By Tina Irgang
Kathleen Teaze has been leading libraries around the country for nearly 30 years. Today, she serves as CEO of the library system of Prince George’s County, where she spearheaded LINK, an initiative to promote library use among all school-age children. Recently, Teaze was elected president of the Maryland Library Association. In the following interview, she talks about the challenges of a low-resource, high-demand environment, and her vision for the future of Maryland’s libraries.
How did your love of libraries get its start?
Teaze: It’s hard for me to even remember. I think that there are two kinds of people, and those are readers and non-readers. You can kind of become a reader and develop a love of reading if you’re not particularly a reader, but the other way, you don’t ever get rid of that love of reading and desire to be around books. So I think it was there from the beginning, but I can remember it being an activity that I did with my father. We would go to the library on a regular basis, and so that gave me my sort of lifelong background in it.
But I actually didn’t decide to become a librarian until later in life, till after I’d gotten my undergraduate degree. At the time, I decided to get my graduate degree in library science, I was working in a rape crisis center, and I was starting to suffer some burnout I think. I said to myself, and some other people who then called my bluff, I think I’ll get a nice quiet job in a library. … At the same time, I ended up getting a job in my local town library, as an adult services librarian. I’d never worked in a library before, so this was all new to me and I really loved it — making the connections between people and books and putting those people with books and with educational opportunities.
You’ve been working in libraries for a long time now. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in terms of how libraries are run?
Teaze: How we run things has really depended on how our public libraries are used. So when I started 30 years ago almost, there was a certain segment of the population that used libraries. There were going to be schoolkids doing reports, and there would be maybe preschoolers having story time and checking out picture books. Parents maybe, helping with kids homework, and then there would be that cadre of adults who were either avid readers or trying to improve their skills and wanting professional resources.
I think what has happened in that time is that libraries now attract even bigger cross sections of the public, and part of that had to do with computer access and the internet. So we became — whether we liked it or not — a de facto internet access place of the general public. We are, certainly in Prince George’s County, but in many places in the country, we are really the only free place to access the internet and to use computers. … So now probably 60 percent of our users are people who come in specifically to use our public-access computers or our Wi-Fi. …
Public libraries have become a place that is more intensely involved in lifelong education than ever before.
What are some of the unique challenges you face leading a library, as opposed to another kind of business or nonprofit?
Teaze: Most nonprofits are always looking for more resources to help them fulfill their mission. I think we have a couple of challenges — one is that our mission has been somewhat changing, and you have to have a nimble enough organization to keep up with those changes. The changes with technology, and the changes in what our communities need from us are challenging. … We are trying to keep up with the expectations of not only just the general public but the other agencies and organizations in our communities, because we are seen as a really prime way of connecting with the people that they want to connect with. So trying to do all that with shrinking resources is really challenging.
How do you deal with that challenge?
Teaze: It isn’t an easy thing. … In Prince George’s, our budget was cut by 40 percent in 2008, and it’s only recently started recovering a little bit. Yet at the same time, we’re expected to have more and more electronic books and services, homework help, career placement help, job-skill development, with less money than we ever had before.
So what we do is kind of examine the landscape on a regular basis, and determine what the priorities are for the community that we serve and from which we get a lot of funding. In our case, that’s the county. We look at what the priorities are in the county and our various communities, and then we try to focus efforts on those things, as opposed to being everything for everybody. So you start to refine your book collections, your other material collections, your digital offerings to reflect more what people are using and what they’re asking for than what we think would be good for them to have (which is the old-fashioned way of doing it). Now we’re being more consumer-driven, like everybody.
You were just elected to a one-year term as president of the Maryland Library Association. What’s your vision for what you want to accomplish there?
Teaze: What I would like is for us to expand the capacity of our library staff … so that we can be flexible enough to meet the changing needs. It’s one thing to have attended and gotten a master’s degree ten years ago, but in that time, things have really changed. So we need to be able to keep up with those changes and be proactive with our development. So [I want] to expand that capacity on the individual level, and also to kind of continue to educate the public about what our libraries can do today — what public libraries are able to offer everybody. People are always amazed when we show them what we have now for them that they don’t even need to come into a building for. They can do a lot of things from home. We have so many resources that people don’t really know about, and that’s one of the things we really need to get out there.
What book has particularly shaped or influenced you?
Teaze: When I was in high school, one of my heroes … was Eldrige Cleaver, and I think Soul on Ice really had a huge impact on me — in terms of taking personal responsibility, in terms of looking at the world through different eyes. Making sure that I’m mindful of those things every day when I’m doing my work or doing anything, but particularly in my job and certainly in my job here in Prince George’s County. The message in there is if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. I think for better or worse, that’s become part of my DNA.
Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about the numbers, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email firstname.lastname@example.org.