Kent Oliver didn’t try to dazzle anyone when interviewing for the job of Nashville Public Library director.
But he was well-prepared.
Oliver, a bearded and bespectacled librarian with a voice made for public broadcasting, delivered a clear-eyed assessment of upcoming challenges: funding cuts meant the library hadn’t expanded its collection fast enough, had cut staffing deep enough to affect service, and wasn’t keeping its branch libraries properly maintained or open long enough.
“Everybody’s concerned about the hours,” Oliver recently told the Nashville Library Foundation Board. “Before you can have great public spaces — before you can have great programming that involves job training and adult literacy and different ways to access online information — you have to have buildings open.”
Oliver hasn’t been as flashy as his predecessor, Donna Nicely — often described as a “rock star” for her ability to connect with the community, including influential people whose support for the library is crucial — and who won the nation’s highest library honor in 2010.
But in his own way, Oliver brings passion to the job. He’s a true believer in libraries as egalitarian community centers that lift people up through literacy, connect them to technology and protect free speech.
“We are one of the few places in our society that people can come to and people can come to get on a computer for free, and get some assistance, and apply for a job,” he said. “If that’s not a critical component in our society, I’m not sure what is.”
Oliver also knows a little something about the award Nicely won, the National Medal for Museum and Library Services. He won it a year earlier in Canton, Ohio.
Now he’s looking for ways to reopen the downtown library on Mondays and some branches on Fridays — the sort of nuts-and-bolts task he has focused on during his first three months on the job.
Oliver introduced new data reports at staff meetings to show how many people use local library branches, and how many books they check out. He’s adding more specific goals to the strategic plan. And he peppers staffers with emails about new research and interesting programs at libraries throughout the country.
“We didn’t set out to duplicate Donna,” said Keith Simmons, chairman of the library board. “She came at a time when we were building all these new buildings. There was a lot of excitement she could capitalize on.”
It’s different now, and budget constraints call for new plans.
“(Oliver) is a really solid manager and administrator,” Simmons said. “He’s really passionate about access to information and the freedom to read.”
As part of his vision, Oliver wants board members such as Simmons paying attention to details, too. The more leaders know about how the library performs, the better they’ll be at touting the library and raising money.
“You can see, each meeting is a little more meaty and more organized and more directed,” Simmons said.
Staff ‘to the bone’
During Oliver’s first board meeting in July, he described the same problems he’d outlined as a job candidate.
Staffing, he said, is “absolutely to the bone.” Building maintenance crews react to emergencies instead of getting ahead on routine upkeep.
Money from Metro government for new books and materials, meanwhile, was cut in half three straight years, at a time when library leaders are trying to figure out how to pay for collections in more electronic formats than ever before.
This month, the library learned that it will receive its full allotment for new materials for the first time since 2008.
In that first meeting, Oliver also introduced the new monthly reports he wants to use to check library operations, including visitors, material checkouts and computer usage.
The data could help make the case, to policymakers, for more funding.
Oliver delivered the first packet of statistics Tuesday, at the board’s most recent meeting.
With the data, he now knows, for example, that overall circulation has increased 5 percent over a year ago.
And the numbers can go even further into the nitty gritty.
Board members, looking over the 16-page packet, saw a sharp decrease in items checked out from the Hadley Park Branch; e-book checkouts up 221 percent over last year; and how patrons to the Old Hickory Branch check out four items per visit, by far the highest average of any branch.
All of it leads to questions by board members who are more informed than ever about the good and bad services at each branch.
“This is good stuff,” Simmons said.
Oliver also wants to know how Nashville compares to other cities. In one comparison, he found that Nashville has fewer books and less money per citizen than library systems in Baltimore, Boston and Washington, D.C., which serve similar populations.
“We just don’t measure up very well,” he told the board about that list.
But when compared against southern cities, Nashville looked better.
Just to be different, Oliver gathered numbers on the southern cities that have NFL teams. His chart, complete with helmet logos, showed that Indianapolis checks out more than twice as many books, per capita, as Nashville. But Nashville outpaces Atlanta, New Orleans and Houston.
Nashville spends more on its libraries per person than Charlotte, N.C., Tampa Bay, Fla., and Austin, Texas, which he included as a city against which Nashville often tries to measure itself.
All are welcome
Those who hired Oliver praised his efforts to make his former Ohio library a community resource.
He emphasized literacy and technology improvements there, and also broke with tradition to establish a library branch within a nature park.
He wants to look closely at adult literacy in Nashville.
“Frankly, reading is that basic element in our society, a skill that you cannot succeed without,” he said. “And there are so many adults that are functionally illiterate. And that’s a place that libraries have a key role to play, to lift these people up.”
Libraries don’t just hold books anymore. They can help teach and foster a sense of place, he said. And that goes for everyone.
“I really believe, strongly, the library is the most important public gathering place,” he said.
The library as the most important meet-up spot? Really, these days?
Absolutely, he said. And then he pointed out his office window to the library courtyard, where more than 700 people had just gathered for a free lunchtime concert and announcement about a new citywide reading program.
“We are certainly a place where everybody is welcome,” he said. “Regardless of their economic circumstances or their social circumstances, we are here to serve the public. That is why it’s so critical that we keep our doors open.”