generalist, and then I went into the library field and started as a library media specialist. When I came to IndyPL I was a training librarian, which meant I went to all the service points, did all the work in all those spaces, which helped me to really understand who we were, and then I became a business librarian. Five years later, I started running CBLC. I hope that people will look at me and my adventure and see that there are possibilities for them to do whatever it is that they have in their heart.

How long do you anticipate being in the position, and what do you hope to accomplish in that time?

Right now there is a firm that is working on the search for a CEO. My projection is that that time frame might be seven to eight months, based on what information that firm has given us. What I want to do during that [time] is to continue the healing, and to encourage wellness so that we’re working well together as an organization.

I’ve already started talking individual staff members, departments, executive committee members. I’ll be going to branches, going to internal departments that are not public facing, to get their thoughts and concerns—what we’re doing well, what we can grow from—and push all that together to a plan that can help us. We’re going to look at the [climate study] recommendations, perhaps add to those, and then and rank them so we can take several bites of the elephant at a time. You can’t turn a huge ship in just a minute—you can only turn it by degrees. So we’re just trying to be strategic and methodical about that.

What kinds of changes would you like to see?

If I had a wish list, the biggest thing I would want is for us to be an employer of choice. I would like people in the community to say, “Oh, wow, they’ve got some positions open over at the library, that’s the place that you want to work.” For that to happen, we need to really support staff, and give them everything they need to do their best work. That will include having an environment of wellness and [that encourages] people to take care of themselves.

What do you feel like the library is doing right now that reflects that place you want it to be?

Our biggest asset, our employees, are world class. They’re concerned about the community, they’re concerned about their jobs. That’s the biggest piece of the puzzle, having the right staff members. We’re fine-free—that is great. And I want us to continue to go outside of the walls of the library so that people will know all the wonderful programs we have to offer. Programming, and obviously summer reading is happening—I don’t think you could ever have too much summer reading. It helps children to engage, and they can work with the adults in their lives. There are a lot of things that we’re doing that I think are incredible, and we’re going to continue to do them. But we are going to try to be strategic, moving forward, and have more of a priority list, because everything can’t be the number one priority.

Our future is very bright—there’s a wealth of possibilities for us.

Do you have any interest in throwing your hat in the ring to be the future CEO?

A lot of people have asked me that question. I don’t know. Right now what I’m trying to do is do the best job I can in this position. And I’ll consider that a little bit further down the line.

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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