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Now happy and hopeful, Salt Lake City Public Library turns the page

Published May 4, 2012 8:57 pm

Government • Acting boss's policies, ambitious plans boost morale.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

At long last, there's good news coming from the Salt Lake City Public Library.

Six months after its former director resigned amid a storm of criticism, the atmosphere at the library is mostly sunny, and the forecast looks pretty bright, too.

The turnaround, according to those close to the library, is due to acting Director Linda Hamilton and her deputy, Karen Okabe. The Library Board, Friends of the Library, the City Council and even the Library Employees Organization praise Hamilton, a veteran government administrator, who also is the chief administrative officer for Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.

Since her arrival Nov. 28 — a month after embattled Director Beth Elder's departure — Hamilton has spent about three-quarters of her time at the library, but hopes to move on when a permanent director is hired, perhaps by year's end.

Under Elder, the library staff looked to be in open rebellion. She had instituted a management shake-up that included demotions and led to retirements. She also had clamped down on communications, including employee emails and Facebook postings. To many, the library had fallen into disarray.

But employee morale has since rebounded and staffers are optimistic, said Brooke Young, a 15-year employee of the library and vice chairwoman of the employees group.

"The staff knows where we all stand now," she said. "We have someone [in Hamilton] who is actively trying to make things better."

Librarians feel freer to communicate, Young said, and staffers were included in formulating the annual budget.

And Friends of the Library, the nonprofit fundraising group that helped push for the ex-director's ouster, is friendly with the acting director.

"We've seen terrific improvements at the library. I call it the rehabilitation of the library," Friends President Jeannine Marlowe said. Hamilton and Okabe "stepped right up and began working for everyone."

Marlowe, who interacts a lot with library employees, said "they are happy and excited to be at the library again."

Hamilton is doing more than revamping communications and personnel policies. For instance, the library's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year reveals a new strategy for updating its systems.

Under Hamilton's plan, the library would contract with City Hall for use of its finance and accounting software, rather than embarking on a costly upgrade of the library's outdated system. The library also would roll its information technology unit into City Hall's IT department. And instead of continuing to hire its own legal counsel, the library would contract for services with the City Attorney's Office.

Those moves would save the library money in an era when budgets are flat and help it move further into the digital age, said library spokeswoman Julianne Hancock.

Upon their arrival at the library, Hamilton said she and Okabe conducted one-on-one interviews with all the managers and went to all the staff meetings.

"We spent the first five or six weeks just listening," Hamilton said. "We got an enormous amount of information."

Beyond deficiencies in personnel policies, they discovered "huge holes" in the accounting and financial systems, Hamilton said, and IT was "awful."

Despite the crisis, employees continued to perform well, Hamilton said.

"When morale was awful, the productivity never slipped," she said. "That's a real testament to the employees here. We have good people."

Hamilton's administrative experience has paid off, said Kevin Werner, Library Board president.

"We brought Linda in to focus on the internal aspects of the library," he said. "She is very good and worth every penny."

The culture within the library is changing because Hamilton has emphasized transparency and communication, said board member Mark Alvarez.

"Her goal has been to get the library on the right course so a permanent director could come in and guide the library to a bright future," he said. "I think she has succeeded to a large extent."

Some anxiety remains among employees, but most of it surrounds the selection of the next director.

"The library culture is [traditionally] one where people feel comfortable talking to their managers," Hamilton said. "We haven't changed it [back] completely. There is some level of thinking that it could go back to the way it was."

csmart@sltrib.com