Vanessa Morris is the Assistant Library Director and Braille and Talking Book Librarian at Taylor Community Library. She founded the Library Access Foundation, which supports public libraries in serving people with print impairments. Follow her on Twitter: @Nessa_Morris.
You’ve been in multiple library leadership positions, including at a specialized library for people with vision impairments. Can you tell us about your career path and your current role?
Short Version: Library Assistant → Youth Services Librarian → Small Public Library Director → Library for the Blind Director → Large Public Library Assistant Director / Braille & Talking Book Librarian
Long version: I was hired as a Youth Services Librarian within a few months of getting my M.L.I.S. A few years later, I became director of the River Rouge branch of Wayne County Library in Michigan.
In part because of my interest in technology, I was offered the position of director of Wayne County Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Services for people with vision impairments, like the rest of the world, are moving to an increasingly virtual environment. Refreshable braille is my favorite technological invention so far.
After Wayne County Library sadly bit the dust, I began working with Taylor Community Library (TCL), also in Michigan. TCL has generously allowed me to help establish a new Braille and Talking Books program that serves residents in Wayne County.
What skills or competencies do you see as important for library leadership?
Communication skills are vital. Budget cuts and program cuts happen when you aren’t around to stand up for your library. Always be present, and make sure to listen and think about what people say.
Librarians are often wordy people thinking a million thoughts a minute due to all the exciting knowledge our brains come across and that we want to share with non-librarians, but non-librarians, which includes many politicians and library board members, don’t always want to spend time pondering the mysteries of the library universe. They rely on library experts to relay pertinent information needed for them to make decisions about the future of libraries, and sometimes our messages get lost in our attempts to provide detailed information (i.e., don’t be wordy).
In summary, be present, be attentive, and be brief.
When the future of the Wayne County Braille and Talking Book Library was uncertain, you founded a nonprofit organization, the Library Access Foundation. What inspired you to take this step?
Service to people with disabilities has become a passion of mine. Everyone has a right to use public library materials. Libraries are great at providing materials, but not always so good at making sure people can use the provided materials, especially at smaller libraries where resources may be more limited. I wanted a way to support public libraries with providing accessible services after Wayne County Library closed.
After talking with a few former colleagues and patrons, I worked with them to establish Library Access Foundation (LAF)t, which could continue to provide minimal services no matter where I personally ended up. You can find out more about our projects at LibraryAccess.org.
What have been your successes with LAF so far? Lessons learned?
My first success was the purchase of a walker with a basket for the use of patrons at Taylor Community Library. I happened to be at the library the first time a patron used the walker. For me, it was exciting that a Foundation I helped establish was able to provide something useful. The woman who used the walker felt like a celebrity when I took her picture to add to the library’s website.
As for lessons learned, establishing and administering a foundation is a long process. Make sure you plan ahead, break items into manageable steps, and delegate. You cannot manage an organization on your own. People need a shared vision and that requires communication.
What’s your library leadership philosophy?
Be practical and use common sense. Also, be your own customer. My daughter is a excellent loser of library books, and it’s a humbling experience to pay your co-worker for a lost book. I highly recommend trying everything your library has to offer from the patron perspective, including losing a book.
Then, use a common sense approach to figure out how your library can make experiences less humbling and less threatening, especially to a person who has never used a library before. Libraries can be scary places for non-users.
How is leadership different in the nonprofit environment than in a traditional library?
In my personal experience, the main difference has been lack of a paid staff for the nonprofit, but I’ve only been directing a nonprofit less than a year. At this point, we’re all volunteers with a shared vision.
I’m sure that a larger nonprofit would have more differences, but LAF is a small recently established foundation. We’re still getting our feet wet in the nonprofit world.
How can library leaders broaden access to library resources for people with vision challenges?
Experience your library from the patron’s perspective. Put on vaseline-smeared glasses and try to use your library. What do you find most frustrating? How can you fix it?
Some easy changes to make: Put large print stickers on computer keyboards. Position screens away from glare. Use large print with high-contrast on signs and fliers.
Other changes may be more expensive, but you can look for partner organizations like Lions Clubs or Rotary. Video magnifiers enable low-vision patrons to see photos or diagrams in print books more clearly than magnifying glasses. Screen reader software can be purchased on a USB-drive, so it can be used with any library computer, rather than a dedicated workstation.
Send staff to events specializing in services to people with vision impairments, regardless of whether they’re library-related or not.
What are the most exciting projects you have on the horizon, either with LAF or Taylor Community Library?
The new “Braille & Talking Books @ Taylor Community Library” grand opening celebration is tentatively scheduled for early April. Information about the celebration will be posted on TCL’s website in March.
LAF volunteers are evaluating assistive devices in order to create Library Access Boxes (LABs) to distribute to nearby libraries in order to help patrons with low vision.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring library leaders?
Whether we want to or not, librarians to engage with politicians.Politicians often decide the fate of your library. Do you really want uninformed politicians making decisions? Educate them.
Politicians should be patrons of your library. If they’re not, figure out why, and get them library cards. Don’t wait until an emergency. Make sure your local and state politicians understand, not just the governance, but the services your library provides to their constituents.