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New library director embraces challenges

Karl Zinke

After spending the last 17 years at UMKC, John Herron sees himself as an educator.

And in his new role as the director of the Kansas City Public Library, he doesn’t see that changing very much.

“I've been an educator for a long time – 17 years here at UMKC and several years before that – so I see that role as a way to continue that commitment to education, only to do so with a slightly different platform – and one that is much more community engaged – in a different way than I'm able to achieve now. So seeing the library as a key part of educating and serving the community is what drew me to the position.”

Herron, who has been serving as the interim dean of UMKC’s College of Arts and Sciences, was appointed the new director by the library’s Board of Trustees on June 2, replacing R. Crosby Kemper, who was appointed by President Trump as director of the federal government’s Institute of Museum and Library Services after 15 years as the Kansas City director. Assistant Director Debbie Siragusa has led the library in the interim.

Herron will begin his duties in early July, managing the system’s 10 branches, including the Trails West branch at 11401 E. 23rd St. in Independence and the Sugar Creek branch at 102 S. Sterling Ave.

Herron began at UMKC in 2003 as an assistant history professor and rose to lead the university’s largest school, which consists of 20 programs and centers and approximately 450 employees.

He thinks that experience will help him in his new job.

“I've been in charge of increasingly more complicated and complex units on campus, so right now I'm managing a very diverse group of faculty, students and staff,” Herron said. “And I've managed a very complex budget, so in terms of the day-to-day experience, I think that there will be a direct translation into what I do now and what I'm going to do for the library. I also have, in the last seven or eight years, become increasingly committed to real community engagement. Education is not always in the classroom. In my classes and in my larger frame of vision, I'm increasingly pushing our students to go beyond the walls of the traditional classroom. And that's a mission that the library shares.”

Broadening the mission

Laura Dominik, who represents the Independence district on the library’s Board of Trustees, was on the selection committee. She was impressed with Herron when he gave a presentation at one of their signature events.

“We were impressed with him there, and he did a great job in the interview process as well,” Dominik said. “He already has great connections in the Kansas City community and he brings expertise in fundraising and community involvement and has a passion for diversity. He was just a great candidate who was a natural fit.”

Herron said his vision is to “broaden and deepen” the library’s dedication to the social services and public programming in addition to managing its large catalogue of books and other items for public use. He said it’s even more important to do that now that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused people economic hardships.

“The library has become, in essence, a community center, a public square, a think tank. All of those different things require a great deal of community interaction,” he said. “... The libraries are people's access to the internet, these are social gathering places, these are learning hubs, these are working spaces, so we have to continue to fulfill the service mission under the restrictions COVID has produced.

“… The digital divide is real in our community. We can use the library to help bridge that divide, while at the same time increasing information literacy, and while at the same time serving as a place where our citizens can get access to new forms of education.”

Herron said he wants to make that access readily available at all branches, including the two in Eastern Jackson County, and not just the three largest branches, the Central, Plaza and Waldo branches.

“I'm hoping that we can do everything to increase traffic to the Eastern Jackson County branches,” he said. “... I do want the library to be as well known in all of the distant branches as they are in the Central library. ... I'm hoping to learn more from each of the branch managers about what their hopes and needs are, but I certainly want to make sure that all of the branches are served the same kind of attention to public programming, to innovative services, that we're able to offer at the larger branches that get a lot more foot traffic.”

Herron said he will have to learn a new set of regulations and some different ways to operate, but he said he will rely on what Kemper has built over the last 15 years and the “very strong” executive team and branch managers already in place.

“What I'm hoping is that I can build some consensus,” Herron said. “I don't envision coming in and making radical changes, but I do want to come in and make sure that we are as efficient as possible, that we are serving the core mission as much as we possibly can, and I will rely very heavily on the very strong team that is already in place.”

Now it will be an education for him.

“Part of being an academic, it's part of your identity, it's not just a job, so I am interested to see what this transition's going to be like because I am also giving up something I've been a part of for so long,” Herron said. “I also think this is the perfect time in my personal life, a perfect time for my career, and I think what has happened is that the library has used the last 15 years to reposition itself in the community, and I would hope that over the next 15 years we can continue to accelerate that trend, that we can become a cultural institution in the same way that, say, the Nelson-Atkins Museum (of Art) is. I would like the library to be seen in the same way.”