Book Club 

Area librarians join forces to protest proposed closures, mayoral appointments.

As a girl, Leslie Holland was a voracious reader, often putting a towel under her door at night so that her mother wouldn't know she was staying awake to read.

Now librarian at the Memphis College of Art, Holland is a member of the newly formed Librarians for Memphis Public Library.

"I feel like the city is taking the library in a bad direction," Holland says. "It feels like they're working against the community instead of for it."

At the annual meeting of the Tennessee Library Association last month, a group of librarians, mostly from area colleges, realized they needed to do something. They were concerned about the proposed closures of five library branches, the deterioration of the library board of trustees, and the controversial appointment of a longtime city employee who is not a librarian to head the library system after Judith Drescher's departure last December.

"It's really an 11th-hour thing. If we don't do something now, we really are going to lose these libraries," Holland says. "If they close Highland and the Poplar-White Station branches, we're not going to have any libraries in the middle of the city except for the main one."

Earlier this year, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton proposed closing those branches, as well as Cossitt, Gaston, and Levi, to save $1.5 million to $2 million for the upcoming fiscal year. The proposal came on the heels of Herenton appointing former public services and neighborhoods director Keenon McCloy to head the library system, and some people suspect the personnel change was tied to Herenton's proposal.

"There are clear education and experience guidelines for someone running one of the state's largest library systems," says Chris Matz, director of the Christian Brothers University library. "The appointment the mayor made doesn't meet those in any way."

Herenton and CAO Keith McGee have defended the appointment, saying the library system needs a proven manager, not someone with a master's of library science.

"As people who went to graduate school and who sometimes have decades on the job, when we hear about someone who has never gone to graduate school and getting a plum position, that's an issue," Matz says. "It's a job that would attract very qualified people if we did a national search."

During a recent budget presentation, Herenton revisited the controversy, pointing out that the city of New York doesn't have a professional librarian at the head of its library system.

Benjamin Head, instruction librarian at CBU and another member of the group, has researched the head librarians in other municipalities.

"New York has a former college president who was over a major college library and who has a number of advanced degrees in education," Head says. "That's quite different in my view."

The group thinks the mayor's appointments — and the proposed branch closures — might have met more scrutiny if the library's board of trustees was still a working group. Moreover, it's unclear when or how the board was dismantled.

Even the state has taken notice.

"A portion of their funding is dependent on [having a library board of trustees]," says Jeanne Sugg, state librarian and archivist. "They have promised me they are working on that. ... The more quickly that happens, the better."

By state law, the library system must have a board of trustees before the state can disburse $45,000 in funding. Each of Tennessee's major metropolitan areas is awarded the same amount, but for the Memphis system to get its share, it must have a board in place by the end of the month.

McCloy did not respond to a call for information about the board of trustees.

The librarians have an online presence (l4mpl.blogspot.com) and are working with both the Tennessee Library Association and the Memphis Area Library Council, as well as local neighborhood groups, to save the branch libraries.

"I think it took everybody by surprise that they were going to close these branches, especially on such a short timetable," Matz says. "One of the long-term goals of the group is that we don't believe the library director should be subject to mayoral appointment. It's not a spoils job. It deserves a full-blown search process."

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