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David Ferriero
Andrew W. Mellon Director of The New York Public Library

Networking is so important. You have to look for opportunities to get involved and it’s absolutely critical to get out of your comfort zone.

How do you describe what you do as a librarian to your family or to people at a party?
When people find out you’re a librarian, they always tell you that they love to read – they think you just read all day. Though I’ve been in library administration a long time, I still consider myself a librarian – I still do reference and I’ll always be a reference librarian at heart.

When I talk to people about what I do, I focus on the relevance of libraries – though our role is changing in the age of the internet and Barnes & Noble, the library still plays an important role in changing lives. The neighborhood library is a haven. Historically, the New York Public Library has always been a place where immigrants could come and learn how to read – they were and still are able to find books in their native language as well as English. But the library also plays an important role in terms of acculturation – people can come here and really learn what it means to be a New Yorker and/or an American, and that in turn promotes information literacy, self-sufficiency, and problem-solving.

What special projects, initiatives or committees have you been or are involved in? How did you first get involved? What experiences in ALA have been the most rewarding?
I first joined ALA in 1972, when I finished library school. Since then I’ve been involved in many different capacities over the years. I’ve been a member of several committees, including Reference and Adult Services, Statistics, and Interlibrary Loan, and I’ve chaired a few committees as well. I became involved in the ILL committee after I called the person who had written the ILL Manual to ask for advice – by reaching out I was able to establish a relationship which then led to my appointment on the committee. Participating in the ILL committee was my most rewarding experience because at that time the national code regulating interlibrary loan was being revised, and I was able to meet my peers at a national meeting and participate in a major change of agenda. The ability to have my voice heard at the table of a national discussion had a major effect on my future involvement in ALA, because I participated in this committee early in my career.

What advice would you give to up and coming librarians?
Networking is so important. You have to look for opportunities to get involved and it’s absolutely critical to get out of your comfort zone. I would advise librarians to participate in Discussion Groups at ALA, because it’s a chance to make connections with other professionals experiencing similar situations, but it gets you out of your home institution, which can be very insular. And Discussion Groups, in my experience, often lead to committee appointments, which allow you to further broaden your network.

It’s also very important to take what you learn in Discussion Groups or committee meetings and bring those ideas and lessons back to your home institution. So often, librarians are passionate and very productive in these conference meetings, and it’s very rewarding, but almost non-transferable. It’s important to take advantage of the opportunity to bring something new and exciting back to your organization after the conference.

What do you think are the top three issues facing librarianship (positive or negative) that could change the course of things? If we want to try to change that course, how should we go about it?

1. Relevance
2. Funding
3. Technology

I believe these are the three major issues facing libraries right now, and each has both positive and negative aspects. Also, they are all inter-related. For instance, funding, which always has been and always will be a top concern, is dependent on our ability to describe the relevance of the library to both public and private funders. Our private funders don’t actually use the library, but rather view it as a social good worth supporting. But because they aren’t active users, we have the responsibility of communicating the crucial role the library plays in our community to them. City government lacks an understanding of the public library in the role of education, from preschool all the way up through college, so we have to make our case to them to ensure the appropriate level of funding continues.

The goal of the library will always be to connect people with information, but we have to find new ways of delivering services. In order to be relevant, we have to explore emerging technologies and really be where our users are. We can’t wait for them to come to us, either in our physical buildings or on our website – we have to use the technology they are using and go to them. So we’re asking ourselves, how do we put our content where the users are, so that it then brings them back into the library. We are looking at different ways of distributing our services and collections, and it’s a new capacity for librarians, but something we have to stay on top of all the time.

Tell us from your own experience, what is the most valuable lesson you have learned in your leadership role/s?
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is the importance of listening. A good leader understands how important it is to give people a chance to talk, to have their voice heard, to have their ideas truly influence the direction of an organization. Decision-making should be a collaborative process – no matter how good a leader you are, you’re never going to have all the answers. An organization’s culture plays a huge role here, as well – either it fosters collaboration or it doesn’t.

What values (personal traits or characteristics) do you look for and admire in a leader?

There is a set of interpersonal skills a person has to have to be a good leader, and they can’t really be taught, but after all these years I can tell pretty quickly if someone has them. I look for an individual who truly cares about people, who has good listening skills, who has empathy and is able to understand what people are going through and is genuinely sensitive to the situation. Directness and honesty. And of course, the ability to make decisions.

How do you recognize contributions of others in your library and in your community?
This is hard to answer, because recognition is individual-driven; each person has different needs for recognition. For some, public recognition is important, but for another person it might be something as simple as an email. The new staff services office we’ve implemented is focusing on the individual in many ways, including acknowledgment, so one way we are addressing the need for recognition is by asking our staff, “What is meaningful to you?”

What or who influenced you to become a librarian?
As an undergraduate at Northeastern, I participated in the co-op program, where you’d go to school a term and then work a term and so on. My second work assignment was in the MIT Humanities Library, shelving books. My mentor, who was the Associate Humanities Librarian, realized early on that I could do more, and so she changed the job definition and I was exposed to lots of other types of clerical and behind-the-scenes library work. I was working with a wonderful group of people, who made it a lot of fun. I ended up with three years of co-op experience at MIT, and in addition to the Associate Humanities Librarian there were two other strong women librarians (the Science Librarian and the Director of Libraries) who took an interest in my career. That was the beginning of a 31-year career in the MIT Libraries, and the whole time was terrific, and then I went to Duke and that was even better. I’ve been very fortunate.

What are the top three things they don’t teach in library school that you think are critical?

1. Importance of Personnel Issues
2. Business/Fundraising/Development
3. Technology

As a library administrator, I would say the library school curriculum does not prepare people well at all for dealing with personnel issues (recruitment, retention, recognition), and on a larger-scale, the human side of library work is not a focus. Libraries are about working with people, and library schools don’t, in my opinion, do a good job of conveying that message to students or considering how important interpersonal skills are when admitting students. Also, the business side of fundraising and development is critical to libraries, but it’s not a focus in most library school programs. Technology is being taught, but not in the right way. We have to focus more on emerging, developing technologies and encourage technological curiosity (i.e. staying on top of everything and being excited about it).