Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library’s Gina Millsap on Retiring, Finding the Money, and Why Meetings Are Good

Gina Millsap, CEO and director of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL) for the past 15 years, retired on December 1. LJ caught up with her on her next-to-last day at TSCPL to find out more about her achievements, her challenges, and what’s next on her agenda.

Gina Millsap head shotGina Millsap, CEO and director of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL) for the past 15 years, retired on December 1. With Millsap at the helm, TSCPL earned LJ ’s 2016 Library of the Year award, thanks in large part to her joining local voices to the library’s mission. She was a founding member and past chair of Heartland Visioning, an organization dedicated to facilitating change in the county, and incorporated community input into the library’s 10-year strategic plan. A strong and empathetic facilitator, Millsap brought her convening skills to TSCPL staff, and led the library to become a key facilitator in community meetings.

At the national level, Millsap served as president of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Library Leadership & Management Association, and on the board of the Public Library Association. She also chaired ALA's Committee on Library Advocacy for four years.

After a 45-year career in libraries—Millsap served as director of the Ames Public Library, IA, and at the Daniel Boone Regional Library, MO, prior to making Kansas her home—she plans to keep advising and advocating. LJ caught up with her on her next-to-last day at TSCPL to find out more about her achievements, her challenges, and what’s next on her agenda.

LJ : Had you planned on retiring before the pandemic hit?

Gina Millsap: I was thinking about it. I hadn't quite decided. I've been married for 42 years, but I've always worked a lot, and my husband actually retired early, so the house has been his. I was a little anxious about how that was going to work when we were both together all the time. It turns out we still really like each other.

Other than realizing that you and your husband were able to stay home together happily, was there anything else that made you think that this was the right time to step down?

The pandemic itself. I'm not abandoning libraries—I love libraries, I was a library user before I was a library employee, and I just believe in what we are and who we are institutionally, and what we do in a democracy. Certainly the last four years have just cemented that for me. But what the pandemic did was it made me realize that there are a lot of ways to serve. I thought, I've been at this library for 15 years as the CEO, and I was ready to stop working 50 or more hours a week and weekends.

I also facilitate quite a bit, and I've done that for a number of nonprofits in the community. I happened to facilitate a retreat for the YWCA. I just fell in love with their board and their mission when I worked with them, about a year and a half ago. After that I was invited to serve on the board, so that's my transition into giving back to the community. The library's been a long-time partner of the YWCA, so there will always be that wonderful connection there as well.

What are some of the biggest changes you've seen, and what changes do you think are on the horizon?

The very first strategic plan I was ever involved in was all about the library. It was setting benchmarks, looking at things like circulation, very traditional ways of looking at performance and how successful the library was. In that 40-year time span, what has been so wonderful has been that turning outward, as Rich Harwood calls it, to really be not just in the community but of the community, being seen as a community leader, and working toward making the community a better place to live and work and learn.

We're still, even now, at the beginning, and we've got some work to do. I think there's going to be a great hunger in our communities for gathering, for coming together, because that's something we haven't had, and public libraries are the perfect place to do that. So how are we going to fulfill that need? I think there's going to be an opportunity to really help create more of a culture of learning in our community, and a culture of coming together. In some ways it makes me a little sad I'm not going to be there to lead that anymore, but you know what? I'm not the only person who can do that.

What are you proudest of?

I'm very proud of the fact that in every library I've worked in I have lifelong friends. People say that, especially as a director or CEO, you can't really be close to your staff. My feeling has always been, I spent more time with my colleagues than I spent with my family in the course of my career, so it would have been a sad thing if we didn't care for each other. The people who become librarians or work in libraries are some of the very finest people I know—they're the smartest, they're the funniest. They're just good folks. I think that I have relationships that go back 40 years.

The thing that I'm proudest of professionally is that I took an innovative approach to organizational development, and really looked at how we draw on the collective wisdom of the organization. As you look at everything from our custodians through the entire hierarchy, including our boards, including our volunteers, how do we utilize that brain power? How do we utilize that passion to make a good library? Pragmatically, by being very inclusive—but also looking closely at what is the skill set that we need now, because it's not the same skill set that I needed coming into the profession.

Early on here there were two things that I focused on. One was process improvement and thinking about the library not as a set of departments or functions, but as a system. If our goal is to focus on literacy and learning in our community, and we do that with collections and services and programs and talented people, then what's the best way to deliver that? Let's put aside the departmental structures we've been using for 150 years and take a serious look at how we should be organized, and what we should know how to do.

Very early on, I put a strong emphasis on learning to become a facilitator. Virtually all of the work we do is in teams. A lot of people complain about meetings and view them as an interruption of work. I never have—I always viewed them as where I get my best work done. But to get the best of the collective wisdom of that group, you have to have a process that allows people to contribute, and provides an order and a system so that you know going in, this is what we're going to focus on, and you know going out, this is what we accomplished, and this is what we're doing next.

We adopted a format from Leadership Strategies, and almost 50 percent of our staff have had some training. Our nonsupervisory librarians especially, many of whom lead teams, will tell you that's made them more effective team leaders—but it's also about being an effective participant. It's really important that everybody have the opportunity to contribute when people’s styles and comfort levels are different.

At the end of the day, the real question to ask is what difference did we make? And then the next question is, what difference will we make?

What are some of the greatest challenges that you’ve encountered?

I decided very early in my career that I was not going to let money be an excuse. Most libraries are never going to have enough resources. If you have those big hairy audacious goals, it's not always about the money. If you've got the right people and they've got the skills they need, you can get the resources, and you can accomplish just about anything, but the will has to be there. You can either take a passive approach or you can say, “If it's important enough that it needs to get done because it's going to make a big difference in the community, then money doesn't get to be the excuse. We're going to find a way to do it.”

There have been a few things, like a big censorship case that we had a number of years ago when I first got here. It was one of those library director's nightmares. But at the end of the day we came through it OK. Our policies stood the test of time. Those shared values that we have as librarians and library staff, that's the glue that holds us together. As partisan and as divided as people have become in a lot of ways, even, unfortunately, in our profession, our values are so strong and enduring that they can bring very diverse individuals and groups together. It's one of our big strengths.

What’s next for you?

A few colleagues in libraries have approached me about coaching for people who are interested in becoming a library CEO or director. I've done mentoring for the last 20 years and love it, because I get just as much out of it as they do. So I'll be doing a bit of that. I've always loved helping people who are talented and are going to be really good at something and helping them realize that.

Every once in a while I'll read something on Facebook like the ALA groups, where there are younger librarians out there at the beginning or midpoint of their careers, and they're struggling. They're not sure that they've made the right decision, or they're in the right organizations, or on the right career track. I always just want to hug them and say, Hey, let's talk. I want people to know that this can be one of the most fulfilling careers you will ever have if you think through what it is you really want from it. I was very deliberate in deciding to become a director, and then deciding to leave Ames and look for another opportunity. There were reasons why I knew it was time to do that, and there are reasons why I know it's time for me to leave this wonderful job to somebody else. And I'm at peace with that.

What advice do you have for your successor?

I had a chance to talk to some of the candidates for the position, and what I said was, this was my dream job, so I want anyone who has the opportunity to be in this position to appreciate that and feel that same way about it. We have great resources, we have incredible community support, we have a good supportive board that’s really smart and strategic, and this is a library loving community.

There are two things that I've heard for the last 15 years consistently. One is: I love our library. People always call it our library, which I love. Everybody owns it. The other is: this library is the jewel of this community. If you've got that level of respect and support, you have to appreciate it and you have to be stewards of that. And the best steward is going to be someone who keeps progressing, pushing the envelope, and trying to do better—and trying to make the community even better.

Another thing is to appreciate this staff. I would match this library staff and management team against any in the country. I'm so proud of them. The culture that we've created here is collaborative, and it's not deferential just because you happen to have a job title. We earn our respect here, and we're honest with each other.

The other thing is, just have fun. Being a library director is a lot of work. It's a lot of accountability and responsibility, and I will not miss waking up at two in the morning worrying about something. But I will miss that feeling of looking forward to going to work every day, seeing the people I work with, knowing that we were going to be doing good work, but we were also going to be having a good time while we did it, that we were going to laugh together, and we were going to come up with some really great ideas to wow the community and our colleagues. We were Library of the Year in 2016, but as far we're concerned, we're Library of the Year every year.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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David Trudeau

What an inspiring and motivating conversation! An outstanding gameplan to being a superstar library leader. Gina, congratulations on you and your library's wonderful success. Enjoy your retirement -- but please keep wowing us!

Posted : Jan 06, 2021 02:38



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