Greg Mickells will take the reins of the Madison Public Library at the beginning of September. Under the terms of his five-year contract, expected to be approved by the Common Council, the new director will make $115,000 a year. Isthmus called Mickells in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he currently works as the assistant library director for Lincoln City Libraries, to learn about what he likes to read and what he thinks is next for libraries.
In a word: change.
Isthmus: How did you become involved with the library business?
Mickells: It's kind of a long story. My undergrad is in fine arts, and my thesis was in drawing and printmaking, so it's a long way from libraries. But shortly after I graduated I was asked by another student to do exhibits for a historical society in Douglas County, Nebraska. While curating exhibits, you have to do a lot of research, which piqued my interest in libraries and reference work. It all started from there.
What was your first library job?
My first library job was with Omaha Public Libraries. [It] was called "retrospective conversion." What that means is I actually was in the lower level of the library taking card catalog cards and converting them to a database. So I go way back.
What other jobs have you had since?
Early on I managed a library for a community college, Metropolitan Community College, also in Omaha. Then I worked quite a bit with Omaha Public Libraries as a reference librarian, a business librarian, [and in] adult services. Then we had an opportunity to move to Colorado, and I worked as a business librarian there. I went on to manage a library in Douglas County.
What experiences have you had in those positions that will help with your job in Madison?
As I described, one of my first jobs in a public library was literally transcribing information from cards into computers. I've been very fortunate to be in organizations that embrace change... knowing that the next technology is going to be here for a while, but then it's going to be replaced by another. I think the experience I've gained throughout my career with living through so many changes, whether it's technology or delivery of service from libraries, has really prepared me well.
Do you have any specific ideas for adapting to e-books and other technologies?
I just view it as another format that libraries will embrace for the community. Just like they brought on board the Internet for the community... [and] audio books.
Why did you decide to come to Madison?
I'm always trying to look for opportunities and new challenges. There's a high turnover in the profession right now; there's a lot of opportunities out there if you're looking for new opportunities and challenges. I'm very happy with where I'm at in Lincoln, but when I saw the advertisement for Madison I thought, here's a comparable-size system that appears to be well funded. They're doing a lot of terrific things, and it just seemed like an excellent opportunity that fit with a lot of my skill sets: building projects, strategic planning.
My first experience with Madison was when I came up to interview. I was very impressed with the city and the support the community gave to libraries. You could sense the passion for libraries in the community.
What do you expect to be major challenges in the years ahead for you and Madison libraries?
My first challenge is just to get familiar with the organization to find out how it's operating. There's so many projects right now in the works with the renovation of the Central Library; they're finalizing the strategic plan; they're finalizing the new branding campaign for the libraries. I've had the opportunity to meet the staff to some degree, and I was very impressed with their enthusiasm. I think as the library moves forward my charge will be to continue to make it a point of pride for the community, to have a fabulous public library system for their city, and just to continue to make it meaningful for the community.
A contentious point around the city over the past couple of years has been homeless individuals using libraries as shelters. What are your thoughts on that?
I think public libraries need to embrace all parts of their community without prejudice. No matter what an individual's economic situation may be, or their race or their religion or whatever factors might identify a particular individual, I think it's a responsibility of the public library to respect all individuals and to offer services as best we can for those individuals. I know it's difficult at times, but there's always parameters and guidelines to follow for appropriate use of a facility. So as long as we're fair, consistent, I think public libraries are essential to every member of the community.
What's your favorite book genre?
Nonfiction. I read a lot of stuff that people would say "really?"
And your favorite book?
That's really tough. That's like asking a parent their favorite child. I would probably say one that I've always put on the top is The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. I'm also a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut.
In a liberal city like Madison, how do you think your favorite book being by Ayn Rand, loved by conservatives such as Congressman Paul Ryan, will go over? What do you like about the book?
I read the book in college when I was a fine arts major and connected to the struggles of the artist/architect to be an individual about their craft.
With Nebraska recently moving to the Big Ten, who will you root for when they play the Badgers?
My roots are from Nebraska, even when I was living in Colorado. When NU plays UW, I'll still be rooting for NU, but all the rest of the teams I'll be right behind UW. My favorite sport to follow is hockey, though, and UW has always been a fabulous hockey team. There's no competition there with Nebraska; they don't have a hockey team. No conflict of interest there.