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Cheerleader, advocate, defender. They're all part of the job of leading the state's biggest public library system, but now new duties fall to the rookie director of the Hennepin County Library system: budget cutter and seer.
Lois Langer Thompson, who started her new job last week, isn't cowed by the job ahead. While cutting budgets isn't something she likes, especially at a time when libraries are more popular than ever, she said she's trying to use it as one tool to help reshape libraries for the 21st century.
"Advocating for the library is a role I enjoy because I believe in it so much," Thompson said. With a target of cutting a nearly $74 million budget by about 10 percent, "we have to put the customer first," she said. "I'm hoping not to reduce hours, because access is so important."
Thompson, 48, has worked for the libraries for more than 20 years. She grew up in St. Louis Park in a family of readers. Adventure books and the Trixie Belden mysteries were favorites when she was a girl.
Even as a teenager, she said, she loved libraries. But she didn't want to be a librarian. History, especially World War I and II, fascinated her. After she graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College with a history degree, she got an internship with the Minnesota Historical Society. One job was to help inventory the contents of Charles Lindbergh's childhood home.
"Every fork got a number," Thompson said. "You do this for a little bit and I realized I needed more contact with people."
Library science, with its combination of research and helping people, seemed an ideal goal. Off she went to the University of Denver for a graduate degree. When she returned, she worked in the Central library in Minneapolis. That job confirmed her career choice.
"It was really fun," Thompson said. "I really enjoyed connecting people with what they needed. What I like about libraries is that we don't make a judgment about why people need something. We just help them find what they need. It's about a democratic society ... open ideas, open access."
Except for a brief stint in a New Ulm library, Thompson has worked in Hennepin libraries for the rest of her career. Her experience spans children and adult literature and specialized areas such as business. She has worked not only at Minneapolis Central but also in suburbs from Eden Prairie and Bloomington to Maple Grove and Plymouth.
"All of them feel different and are different," Thompson said. "In the case of libraries, one size doesn't fit all."
What those libraries and the bigger system should look like in budget-shrinking times is Thompson's current challenge. She has to cut costs even as the 41-library system still is adjusting to last year's merger of the suburban and county libraries.
While the merger created efficiencies -- government documents that were at the Minneapolis Central and Southdale libraries are now in Minneapolis, allowing creation of a job search and small business center at Southdale -- there are some added costs, too. The two systems used different cataloguing systems. Users will not be able to search the system's entire collection of more than 5 million items at one time until the two websites become one later this year.
Thompson said the merger is going well and is ahead of schedule. But she doesn't gloss over continued tensions. She said staff workshops show that stereotypes persist, with some people clinging to the image of the suburban popular collection and Minneapolis research library. Volunteer employee exchanges between city and suburban libraries have helped, she said. Staff training is being done in different locations to broaden employees' horizons.
"People have shown resilience and patience," she said.
Balancing the priorities
Minneapolis partisans have been particularly concerned about the future of Minneapolis Central's special collections, which include valuable materials on Native Americans, 19th-century literature and World War II. Public access is limited because staff must be present when the collection is being used. Thompson said she would like to increase use of those collections.
"Hennepin and Minneapolis developed [as they did] partly because of what the other one was like," she said. "We have depth, and we have a big collection. To cut either one off makes no sense."
The library's general mission -- promoting early literacy and lifelong learning and serving a broad population -- remains. Exactly how those goals are reached when dollars are short is the question.
"It's a challenge," Thompson said. "There are things we need to eliminate, things we need to realign and things we need to expand."
Layoffs among the system's 900-plus employees are possible. If that happens, Thompson said, the 16 percent of employees who are managers and supervisors will be included. The priority, she said, is to retain people who directly serve patrons.
Automation helps. About 85 percent of users today check out their own books using electronic scanners. Most users reserve books online. And on the county library website, a feature called "Book Space" allows users and librarians to comment on and recommend books, creating virtual interaction that seems personal.
"It requires librarians and expertise, but it blows the model wide open," Thompson said.
The only option that's off the table is saying that libraries should stay just the way they are, she said. She believes everything needs to be reexamined.
"What's most important?" Thompson asked. "People think you're not a library if you don't have [certain things]. But is that still true?"
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380