Lois Langer Thompson didn’t set out to be the director of Hennepin County Library—or of anything, really. She just believed in the power of the library to change lives. That strong sense of mission is at the heart of how Lois leads one of the largest library systems in the country, with a collection of 5 million items, a budget of $80 million, and nearly 6 million in-person visits a year to 41 branches throughout the Twin Cities metro area. As a librarian, Lois gets a front row seat to the transformative effect books and information can have on people. And as director, she advocates for the continued value and relevance of libraries in a changing world. In our conversation, Lois shares why libraries play a critical role in the success of communities of all kinds—and about the one list she looks at every week.
Lois Langer Thompson
October 5, 2015
What is your job?
Despite my title as director of a system with 41 libraries, I usually just tell people I’m a librarian. Director may sound like the bigger deal, but I believe it’s librarians who change lives. We’re out there giving people ideas and access to information. I’ve seen the power of a single book to show someone their own identity. I interact with kids who come in trying to figure out who they are and discover a world of books they don’t have access to at home. Librarians help people discover new possibilities. And that changes the world.
In a Google and smartphone world, what role do libraries play?
The assumption people make today about the library is that it will soon be irrelevant, everything is online, no one goes anymore, and Millennials aren’t interested. I would dispute all of that. Our libraries stayed open 249 more hours each week in the last two years, and we had 400,000 more visits in 2014 based on those expanded hours. That’s a clear indicator of the value libraries still play in daily life. I’m often asked, “Why do you still need buildings and library spaces?” The answer is, “Because people need places to go.” People need community. And the library is the ultimate neutral place for both. You don’t have to buy anything, believe anything, or belong to anything to be welcomed at the library.
How does a library foster community?
As director, I make sure that we do more than open our doors to everyone; we try to represent every viewpoint in our collection and programs so that everyone feels at home here. At the same time, when you come here, you may sit down next to someone who is different from you—and a connection is made. Like when a young person happens to sit next to an older person who needs help figuring out the computer. People generally tend to shop and eat and congregate around people like them. But the library is a place you’re likely to meet someone you otherwise wouldn’t. I love the power of libraries to bring people together. Whether it’s in smaller towns, where we’ve created spaces for neighbors to meet and watch their kids grow up, or in downtown Minneapolis, where you’ll hear multiple languages spoken in a single room.
"You don’t have to buy anything, believe anything, or belong to anything to be welcomed at the library.”
Beyond helping people, how can a library help shape a neighborhood?
We’ve invested in building beautiful, open library spaces in economically struggling neighborhoods, and it’s helped start a ripple effect of other new development. Beauty breeds beauty; community pride is infectious. We’ve also just started building relationships with a Minneapolis community called Cedar Riverside. Cedar Riverside is an isolated neighborhood, wedged between two freeways and the river, made up of mostly Somali immigrants. Many live in poverty, many don’t have a high school degree, and many are young adults: 43% of residents are between the ages of 18 and 24. This makes it a target area for recruitment into terrorist organizations like ISIS. Bringing library services into a community like Cedar Riverside can be a game changer.
How is the library a game changer?
A library is a front door to possibility. Refugees immigrating to the U.S. are told by agencies that the best thing they can do when they arrive in the U.S. is to go get a library card. They’re told, “If you can learn, you’ll succeed.” It’s part of the American dream—the dream that you can better yourself and create a better life for your children—and a library is a place where that’s possible. The average person I meet generally has mostly sentimental feelings about libraries, remembering childhood visits and favorite books. But it’s my job to help people see that libraries also catalyze cultural change. We’re helping communities understand the importance of literacy in navigating life. We’re partnering with workforce development to make sure people who otherwise wouldn’t have good options find real pathways to real jobs. We’re providing safe spaces and engaging programs that build feelings of hope, connectedness, and pride.
How do you think about leadership?
I’m not in this role because I dreamed of being a leader; I’m in it because I believe in the library. It’s very helpful for me to keep that “why” in sight. If we’re stuck somewhere or I start taking hits, I don’t get fixated on protecting my job or defending myself; I focus on how we can work together as an organization to succeed. I’ll remember my “why” or ask someone who loves me to remind me. That changes how I listen to criticism, too. One of my key realizations as a leader is that when people get loud criticizing something, it’s because they care deeply about it. I have to listen for what people care about beneath the criticism. Because that criticism isn’t really about me—it’s about making the library succeed.
"Libraries catalyze cultural change. Refugees immigrating to the U.S. are told by agencies that the best thing they can do when they arrive in the U.S. is to go get a library card.”
How do you stay sharp as a leader?
I go to leadership conferences, read leadership books, and build personal relationships with leaders I think are smart. One key leadership practice I’ve picked up is to have a list, a “Big Six,” of the most important things or initiatives I want to focus on. I make sure to look at that list regularly—if not every day, then every week. I’ll modify the list as I accomplish one of them, but it’s an important way I keep my priorities in sight. Like most of us, I could spend all day responding to things that come up, or get stuck in the details of 50 small tasks that don’t actually move this organization forward. My “Big Six” keeps me focused and accountable to the long-term, future-looking things that matter.
What do you hope will be different about this organization when you leave?
When I stepped into leadership here in early 2009, it was a precarious time. It was right after the Hennepin County library system had merged with the Minneapolis Public library system. Minneapolis Public was running out of money and was going to have to close—and Hennepin County decided that wasn’t ok, that the city needed the same great service as the suburbs. We merged quickly and efficiently. But we were surrounded by uncertainty. We had lost our previous director, the economy tanked, our identity dramatically shifted, and we didn’t have a mission, vision, or strategic plan. We now have all of those things. We not only survived, but we’re thriving and getting our edge back. My hope is that by the time I leave, we will again be considered one of the most innovative library systems in the country.
"One of my key realizations as a leader is that when people get loud criticizing something, it’s because they care deeply about it.”
What drives you?
I want to carry forward the message that, beyond giving people personal value, a library makes communities better. The beautiful new central branch in Minneapolis has created a powerful sense of community downtown. This is a place where kids come who would otherwise engage in at-risk behavior after school. It’s a place where teens from Cedar Riverside can get out of their two-block neighborhood and experience a beautiful and inspiring world. This is a place that’s home to the original Audubon book, some of the largest collections of cookbooks and sheet music in the country, and a grand piano to practice on. This is a center of community—and that makes the city better.
I always understood I was taking on the role as director for a little while. Amazing leaders built the organization before me and amazing leaders will follow me. I take it seriously that I want to pass on something very good. So I keep my eye fixed on our mission: to nourish minds, transform lives, and build community together. That drives me every day.