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Library Board Hears Report On Director Search Focus Groups

Dawn La Valle, Division of Library Development from the Connecticut State Library, reported to the C.H. Booth Library Board of Trustees, April 8, on the results of focus groups convened to comment on the library’s search for a new director.

Ms La Valle and Mary Engels, director of the Middletown Library Service Center for the Connecticut State Library, conducted five different focus groups over the past two weeks, at the request of the new director search committee. Each group, she said, was posed two initial questions to help determine what skills and personal characteristics are considered most important in a new director of the C.H. Booth Library. Additional dialogue was encouraged in the course of the conversations. Input was received from a total of 31 people.

On Monday, March 31, four members of the Young Adult Council of the C.H. Booth Library and seven community members provided opinions on traits they found desirable in a new director. Meetings later that week with members of the Friends of the C.H. Booth Library and library staff added to those opinions, as did the comments of town residents who attended the Monday, April 7, final focus group.

On April 7, Glenn Budzinski and Ellen Spears said that two skills a new director must possess are knowledge of library operations and library experience with a community similar in size to Newtown, as well as the ability to identify and implement new technology.

As in previous groups, the seven community members at the April 7 meeting stressed that a new director must be willing to listen and observe, before determining any changes to be made.

“Get to know the town,” urged Patricia Campbell. A new director should not make “a single change for months,” she said, “especially with what this town went through [on 12/14].”

Mike Hughes also said good listening skills were high on his list of skills a new director should possess. The director should reach out and get to know people not using the library, as well as the patrons. “It should be somebody who loves children, because the children are our future,” Mr Hughes said.

More than one person present at the final focus group stressed that the new director should value the staff, a desirable characteristic mentioned by all groups questioned. The staff is an asset to a new director, with insight into what the town needs or may need, Ms Campbell said, and a new director can tap into that.

Others on Monday night said that they wanted a director who is visible in the library and the community, can connect with the families and the many town organizations that meet regularly at the library, and who will be able to connect with town government and other agencies.

At the halfway point of the meeting, Ms La Valle recapped what she had heard, saying, “You want a person who is visionary in strategic planning, who looks at the big picture and understand the needs of the community.” A director able to maintain a balance between tradition and technology is desirable, Ms La Valle said she was hearing, “and it is incumbent on that director to maintain that balance. Getting to know the culture of the town, and its wants and needs is important.”

A director who is able to creatively implement new ideas and is able to “sell” it to staff and community through effective communication would be of benefit to the town, the participants agreed.

Longtime Newtown resident Jean Kreizinger suggested that the Delphi process of decisionmaking could be a useful tool in the director search, and for the new director in seeking decisions. It is a process in which “everybody feels heard and has time to make a case for what they want,” she explained. “Once it is over, everyone knows what is going to happen,” she said, in a simplified explanation. As a former assistant dean of Arts and Sciences at WestConn in charge of the midtown building renovations, Ms Kreizinger said that the Delphi process proved valuable in the back and forth between departments and building committees. A process in which everyone has a say is important in strategic planning, she said.

Talk returned to the topic of a director’s patience in making changes, when the group was asked for ideas on what a director’s first 30 days might encompass. Participants stressed that looking, listening, and taking that time to know the library would be vital, as well as using the time to get direct feedback.

Ms La Valle noted that the position of director in Newtown is a unique one. Not only is there the sensitivity to 12/14 that must be addressed, but fallout from the failed hiring of a director last year must be kept in mind. “There has to be a period of mending fences here,” she cautioned.

The general opinion was that ongoing programming for families and children who continue to deal with 12/14, and a director dedicated to maintaining a healing peace in the library, was definitely desirable.

The April 7 group also offered their opinions on the role of the board of trustees of the C.H. Booth Library, as the new director is put in place: Stay out. Sit back. Do not micromanage. The board must show support for the new director and be there to answer questions, but must have a “hands off” approach.

“Based on the feedback for all groups, common core threads became evident in each of the five groups,” Ms La Valle wrote in her report to the board of trustees, and presented Tuesday evening. Included in a list of 18 desirable skills a new director should possess, that recurred in each group, was the ability to mentor a staff and work effectively with the town, board, and Friends of the C.H. Booth Library; to be transparent, accessible, and visible; to have good verbal and written communication skills; to be technologically savvy; and to be able to manage and adapt to change. Desirable characteristics for the new director echoed by the five groups included a person who is welcoming and approachable; caring, decisive; honest; empathetic; thoughtful; respectful; and confident.

Among the key concerns, reported Ms La Valle, was that a new director “be aware of the community and sensitive to what the community has endured [following 12/14].” A new director should ease into the position and avoid radical changes; be involved and love the library; be supportive of the staff; and be a library professional, not a fundraiser. It is important, according to the people involved in the focus groups, that the board step back but be supportive of the director and staff, and allow the director to manage the library. A director must be visible and accessible, but not intrusive, according to information gathered.

“I cannot stress how important these focus groups were to the community,” Ms La Valle told the board. “It was a very good activity.”

In responding to board member Ted Meehan’s question, “Are these characteristics a good match in expectations [for hiring a new director]?” Ms La Valle said, “Yes. These skill sets are very much in line with what we look for.”

The information gathered from the focus groups will help form interview questions for candidates, said Bob Geckle, a board member and member of the new director search committee. To date, six resumes have been received, he reported, and it is early in that process. The committee is still on track to present qualified candidates to the board and determine a new director by June 15, he said. He stressed that the search committee wants the full board involved in the review of the final candidates.

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