Life in the Fast Lane

"Life in the Fast Lane," a Lecture by Regina Minudri, City Librarian of San Francisco, was sponsored by the LAUC-B Public Service Task Force and the LAUC-B Research and Professional Development Committee on November 18, 1998.

Regina Minudri discussed how, as Director of the Berkeley Public Library she was able to reach out to the community and to secure stable funding for the library, and how she took over the reins of a somewhat battered library system in San Francisco and changed many aspects of operations there into improved relationships and services. She also discussed ways in which public and research libraries may work together.

Prior to being City Librarian, Minudri headed the Berkeley Public Library for 17 years before her retirement in 1994. There, her proudest accomplishment was the successful passage of four library tax measures that now provide a steady stream of reliable funding for the library. In 1996, she led a successful campaign for a $49 million bond measure for Berkeley's libraries. She is a past president of the American Library Association and of the California Library Association, and has won many awards for her leadership and wide-ranging community service. She has taught classes at San Jose State University on public librarianship, and regularly consults with libraries on management and training issues. In addition, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown decided to allocate $2.5 million for construction of the first new SFPL branch in 30 years. She has recently agreed to continue on as City Librarian for the next two years (having begun her tenure in August 1997).

Minudri pointed out that SFPL had been a troubled library system for awhile, recalling a series of negative newspaper articles in the 1950's. The real problems, however, were related to a lack of adequate funding, problems which were exacerbated when the new library was built. The final building had much less shelf space than originally expected and the design, while spectacular, made it difficult for the public to find its way around. To further complicate matters, even though the library's funding had increased dramatically and branch library hours increased substantially, there had been an hiatus in hiring which meant that the New Main Library had fewer library pages, while the opening of the new building coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of users.

Many of the staff, which numbers around 1,000 people, felt that trust and communication had been broken. This perception was partly because the whole building process seemed to have become uncontrollable, but mostly because of the tremendous stresses that occurred in connection with moving into a new building. These included adjustment to new systems, staffing shortages, lack of training for change, and a fourfold increase in patrons coming to the library. At the same time, some of the bad publicity the library received was less than accurate.

Today the library's image and staff morale have improved. Minudri worked to improve relations with the Mayor's office in order to get the support to solve a number of problems, such as desperately needed storage space in Brooks Hall next door. Given the many other competing interests that surround Brooks Hall, this was no small feat.

The public, though it liked the new building and the new technology, also wanted its books. Minudri felt that the overemphasis on technology, while visionary, may have been too strong. "It's one thing to be visionary; implementation is another matter."

Some things she has done to improve the operations of the library include creating and/or restoring administrative staff positions, appointing a new management team, and implementing strategic planning. However, as Minudri pointed out, a strategic plan is essentially worthless unless it is used, and by that she meant it also needs to be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. Eventually she plans to create a committee with members of the staff and the public who will develop a three-year strategic plan. Then, SFPL will do a Facilities Development Study, to be funded by the Friends of the Library.

Minudri also shared her strategies for successful community outreach. As head of the Berkeley Public Library she regularly attended community meetings and made sure the Library always had a presence at community events, such as parades, fairs, etc. Her philosophy is "whatever group you belong to, if there is a library connection that can be made, make it."

Understanding the needs of students and staff is especially important. She advised, "Keep the promises that you make. If you can't do it, let them know. If there's an alternative, let them know. But keep your promises so that you have a standing and they know that you are a solid kind of institution."

Regarding public and academic library cooperation, Minudri felt it was essential to understand in what ways our missions are similar and different, and also to understand the strengths and weaknesses of our collections. SFPL is considering embarking on a program of staff exchanges with other public libraries. Minudri believes that the Library of California (networking project) will also have an impact on library cooperation, enhancing our ability to share resources.

In conclusion, Regina urged the library profession to "get out to where the folks are, understand your mission, go for it -- and have fun!"

Question and Answer Session:

Minudri was asked what steps were taken to improve staff morale. First, she met with the unions; and she now meets with them on a monthly basis. Second, she visited all 26 branch libraries within the first three months, with her attention focussed on one or two problems she could solve at each location. Third, she visited every department in the Library. SFPL has quarterly general staff meetings attended by about 300 people. Minudri stressed being accessible and having an open door policy as important factors in successful management.

For the upcoming Strategic Plan, Minudri will create a Steering Committee with representatives from most classifications in the Library (security, library assistants, librarians, automation people). She acknowledged this will be a large committee, but considered it essential for staff to be able to participate. She envisions creating a second committee composed of members from the public and community leaders. SFPL will soon embark on a three-year strategic planning process, using the Public Library Association planning process, called "Planning for Results." She estimates the planning may take six to nine months.

Minudri also plans to hire a good consultant to do some change management training. Books she recommends are: Emotional Intelligence, by David Goleman, Bantam Books, c1995, 1997; and Creating the Agile Library: A Management Guide for Librarians, ed. by Lorraine J. Haricombe, et al., Greenwood Press, c1998.

Asked about library education, Minduri indicated that she is very disappointed in the UC Berkeley SIMS curriculum and that she advises her staff to attend San Jose State, which will soon expand its program to offer courses on the San Francisco State University campus. The availablility of librarian jobs swings like a pendulum; perhaps now a shortage of good candidates may occur.

Technology with a big T is a problem - we need to make it a small t! Computers are just tools -- a telephone and a typewriter put together. High technology requires high touch.

Asked about the future of reference service, Minudri said that she felt reference will always be one on one. The biggest issue is that reference staff lacks enough time to spend with patrons; her staff turns over a reference question every 30 seconds. This situation won't change until libraries can hire more staff.

Thanks to Mari Miller, who prepared this summary.

Note: A tape of this lecture is on reserve under PSTF 3 at the Media Resources Center, 1st floor of Moffitt Library.