Heather Lowe manages the Fine Arts Division at the Dallas Public Library, where she’s creating community around art.
Can you talk about your career path?
I had an art degree and was thinking I wanted to be studio art professor. So I went to grad school and got my MFA at Cranbook Academy of Arts. In the process of being in grad school I realized didn’t really want to take professor route for a lot of reasons. There’s not a ton of security, art professor jobs are really hard to come by – but also I just happened to have a job in the library there.
Cranbrook is the kind of place where you rely on other students. The things my fellow students were coming to me for were book suggestions, artist suggestions, help with research. I began to think about libraries as a potential career path.
After I graduated there I got a library assistant job at the University of Michigan, where I worked in access services and their visual resource collection. I really enjoyed that environment and particularly enjoyed the visual resources cataloging and thinking about digital resources. I decided I did want to pursue librarianship and went to UCLA for my MLIS.
There I worked as a graduate assistant in the archives and special collections at UCLA. The Center for Primary Research and Training matches grad students with particular expertise to process other scholars’ work but to do so in a way that’s subject area informed. It’s kind of a skills trade – they teach you how to do archiving and you use your knowledge. I found I really enjoyed that.
After I graduated from UCLA I had the opportunity to work at Cal State San Bernadino as the director of their Visual Resources Center. That position was really about teaching students information literacy, visual literacy skills, basic software skills, as much as it was about building digital collections. I really took on a teaching / tutoring role there.
I was there for a few years and then was ready to expand my skills and try something new. I saw a position at the Dallas Public Library for a subject-specialized library in the arts and it just seemed like a perfect fit, so that’s where I am now.
What are your responsibilities there?
As a manager, my primary job is to coach my staff to use their strengths and expertise to make the library more relevant to our community.
A typical day might involve a meeting with a community group, a meeting with a group of staff from various units talking about a library-wide program that’s going to happen in the future, a little time on the reference desk, maybe working on weeding or a overseeing a collection maintenance project.
There’s 8 floors in our central library and each floor has a subject focus. We cover art, theater, film, and dance. We’re totally the fun floor of the library.
One of the successes you’ve had is getting the community involved in the fine arts collection – like the recent vinyl sale at the library. What do you do to get the community involved in the collection?
Sometimes you get the tone right and sometimes you don’t.
For me (and what I tell my staff), being a public librarian, you are a librarian 24 hours a day. When you go to the coffeeshop, you’re still the face of the library.
Everyone on my staff is an artist of some sort – either a musician, or a dancer or an actor. Everyone has a life in the arts outside of the building.
I tell them, “Continue to support the arts and don’t make it a secret that you’re a librarian.”
Out of that, and because of the changes that are happening, there’s been a real openness to what’s possible.
For example, with the LP sale. There’s clearly an outside interest in LPs. We had this fantastic collection that was locked in a room and gathering dust.
To justify keeping the collection and make it visible to the public, weeding it and having this big sale and celebration makes that possible – it sounds really weird to some people in the community that by selling off the collection you’re actually protecting the collection.
It ended up being a really fantastic event. People were interested and surprised that the library had such a collection. It was something that was really fun.
You talked about how your primary job is to coach your staff. Can you share more about your approach management and leadership?
Because I am in a management situation where I cannot have the knowledge that my staff have, really focusing on them as individuals and their talents is extremely important and the coaching metaphor seems to be really apt in my situation. Staff have been selected for my library because they have certain talents.
People will perform the best when they’re engaged and they feel like they’re appreciated. My approach is to get to know the staff, really honor their differences.
I have one staff member who’s really into experimental music and he has really great ideas about programming and ways to engage the community. But he doesn’t get to do that 100% of the time – he still has to weed the film book collection. To be able to find things that are really personally meaningful for staff creates an environment where everybody feels respected, and respects each other, and gives a lot to the library.
Public libraries demand a lot from their staff. There aren’t a ton of jobs that tell you that you have to play this particular role in your community even when you’re not being paid, or that you have to work on Christmas Eve. It’s even more important in the library setting to respect the staff as individuals.
You have to have a passion. Every individual has to have that fire burning inside of them to serve the public.
It’s a really demanding job that can grind you down if you aren’t connected to values. I do consciously remind my staff why we’re there.
On the arts floor we have a very specific mission to promote cultural equity, to provide access to the arts to people who may not feel comfortable in other cultural spaces but feel comfortable in the library.
That’s a role that the public library in particular is really positioned to take and to push forward in our communities.
That’s a really beautiful mission.
That’s part of what drew me to libraries. If you look at any kind of polling about how people feel in public spaces, libraries are pretty much the friendliest spaces.
As an arts person with arts training, taking people who don’t have that training to art museums and watching how they react to that environment, you see very often in institutions that are trying to educate, people feel a little dumb.
I think museums are awesome. That’s not to knock museums. They’re greatly changing their spaces and making people feel more comfortable. [But] people go in and look at a piece of modern art and think that they should like every piece of art in the museum, and if they don’t it, they think “Oh well, art’s just not for me.”
Libraries have this really safe feeling so people think, “I can just go try it.”
There’s more of a self-directed learning in the library.
Hearing about your staff and how you’re coaching them, it sounds like you’re an awesome manager. When you came into this role where you were supervising staff, what skills did you already have and what did you need to develop?
I have always been a very empathetic person. I think I’m naturally fairly perceptive. I can read body language pretty well. So to some extent I brought those skills with me.
I had to develop intentionality. A team is not going to become a team unless you’re really intentional about creating opportunities for them to socialize and to see each other’s skills.
This is the first time I’ve supervised people who are more veteran staff than I am. I have a staff member who’s been with the library for 17 years. He has a lot of institutional knowledge. I’m figuring out that landscape and how to respect that knowledge and still coach him through a lot of change and see the change in a positive light while not feeling threatened.
So I would say being intentional and working on some of the skills I already possess.
It feels like you’re talking about my experience, as someone who’s coming in and supervising people who have been in a library for decades and managing change. needing to honor their knowledge and also lead them through change is this really tenuous landscape.
You have to do a lot of translating, and really thinking about how broad changes affect the individual. When we were hiring people and expanding library hours, I did the calculation: “How much desk time would you be doing with the new staff?”
I tried to break it down in very understandable ways that my existing staff’s life would change. “You’re going to go from doing 7 hours of desk time a day to 4 hours or 3 hours.”
Ugh – 7 hours of desk time?
If you’ve worked in a public library, you can understand that 7 hours of desk time in a day is a lot.
You talked about how exciting it is to be in a library figuring out the future. What do you see as the future of art and visual resources in public libraries?
Library has always been a place of self-directed learning. Parallel to the trends in technology and how much technology is making things easier, there’s also a trend toward going back to the handmade, to the tradition of crafts and exploring your creative side.
You can see interest in weaving and knitting and quilting. All of that has skyrocketed in recent years. The library is really well-suited to help people explore those kinds of interests and be a real stepping block to the arts communities.
The arts community can be – not exactly cloistered, but it can feel very much like a clique. In many cities it’s a very small community. If you’re a printmaker, you know all of the printmakers in your city. Libraries can provide spaces for people to experiment and become more confident, and to connect with others.
Libraries have always been a community hub. Going forward, public libraries, particularly arts libraries, really need to reclaim that role as the place you can go and try out printmaking and find other quilters. We offer keyboard classes and guitar classes. We have an open mic night. There’s a real community beginning to form around those things, and I see that as the future of arts libraries.
It’s not just about art and art output, but bridging the gap between people who want to be supporters of the arts and the art itself.
What big projects are on the horizon for you in 2016?
We had a couple of high profile things this fall, like the record collection and we produced a coloring book from local artists.
In 2016 we’re really looking at community-building endeavors. We’re looking at series of classes and ongoing events. We have an improv class that we’re going to start providing to the public completely free of charge. We’re going to have a series on
how to create photographic work in the spring, and then a professional skills for photographers series in the fall. We’re going to start doing a weekly arts-enrichment program for home-schooled kids.
We’re also trying to coordinate our programming a bit better to increase our impact on the community. For example in music, we have music classes where we teach basic keyboard and basic guitar. We now have an open mic night. We also in the spring and fall have weekly concerts on Sundays.
You can go learn music, you can go perform music, you can go listen to music. We’re looking at creating a series of classes on writing music, and then publishing music, and really strengthening our connections with people who self-publish music and the underground scene in Dallas.
If you really want to support the arts in a city, you really have to provide access to each part of the process. You can’t create art lovers if there’s no art to enjoy, and you can’t create robust arts-creating community unless you have every level of creator, from those that are pretty successful to those that are just starting out.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring library leaders?
Don’t let your fear guide you. It can be scary to step out and take a risk or suggest something that’s not been done or to make a critical comment.
Particularly in a field like libraries, we all tend to be more meek individuals. It really is important that leaders in the library are able to shed some of that fear and some of that meekness and let the values that led us into the profession lead us into pushing the profession forward.