Interview with Glen E. Holt

The Bottom Line

ISSN: 0888-045X

Article publication date: 1 June 2004




(2004), "Interview with Glen E. Holt", The Bottom Line, Vol. 17 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Interview with Glen E. Holt

Interview with Glen E. Holt

Edited by Kent C. Boese, Arts Cataloger, Cataloging Services Department, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Washington, DC, USA.

Keywords: Librarians, Public libraries, Financial management, Fundraising, Library services

TBL interviews Glen E. Holt, Executive Director of the St Louis Public Library, St Louis, MO, USA.

TBL: What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Holt: My most rewarding professional achievement has been the transformation of St Louis Public Library (SLPL) from a troubled, under-funded, and low-performing organization into one that could serve the essential reading and information needs of the taxpayers who fund its operation. It is not often that any leader, whether in the public or private sector, has such a wonderful opportunity. And, few public officials are able to obtain the funds they need to bring major institutional improvement.

Through my 17-year directorship at SLPL, we won two property tax elections, tripling annual funding from $6 million to over $18 million. Annual grants and gifts bring the yearly total to over $20 million. We accomplished the tax increases in a state that is only a little less bizarre in its tax laws than California and in a city where tax revenues generally are flat or where they move up very slowly.

Major population decline along with increasing diversity complicated the required changes. As St Louis' residential total dropped from just under 400,000-325,000 through just one decade, it lost its bi-racial character. The population in 2000 was 47 percent African American, 2 percent African- born, 36 percent American-born white and 15 percent foreign-born white, Asian and Hispanic. The latter number is increasing exponentially.

Using the funding obtained in the 1988 and 1994 tax increases, we made program and operational changes that tripled and then quadrupled children's use in every traditional output category. In 1987, we had 500 kids in summer reading. In the summer of 2003, over 22,000 children participated. One-third of all SLPL cardholders are children. Such advances in use have made the library a substantial force in alleviating child (and adult) illiteracy and in improving the training of early childhood educators.

In early 2005, some of SLPL's youth services staff will join teaching faculty from the St Louis Community College District to offer for-credit classes for prospective early childhood educators. The setting for this partnered instruction will be one of our two completely renovated children's libraries where the instructional classes will take place in classrooms in a branch that shelves 17,000 children's books, offers a Gates Computer Lab and provides library-use and activity-planning assistance from full-time youth services staff.

Several adult-use output measures matched the increases in children's use. Adult circulation and visitation both increased dramatically, circulation from about 800,000 to 2,500,000 and visitation from about the same base to 2,100,000. In addition, library staff served another 750,000 annually in the library's school-classroom, daycare-center and senior-center visits.

Change of any kind is hard work. Changing a community service institution like a library is particularly tough because it involves so many players and because change resistors within the institution and in the community have so many ways they can sabotage or veto progressive changes. No library director should start any major institutional change without a good knowledge of employment law, a willingness to play politics and a field commander's ability to conduct guerilla war.

TBL: What do you think of corporate sponsorships? While they bring significant funds to libraries, do they threaten the library's neutrality?

Holt: Corporate sponsorships mean different things to different people. Sponsorships is the hard word in this question.

I have always regarded corporate support as a form of donation, a way to add value to good basic library services. As a former academic, I worked often with grant and gift funds. In doing so, I had to make a clear differentiation between “hard” and “soft” money. Corporate support for me has always been “soft,” i.e. budgeted as non-recurring grant funds.

In the library business, “hard” money for me means what the public ought to furnish to get the library services they want. If a district cannot afford basic library services, then progressive state governments, which have been in the equity business since their inception, need to lend a “greater-good” subsidy out of their tax largess. Ohio and Illinois are two states that do a good job of fulfilling this equity function for public libraries, though the political scene is changing in both states.

If we were in the museum business, we usually would be expected to raise at least some operating revenue from private-sector sources. In these situations, it is nearly always true that foundations or fundraising boards de facto set at least some important priorities of the museum, even if the museum originally had and/or has an elected or appointed governance board still in existence.

Because US libraries were born and raised in the public sector, most library professionals have a natural enmity toward being forced to raise a percent of their operating revenue. If the US public libraries follow the current trend in Great Britain's library funding, they will face increased expectations that the operating institutions will use some combination of fees and donations to underwrite the costs of basic services. In short, they will follow the fundraising lead of their museum sister institutions. Intriguingly, at the very same time this trend is occurring in libraries, museums are learning how to reach into the public funding till to get tax support for operations. Museum officials make this move because they recognize that public funding is easier to sustain than donations or earned-income stream that funds basic services.

This shift to donations and earned income for operations in libraries blurs the divide between “hard” and “soft” money, and puts the library into a retail (i.e. selling services and renting books and videos) business as opposed to a publicly supported commonweal business. If the questions above are suggesting the need for libraries to increasingly live on sustained corporate support, then the change in library priority setting and the nature of operations will be dramatic. True philanthropic agencies are those that live wholly on gifts. America's public libraries have never been philanthropies, but instead they have been government entities. The end result of current trends in library philanthropy, I believe, is that individual donors get to “influence” library operations in the same way they affect the priorities of so much of American museum life – and the workings of so many elected governments at all levels.

Fully developed, such trends may still support “public libraries,” but the funding “publics” probably will be quite different than they are now.

TBL: If money were no object, what is the most significant change that you would institute in your library?

Holt: I hope and expect that all library directors will have different answers for this question – and that their answers reflect their varied constituencies as portrayed in ongoing communication with their constituents.

As director of St Louis Public, I would use the first infusion of the money to finance children's services to increase the possibilities for them to live life as full participants rather than as marginalized individuals pecking at the edges of opportunity. Education and the ability to use information are the starting points to break all of poverty's over- arching impacts. If individuals know how to use those tools to take advantage of real opportunities, beleaguered families stand a change of breaking the poverty cycle.

Good libraries are great educational- and information-gathering places for those who volunteer to use their services. A good library today means lots of computers, plenty of books, strong video, CD and DVD collections and a caring well-trained staff who knows how to intervene to help make youthful users successful at every childhood age.

Even more than middle-class children, poor kids grow up not knowing how much they do not know. Learning is often just one unpleasant shock after another, and the kids do not know because they do not know how to find out – no matter what the questions.

Libraries that operate in this setting have to spend lots of time and effort on outreach. One of my professor friends says that youth services outreach in St Louis is analogous to working in an undeveloped nation. The first thing to do is to advertise the options. The second thing is to make sure that the options are real. The third thing is to measure how use of those options make a positive impact on those who use them.

My problem with so much of what passes for volunteer work and/or philanthropy for the poor in this nation is that it is so uneven and so very episodic. There are all kinds of “feel-good” philanthropy and volunteering. The problem is that these efforts are like a small cool breeze on a hot and humid St Louis summer day; the breeze is gone almost before anyone can feel it.

It is a common theme in library work to say that a civilization or a nation or a state or a city ought to be judged by how it treats the weakest citizens who call that place home. In that vein, if old inner-city libraries like St Louis do not have great children's programs and services and knock-out proactive outreach, then how do they want their success judged?

Give my library more money, and we will show you how to serve kids, especially poor kids, in ways that they, their parents or caregivers, educators and civic leaders will all recognize as producing measurable positive outcomes for the kids and for society generally.

TBL: What writings on financial management best inform you to do your job?

Holt: Bill Gates and I agree on one thing, and that is the importance of reading The Economist, which pays more attention to international affairs than most US newspapers.

The Wall Street Journal has lots of insightful business and economics coverage, and since this country does not have a national humor magazine like Punch, the Journal's editorial page with its rabid conservatism often makes me chuckle because of its labored arguments so that contemporary history fits its ideology.

Because I write my Economics column for The Bottom Line, I pay continuing attention to electronic and print articles on finance and economics that I find in a variety of publications. I pay particular attention to mentions of changes and discussion of possible trends in Business Week, Time, U.S. News and World Report and Newsweek. Reading these weeklies helps solidify or question the impressions of changing trends that I have picked up in my look at daily news. Then I fit that into perspective provided by The Futurist and American Demographics.

I often disagree with Futurist authors, because their analyses are more grounded in their personal observations than in empirical evidence. They do not always recognize the difficulty of their self- assigned tasks, because the past is always different from the present. American Demographics is both rock solid and well written. Moreover, demographics is so basic to the library business that I find myself often shocked when I find out that a particular library director does not know much about demographics, even of her/his own service areas.

The Internet has changed my reading focus. Information on the Internet may be unauthenticated and even obviously slanted or just plain nuts. However, even a half-way decent searcher can find a huge amount of information and perspectives that are more current than what comes from reference books in economics and finance. As a result, I spend far more time on the Net than I do looking at the latest advice books written by management gurus. Few of these writers make trends; they just make money reporting on already apparent trends or by dressing up old ideas in new terms and verbose anecdotes.

TBL: In 20, will libraries purchase (as opposed to license or lease) any information resources?

Holt: I have written a good many articles about technology, all the way from the evolution of mass transit systems to the impact of networked computing on work and management. The most impressive thing about change, especially technological change, is its unevenness in timing and impact.

Compare how networked computing is used in the sciences at the National Endowments of Health to how it is used in schools of library and information sciences of state universities. The attachment to paper in these places is quite different. I know a biomedical researcher who starts his major papers by pointing out that no note for his paper comes from anything except electronic sources, including many notes based on the work of peers who have not yet even formalized their work into “papers” that will be published electronically. This researcher is not being vain. He is dealing with his information reality, which already is entirely based on licensed or leased information sources.

The very nature of this question indicates how much more traditional libraries (and many LIS researchers and librarians) are in their dependency on electronic information than medical research. The obvious point my example makes is that lots of medical, technological and legal libraries already are already heavily engaged in the use of licensed or leased information resources. They are so engaged because such information is both more current and cheaper than paper-based information.

And, the issue of cost is the most relevant one in answering this question. Paper-based publication costs continue to rise if for no other reason than the environmental costs of paper and inks, the energy needed to print as opposed to digitize information, and distribution of relatively heavy paper as opposed to weightless electronic information are all part of rising book and magazine publication and distribution costs.

Whenever prices rise in the marketplace, whether for toasters, bread or accumulated knowledge or information in the form of books, innovators look for competitive ways to cut those prices. Meanwhile, the costs of electronic distribution and use are dropping. I ordered a Dell laptop computer for a granddaughter in December 2002. When I finished its specifications, it cost $2,300. I phoned Dell in December 2003 and said that I wanted the same computer for my grandsons. The nice woman who took my call said that they no longer made the 2002 model, but she could build a computer for me with identical features plus adding features, faster speed and new and varied DVD capacities for $1,800.

Changing prices and almost all users' increasing desire for currency in sources will move public libraries more and more towards digital licensing and leasing – but only in the knowable future. As discontinuities appear because of new technology innovations and new cost breakthroughs, options for the future will be reshaped.

Those who want to see how quickly the use patterns of public libraries may change in the short-term, read Randolph Hock, The Extreme Searcher's Internet Handbook: A Guide for the Serious Searcher (Cyberage Books, Medford, NJ, 2004), and Nicholas G. Tomaiuolo, The Web Library: Building a World Class Personal Library with Free Web Resources (Information Today, Medford, NJ, 2004).

After you have used Hock and Tomaiuolo to search extensively on the Net, answer the following questions: If you were starting a small town or rural library on a tight budget, what percent of your collections budget would you spend on increasingly expensive books and magazines? And, next, after you had linked your library's new high- speed computers (with additional plug-in Web capability for users who brought their own computers) how much of information and reading materials that you pay for now could you get for free – and what percent of your collection budget would you use to purchase leased and licensed resources?

TBL: Who are your heroes in real life?

Holt: I want to shift the focus of this question, because I think it is too general. Instead of generalized heroes, I want to write about four intellectual and policy-making “heroes” who influenced my sense of how libraries and library directors ought to behave. My first-such hero is President Franklin D. Roosevelt who combined real concern and understanding of needs of “the common man” with a willingness to build strong conflicting opinions into his decision-making framework. Many non-profit administrators believe that they will administer, manage and/or lead without conflict. It cannot be done, and the more change, the more conflict.

Modern library directors are the first and foremost bosses. Second, they are strategic thinkers who focus on the “verge” – that aspect of the landscape where the skyline intersects with the horizon. The “verge” is the first viewpoint where a leader can discern a possible change shaping up. Third, directors must be resource managers. That includes both obtaining needed resources and using them effectively. Fourth, they must be team builders, recruiting and retaining bright, creative staff and furnishing the personal “glue” that grows successful teams. Friendship is never more than fifth-ranked in the leadership equation.

Along with playing these roles, library directors need to work for outcomes. And, you cannot know how plans are impacting the community unless some attempt is made to measure them. Roosevelt made a good effort at balancing all of these complexities, resulting in strong leadership recognized even by his numerous enemies.

FDR also saw that the first purpose of the government was to find ways to improve society. And, he recognized the importance of federal funding in the development of the locale-serving public library. His Works Progress Administration and his Public Works Administration paid for hundreds of today's library facilities. In this viewpoint and funding effort, Roosevelt demonstrated that he recognized both the national and the local importance of public libraries.

My second hero of ideas is social reformer Jane Addams, who started the Hull House Settlement in the slums just west of Chicago's downtown. She was a nice, middle-class girl who, through a series of dramatic experiences, came to have a vision of how she wanted to change urban society.

Addams and her colleagues and associates organized a plethora of direct-service programs for the mostly new-immigrant population in the neighborhood. English classes, healthy-baby instruction, citizenship education and training for laborers in working-person, job-site rights all were part of the instruction. John Dewey's progressive school movement, Frances Perkins's labor organization initiatives and the National Association of Charities and Correctives, which shaped the modern field of social work, all were shaped by her fertile mind and her institution's performance. Addams was a strong advocate of libraries that met actual neighborhood population needs. She would feel right at home in today's avowedly proactive neighborhood-service institution like Queens Borough Public Libraries.

My third choice is a pair of Black social reformers, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Tuskegee founder Washington believed that the best way to achieve racial equality in America was for Blacks to practice self-help. To paraphrase Washington, every improvement began when “you put down the bucket where you are” in life's waters. If Blacks became sufficiently like successful white business and social leaders, they would receive equal treatment. Black social and political critic W.E.B. DuBois said that Washington's change advice was inadequate. DuBois instead believed that Blacks had to become political because the political process determined economic and social status, and the allocation of public money had a huge impact on how fast Blacks would rise in the economic and social system. This political viewpoint spurred DuBois to push the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which had a political emphasis from its beginning.

Obviously, the two men spent their professional life in conflict. And, their pattern of conflict is inherent in library history. What is the appropriate role for libraries for African-American citizens? Should they become meeting places for developing or at least expressing attacks on society's current policies and values? Or, should they put a collection of self-help books on library shelves and call it enough?

Library professionals recognize that these questions are the type with which they grapple in every-day policy-making as they attempt to serve the needs of their communities today. What action is enough? When does a library do enough for poor children? Romance readers? History researchers? Senior citizens? Persons with disabilities? New immigrants? Given the need to obtain the maximum positive impact from the use of library resources, how much is enough?

Remembering the Washington-DuBois debate keeps me from throwing coals on the fire when this or that cause-group calls on my institution to say, “The library must provide “this service” to us.” Who gets what when? When is enough really enough? All effective library professionals recognize that implicitly or explicitly they face such controversial questions every day.

TBL: What do you perceive to be the most compelling financial concern facing libraries over the next 5 years?

Holt: “More funding” or “adequate funding” is the easy answer, but I do not think that either of these is the most important answer. Instead, our greatest financial danger – not just for libraries but for the whole commonweal – is when politicians cynically promise that they can find ways to provide higher quality government services and at the same time cut taxes. To exemplify this cynicism, I present the words of a library board member who recently was quoted as having said to his director, “This library spends gazillions. Let us cut taxes and stop trying to do so much. A big cut will make our library more efficient and give voters more money to spend”.

This kind of talk leads to chronic disappointment and disillusionment over the supposed incompetence of the public sector generally and, as we know from the California experience over the past 10 years, to an enormous loss of support for libraries specifically. Such wild promises lead to false citizen expectations and, just as badly, they lead to chronic under-funding and un-funded mandates.

The St Louis experience is relevant. Every week somewhere in the St Louis library system, we will have drug addicts either zoned out or looking for something to steal to pay for a fix; a homeless, battered mother with her small children looking for a family shelter that is able to take her without operating still more beyond its capacity; a mentally ill woman soiling herself in a reading room because the state's community mental health initiative has been either under-funded or un-funded since its legislative inception over a decade ago; or a pregnant teen girl raped by her uncle, her mother's live-in boy friend or a just-visiting adult male friend who arrives at a branch to see how she can find out if she has AIDS.

The public library cannot solve all of these societal problems by putting more new books on the shelf or providing more comfortable reading room chairs. As I have pointed out previously in these brief essays, library leaders have to decide how much is enough.

Cynical promises and chronic under-funding call into question the future role of the public sector and, with that, the essential future work of public libraries.

TBL: Are library schools doing enough to prepare librarians to be sound financial managers?

Holt: Given the limits in LIS education, it would be impossible to prepare all library students for the financial management that they will have to do in their future jobs in an ever-more specialized profession. The nature of their financial responsibilities will vary greatly.

Moreover, the very nature of an accredited MLS degree makes it unlikely that newly minted librarians will have sufficient knowledge in any management area, especially in finance because of their often-arcane nature. However, the same thing can be said of a newly minted PhD, JD, MD, and most other professional degree graduates. Management skills are acquired through employment experience combined with very specific education for management. This truth is exemplified in the current movement in the profession to suggest (or require) that high-level library managers hold Public Administration degrees along with their accredited MLS degrees.

This issue is made more complex by the profound weakness of in-service education in most public libraries. Private-sector corporations annually spend more on in-service education for their employees than the total instructional budget of all American colleges and universities. Those who will become future financial managers receive instruction on the critical policy issues and operational strategies to handle finances as part of their training. In the process, knowledge businesses like insurance, investments, banking, medicine, etc. annually spend about 5 percent of their gross salary line on the education and training of their employees. In comparison, few libraries, which also are knowledge businesses, spend even one-half of 1 percent of the same budget line on in- service staff education.

On the other hand, distance education already is having a huge impact on the supply of LIS professionals, whose degrees are apparently as readily accepted as those with a residential degree. Distance education also offers the opportunity for more and stronger in-service training. And that increases the possibility that librarians will obtain professional management training while they are at work on their initial library jobs.

Thus, entrepreneurial library schools through distance education programs already are positioning themselves to help solve the training of younger librarians in economics, finance and the power of budgets.

TBL: If you had the opportunity to do it all over again, would you still choose a career in this profession? Why or why not?

Holt: When I chose my college and graduate- school career training specialties, I did not consider librarianship. Quite frankly, all the librarians I had worked with by the time I made these decisions were dismal role models, more clerical and disciplinary in their orientation than intellectually inspiring or even helpful in helping find answers to a teen-agers search for answers to simple homework questions.

And, it was on the basis of role models that I made my decisions about higher education. In the small-town public school in which I was educated, two great teachers inspired me to choose secondary teaching as my career study. In undergraduate school, two great social science teachers inspired my choice of history for my graduate study. Largely because I thought I was good at it, I became a department chair in my high school teaching, a program [i.e. department] chair when I was teaching college, followed by a stint as a full-time academic administrator.

While still in graduate school, I began to operate my own policy and planning consulting business. Improving public-service operations, especially in historical societies, museums and libraries, became a consulting specialty.

My “call” to become a library administrator came from former Librarian of Congress and Director of the National Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution, Daniel J. Boorstin. His astonishing ability to think anew about old subjects was his intellectual hallmark when I studied American History with him at The University of Chicago. When Boorstin left the academy to join the Smithsonian and then LC, I found him a great role model. When the St Louis Public Library position opened in 1987, Boorstin encouraged me to apply.

So, would I again choose “a career in this profession?” The answer is, “Yes! Of course!” But, having just officially announced my intention to retire at SLPL, I also would say that I have had a wonderfully exciting and fulfilling educational and professional-work life. So, on the one hand, I think it would have been interesting and potentially exciting to have obtained an MLS and PhD in library science. My career path undoubtedly would have been more traditional along the pathways of librarians because there is so much to like about being an effective professional librarian. On the other hand, my past training and my non-library work makes it possible for me to connect librarianship to other professions. To offer this contextualization of current library policy making is, I believe, one of the great strengths that I have brought to the St Louis job specifically and to the library profession generally. I hope that the readers of this journal will agree at least partially with my self-assessment.

TBL: From your years of service in the profession, is there one piece of advice on fiscal responsibility that you would like to give today's library managers to be?

Holt: Every budget I produced as a non-profit professional has reflected the professional values I wanted to emphasize in the institution at that time.

The budget my SLPL management team produced for FY2004 was dramatically different from the one I produced in 1987 or 1995. It was different because I as the CEO recognized that budget changes are the first indicator of real institutional change. Of course, library budgets are incremental, but the budget shifts over a decade can transform something short-term into a proposed course on the way to significant change. If budgets do not change, even incrementally, then I doubt if the library is responding to shifting societal needs – and society's needs are always changing.

Library managers need to ask what impact, what outcome, they want to achieve with the expenditure of the money in a particular budget item. What material, what staff behavior, what outside contractor activity does a budget expenditure pay for? And will that expenditure help create the positive policy outcome that the manager wants to see.

Connecting budgeting with professional and institutional goals and desired outcomes is hard work. It is also the most important management behavior of the year for most library directors. Those who assign this financial planning and budgeting to somebody else are not very effective directors. The constituencies they serve deserve a better effort.

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