Checked Out 

Did longtime library director Judith Drescher leave of her own accord? Or did Mayor Willie Herenton throw the book at her?

Once upon a time ...

... there was a well-liked duchess who ruled a world of literature and books. Her castle was a beautiful fortress of stone and glass, and the knowledge it contained was admired by people near and far.

After more than two decades under the duchess' reign, her territory was annexed by the king and brought under the crown. For two years, though, the duchess continued to rule.

Then, one day, the duchess suddenly left the castle, taking two of her confidantes with her. The king placed a high-ranking member of his court in her place.

The duchess' people were outraged. They said she had been banished by the king, but the duchess maintained that she had left of her own accord.

When the truth came out that she had been ordered to leave by the king, those close to her said she had thought that by falling on her sword, it would help her kingdom live happily ever after.

Chapter 1: Quiet, Please

On January 14th, in the White House East Room, first lady Laura Bush presented this year's national medals for Museum and Library Services. Among the recipients was the Memphis Public Library & Information Center.

The newly named library director, Keenon McCloy, was there to receive the award, as was Foundation for the Library vice chair Suki Carson.

Notably missing from the proceedings was longtime Memphis library director Judith Drescher, whose two decades of leadership had helped the organization garner the prestigious national award.

In early December, Drescher announced that she, deputy director Sallie Johnson, and library human resources manager Val Crook would retire at the end of the year.

But before those announcements came, Drescher and Crook received hand-delivered letters from the city administration informing them they would not be reappointed to their jobs by Mayor Willie Herenton.

"I was shocked," says Crook, at the time the longest-serving employee of the library system. "I was in a meeting, and they pulled me out of the meeting to give me the letter. After 42 years, to get that letter ... it hurt."

Johnson did not receive a letter from the city, and although she announced her retirement along with Drescher and Crook, she is still working part-time for the library.

Librarians have long held a reputation for wanting to keep things quiet, and this story will not dispel that stereotype.

Drescher did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Other members of the library community declined to speak on the record.

The mayor, through his spokesperson Toni Holmon-Turner, also declined to respond to questions about the situation.

Drescher supporters sent mass e-mails informing people that Drescher had not been reappointed but asked that this information not be mentioned publicly. The e-mails also asked people to tell City Council members that a professional librarian should run the Memphis library system.

City chief administrative officer (CAO) Keith McGee maintains that Drescher's retirement was her decision. But, according to Johnson, Drescher received a letter similar to Crook's. It was brief, saying she would not be reappointed and thanking her for her service to the city.

"We thought it was the best thing for the library system to say that [Drescher was retiring]," Johnson says. "We were trying to protect the library."

Johnson and Crook say that there was no indication from the administration, prior to the letters, that the mayor was unhappy with the work of Drescher and Crook or had plans to replace them.

"It was a great place to work. I don't think you could find a better staff anywhere," Crook says.

But as soon as Drescher's "retirement" was announced, members of the local library community began whispering about her sudden departure. Letters to the editor in The Commercial Appeal praised her accomplishments and lamented her departure. People who work closely with the library say they were upset when they first heard the news.

"I was really shocked," says Larry Cannon, president of the volunteer Friends of the Library organization. "She has done so much to promote the library, and she has done a wonderful job. I don't know who made that decision."

Chapter 2: Library Science

The whispers got louder after Herenton appointed McCloy, former director of Public Services and Neighborhoods, to the job Drescher had held since 1985.

McCloy is not a librarian but, as the head of Public Services, was technically Drescher's boss. She holds an undergraduate degree in history from the University of California at Berkeley.

"[McCloy] is a very competent professional," McGee says. "She was the supervisor of the director of libraries, so she is very familiar with the library operation. She was ... chosen for that position because she could provide leadership immediately."

click to enlarge Judith Drescher
  • Judith Drescher

Cathy Evans is the director of libraries at St. Mary's Episcopal School and a former president of TENN-SHARE, a consortium of libraries across the state.

"This is one of the biggest public library systems in the country. The normal procedure would be to do a national search," she says, "and find someone with experience to manage a library system this size."

Evans says she would not hire someone with McCloy's credentials to work at St. Mary's library.

"If I had an opening, I'd require someone with a master's in library science from an accredited library school," she says.

Cannon surmises the move was political. "I think if you're going to hire a mechanic, you hire a mechanic. ... It doesn't make sense."

According to The Commercial Appeal, when Herenton was asked about McCloy's appointment, he said that "a manager is a manager."

What McCloy does have is experience with the city. A Memphis native, she began working in the CAO's office 16 years ago, about a year after graduating from college.

When asked about her appointment, she says, "I've had the advantage of working with every division of city government pretty extensively. I am extremely familiar with finance division policies, human resource policies, and all the procedures that govern the city of Memphis."

Division directors for the city generally make about $115,000. As head of the library, McCloy will be making more than $134,000 each year.

"I'm a manager. Obviously, librarians are the backbone of the Memphis Public Library & Information Center," she says. "At the same time, we are an extremely progressive organization that serves many different constituencies and not all of them are focused solely on books."

Chapter 3: Reading Room

Wayne Pyeatt is the treasurer of the Foundation for the Library, an organization that helps raise funds for the Memphis library.

"I was very disappointed [Drescher was leaving]. I'm really fond of her. She is a real leader," he says. "The board I'm on and the people working with the library itself really hated to see her leave."

When asked about Drescher's legacy, members of the community repeatedly point to the main library at 3030 Poplar, which opened in 2001. Though named for civil rights leader and Foundation for the Library member Benjamin Hooks, the library is, in many ways, Drescher's.

"As far as I'm concerned, had it not been for her leadership, we would have never built that library," Pyeatt says. "She worked on it for many years before it came to fruition."

He credits the new facility with an increase in library users. "There is a huge number of people who weren't using [the library] before. But they are now, because of its size and its location."

Local author and historian Perre M. Magness wrote a newspaper column for 16 years using the resources at the library.

"[Drescher] is the reason we have this beautiful library," she says. "Many cities have built fine libraries, but they don't work as well as ours does. You go in there and find people doing job searches and genealogy searches. ... It's not the library of your childhood."

University of Memphis marketing staffer Bobby King worked for more than seven years as the library's public relations supervisor.

"No way in the world the city gets a new central library without her in charge," King says. "She had a vision for what she wanted it to be."

While at the library, King learned a valuable trait from Drescher that he carries with him to this day.

"She really instilled in everyone that customer-service mentality," he says. "When you have a job to do, you've got to identify who it is you're ultimately working for."

Supporters also credit her with the InfoBus program and expanding the 2-1-1 LINC service. The Infobus is a mobile library that began in 1999. By dialing 2-1-1, residents can access all types of community information.

"She made the library this invaluable thing in the community. It's admired all over the country. She won that award, she and her staff," Magness says of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. "I hate for her notable career to end on a sour note."

The timing of the National Medal does make it difficult to understand why Drescher would not have been reappointed because of her performance.

"I can't understand why the city would make changes in something that not only was not broken," Magness says, "but was outstanding."

Chapter 4: Overdue?

In all likelihood, this story began more than two years ago when Shelby County government cut $6 million of funding to the metro library system. The suburban municipalities were left with the option of covering the resulting budget shortfall or finding ways to cut costs.

Amid questions of whether the county branches would still be able to use Memphis library cards or be able to do interlibrary book lending, Germantown and Collierville decided to outsource their branches to Maryland-based Library Systems & Services. Millington initially contracted services from the city system, while cutting service hours, but eventually left as well. Bartlett still contracts from the city.

Without county funding, the library went from being an independent but quasi-governmental agency — similar to the health department — to one funded solely by the city of Memphis. In spring 2005, the City Council voted to bring the operation under the Public Services and Neighborhoods division, headed by McCloy.

The transition has been likened to a corporate merger. The library had to change its purchasing practices, leading to a shortage of new books early last year. At the time, it was reported that the transition held up purchases for at least five months.

Hiring was also affected.

As president of Friends of the Library, Cannon spends every Thursday afternoon volunteering at the library.

"The everyday running of the library changed," Cannon says. "It took forever to get anyone hired, other than the woman they just put in charge. That was the fastest replacement I've ever seen."

McCloy initially oversaw the integration of the library into the city government.

"It's been a very complex process and a time-consuming one," McCloy says. "We've completed most of the significant changes that need to occur as part of that assimilation into the city."

Former library human resources manager Crook agrees.

"It was a matter of getting accustomed to the processes and procedures," she says. "It was a different way of doing business.

"When we first transitioned, they told us no one would lose their job," Crook adds. But, because of her job, she understood better than some the reality of the situation.

"I was the HR manager at the library, but they had an HR director at the city. Since we're no longer a separate entity, the main function was down at City Hall."

Crook planned to retire last year but says she was asked by Drescher, Johnson, and McCloy to stay and help the library through the transition.

"After 42 years, I would have liked leaving to be my choice, but I'm fine with it," Crook says.

According to McCloy, the transition is almost complete.

"I think a significant amount of change is behind us. We've accomplished a lot. We're on the city payroll. We're now participating with city purchasing and complying with all the city guidelines."

If that is the case, McCloy's appointment seems the last step in the library's evolution from an independent organization to a city division and signals a permanent cultural shift.

"They're trying to bring it under the city's control," Magness says. "That worries me for the future of the library."

Cannon echoes that sentiment.

"When you talk to [Drescher] about the library, her eyes light up," he says. "I don't see that with our politicians."

Friends of the Library plans to host a retirement party for Drescher in early February.

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