Snapshot: Ruth Kowal
By Katharine Dunn, Dean's Editorial Fellow
Ruth Kowal '71LS started her career as a reference librarian in Falmouth, Mass., in 1971 and has for the last 18 years worked as a high-level administrator in the Boston Public Library (BPL). In 2008, she became acting president of the BPL and also was inducted into the Massachusetts Library Association Hall of Fame. Since October — when Amy Ryan, the new BPL president, took over — Kowal has been director of administration and finance.
Dealing with budget constraints is nothing new to Kowal, who says that libraries in Massachusetts have had to make major reductions in operating costs since the early 1980s, with the passage of Proposition 2½. [Proposition 2½ limited the amount of revenue a municipality may raise through local property taxes to fund operations; for funds beyond those set by Proposition 2½ limits, municipalities must seek voter approval.] BPL has seen its staff shrink significantly in the last two decades; meanwhile, circulation, computer use, and program attendance are increasing as more and more people rely on the public library in tough economic times. Kowal spoke with us about life at the BPL and, for our career issue, about what she looks for in job applicants.
What is your job?
I've been spending a lot of my time recently working with our finance and public service managers to think about how we can get through the cutbacks we're facing. I own that piece of it. My background is not financial; I'm a librarian. But I've certainly had a lot of experience working with numbers and budgets. It comes with the territory if you're a library administrator these days.
I started out as a reference and reader-information librarian, and I still get to spend an hour a week at one of our public information desks in the Johnson building. I frequently tell people that I think it's the best hour of my week. I get to help people find things here in the [Central Library] building. Our job is to get people connected to whatever it is they're looking for. It gives me a chance to see what's going on in terms of the things people are asking for: Are the computer systems working? How does the building look? Are the security people doing what they're supposed to be doing? What's going on with checking people's material out? I keep an eye out on the public service side of the house. And it's fun. It's just part of my nature to look at the whole operation.
Have you had to come up with creative ways to help public service, now that there are fewer librarians on staff, but circulation and visitation are up? We did something recently that was creative. Most of the management staff and some of our librarians and support staff came in on Bunker Hill Day — which is a holiday in the city and a day this building is closed — to help our circulation department get their backlog of materials cleared out. The backlog is the result of a significant increase in circulation throughout the library system. That work day was also very insightful in terms of identifying some of the process-flow improvements that could be considered for the future. It was an everybody-pitch-in event. We got a lot of materials back on the shelf. There's a lot more to go. So we may have to do something like that again, just to help keep their heads above water.
You have worked in libraries for your entire career. How did you
decide what you wanted to do?
I did my undergrad in anthropology in Syracuse. I wanted to come to Boston when I graduated. I didn't want to go to work as a secretary, and I knew as an anthropology major I didn't have much in the way of marketable skills. One of my sisters got a master's in education at Simmons, and another was a library trustee. A series of events lined up, and I said, "Oh, I'll apply to the library science program at Simmons." It was the only place I applied. That was my career decision.
I say to people who are thinking about a public library career: If you don't like people, don't do it. To be a successful public librarian, you've got to have good people skills.
The director in Falmouth, my first job, was a mentor to me. She was fairly young and I was the only other professional on staff. She gave me opportunities to do and to learn things that most people don't get experience with for a long time. I was a public library director, in Plymouth, Mass., when I was 27. I have attributed my professional success to being in the right place at the right time and not being afraid to move and change jobs. I was in Plymouth for eight years. Then I went off to New York state to run a state-funded multitype library system, was appointed Regional Administrator for the Central Massachusetts Library System, and then the Eastern Mass. Library System headquartered at the Boston Public Library. That's how I ended up here at BPL. A big circle around.
The BPL is an established, big, complex organization. Adjusting to changing user needs involves many people working in a variety of service areas, and change isn't always easy for staff. We have staff who have worked here a very long time, and for some it is hard to let go of a way in which they have done their work for many years. We're in the people business, in terms of who's doing the work and in terms of who comes through our doors. I say to people who are thinking about a public library career: If you don't like people, don't do it. To be a successful public librarian, you've got to have good people skills.
Do you think dealing with people is a skill you can learn? No. I believe you need to hire people for their personalities, as well as their skill set. You can teach them anything. But if they don't have the right personality, and it's not going to be a good fit or in the best interest of the organization, then it probably isn't going to be the right spot for the individual either. And it is better to acknowledge that before an offer of hire is made.
What are some things in interviews that you look for or see as
I look for people who are self-confident, personable, and not too full of themselves. They have a sense of humor. They have the ability to think through a complex situation without having the right answer, because frequently there are many answers that could be right. They can think quickly. They can make change and are not afraid of change when it's appropriate.
When [adjunct faculty member] Claudia Morner was doing focus groups on what libraries were looking for from GSLIS graduates, the group I was in wrote up a list of attributes that we wanted to see. We were a mixed group. There were four-year and community-college librarians there, I was there, there was a special librarian, and a new graduate from Simmons. Every single one of us was looking for the same kinds of things: People who are willing to say, "I'm doing this today, and I understand that I may be doing that tomorrow. I'm going to keep my skills current. I'm friendly and personable but I can get a job done. I have good time-management skills. I know how to speak, I know how to write." And as I said before, this is a people business. We deal with a lot of unusual people in this building. We treat them with respect but set boundaries. People push that envelope and at a certain point you have to have enough moxie to say, "I understand what you're saying, but that's not something we're able to do for you." And to not pass out on the rug when someone gets a bit fractious with you.
Is there a class you'd like to see added to the GSLIS curriculum?
I'm thinking that it may be staff development training for those already in the workforce. Practitioners who need training on how to hire people, how to understand that you've got a candidate in front of you who is right for the job you need filled. Maybe that's the course, or there needs to be a subset of the administration course on evaluating potential candidates for hire. That is, I think, to some degree a teachable skill. But you've got to have the right personality to receive the knowledge.
What about in terms of attire? What do you expect to see? I expect people to come dressed like professionals. They look put-together. They're not wearing tank tops and sneakers. It's important for people working in the public sector to look good. I was leaving the building a couple of weeks ago and one of the guys, a circulation clerk, had on a shirt and a tie. He looked good. It gave him a presence. I'm not expecting suits and ties, but I do expect staff to look as if they care about themselves. Because if you don't care about yourself, I'm not sure you care about other things. If you want to call yourself a professional, there are certain things that come with it.
What hard skills do you think students need to have to succeed?
I think graduates come out with great computer and reference skills. It's the soft skills that are the issue. We've had employees we've had to counsel on what it means to be an employee. You know, a 9 a.m. start means that, not 9:15. Lunch hour is this long. You're not setting the schedule here. The other thing is that there's this belief that 'I'm 21 years old, I've got a master's in library science; I ought to be running the institution.' Though, who knows what I was like when I was just starting out! I may have thought I was really with it, but maybe I just happened to get off to a great start with a really, really good mentor.