By Cindy Fesemyer, Director of Columbus Public Library in Wisconsin
Budgeting, meetings, politicking, community engagement, meetings, fundraising, meetings, HR . . . these are the mainstays of professional life for a small to mid-sized public library director anywhere in the country. We do it all. But you already know that, so no surprises there.
What took me by surprise, though, is how much this new career of mine was built on top of an already strong leadership base garnered through activities professional and personal. A few years back I chucked a successful career in lefty non-profit management and fundraising to go back to school for my MLS. I wanted a career I CHOSE, not one I defaulted into. Plus, that default career had seriously burned me out. To make myself feel better I wanted to read books to kids and get paid for it. I was already doing that at home with my own kids, after all. I wanted to sit on rugs and talk with moms. Maybe organize a craft cabinet or two. Make cake pops with some tweens. Youth Services was my chosen path. That’s what I told myself, my academic advisor and a dear library fiend when I started on this new path.
Neither of them was at all surprised when, a mere few months into the program at UW-Madison School of Library and Information Studies, I decided I’d really rather be a library director. They each flashed a deadpan “Duh” kind of face when I made my big announcement. They knew me well enough to know that a daily dose of cake pop crafts would leave me wanting more. They never denied my natural proclivity to view life through big-picture lenses. Turned out I couldn’t deny it for very long either. And I haven’t looked back since.
What I brought with me into the library school classroom gave me a leg up on all those regular leadership tasks we learned like budgeting, HR, outreach and, yes, meeting etiquette. The things I learned in school that are pure-public-library and specific to a library community—knowing and loving state statute, forging relationships with local politicians, selection and weeding, figuring out where to find the movers and shakers of a community—those are the things that challenged me and kept me coming back for more as a returning student. Those are the sweet and pretty new layers I got to add to the top of the bog ole layer cake of leadership that sustains me as a library director.
I have about 18 months of directorship under my belt at this point, in lovely Columbus, Wisconsin. With some very experienced Library Trustees and a phenomenally competent staff to help guide me, I was able to jump right into a pretty big building renovation, the addition of our first-ever parking lot, development of a new staff structure, the addition of tons of new programs, a massive overhaul of some dusty collections and a fast and furious mission to meet as many people as possible in a new community. I wanted to jump in with both feet and I got what I wanted.
Though I’m sure anyone with the ability to keep a few balls in the air could have done what we did here, I suspect we had a relatively easy time of it because of the skills I brought from previous experiences . . . those big and sturdy base layers of the cake. To be clear, those base layers are composed of much than previous professional experience. They include everything I picked up along the way by just living my life. From home ownership and motherhood to volunteering on the Boards of Directors of a few organizations I liked, I picked up skills by participating in my various communities and helping take care of business.
The leadership know-how I tapped to get though the first year and half of my first public library directorship came from all over the place, including, but not limited to, a previous career. That and the new stuff I learned in library school all added up to a quick directorship and some nice early successes. Now I get to talk books and organize spaces, but I also analyze budget vs. actual reports, chat up elected officials and create staff trainings. I have my cake and I’m eating it, too.
(True confession biography: my kids and I have been watching a lot of baking competition reality TV lately. That’s how we’re coping with the crappy cold Midwestern winter this year. Life is not a box of chocolates; it’s a fancy tiered cake. I’m pretty sure, anyway. At least until I break open the first two seasons of Homeland I got for Christmas. Then I’m pretty sure it’ll all be one big conspiracy theory.)
Cindy began her second career in May 2012 as the Director of the Columbus Public Library in Wisconsin. She is pleased as punch to serve the Columbus community by improving their library to the best of her abilities. So far she’s led the library through a large renovation and the addition of their first-ever parking lot. Together, she and her staff have added tons of new programming and blown the dust off of a somewhat dated materials collection. She’s currently excited to be exploring the idea of expanding the library building sometime in the not-too-distant future (we hope!). Previous to librarianship, Cindy was a non-profit administrator and fundraiser for various Wisconsin organizations. She earned her MLS at University of Wisconsin-Madison.