Sam Katz finds that Free Library Foundation CEO Linda E. Johnson gives new meaning to the phrase “book-smart”
Libraries tend to be rather sleepy operations, and ours is no exception. That’s about to change. A massive $175 million capital campaign to expand and modernize the Central Library on the Parkway is under way; $92 million has already been raised, with the aim to complete the work by early 2011. Leading the effort is Linda E. Johnson, formerly the president of a family-owned tech business in magazine publishing. In 1997, she joined the Library board; in 2006, she was asked to become CEO of its foundation. As a result, she’s everywhere, spreading her gospel about making the Free Library not just a place to read books, but a place that’s alive — a place to create, discuss and debate. In other words, a place very different from our long-held notion of what a library is. There’s a search on for a new Library president, since Elliot Shelkrot retired in December. The board and the Mayor shouldn’t have to look far.
Why does a successful IT entrepreneur chuck it all and go to work at the library?
I was in the information services business. I’d been to Wharton’s executive MBA program juggling work and school. My customers, magazine publishers, were thinking about how the electronic transfer and digitization of information was changing their world; content had always been the competitive advantage. But they were worried about the future because suddenly it was all about distribution. Non-publishers were driving the direction of the industry. My company was managing the business side of magazines, so I was I the middle of this transition. It occurred to me that the library must be dealing with the same issues. It was time for me to give back to the community, and I thought that I could bring what I was learning at work to the library.
Aren’t libraries a little like dinosaurs?
Not at all. I joined the board in 1997 thinking that I could help deal with this enormous challenge, only to find that libraries were barely thinking about these issues. So I define my role as assisting in the navigation through the change in information delivery from hard copy to electronics.
The Free Library of Philadelphia isn’t digitized? But how much of the collection should be?
From a business perspective, delivery of digitized information is less expensive than hard product. We have some digitized collections, and we are constantly working on the digitization effort. But it’s expensive to digitize, and we’re creatures of city and state budgets. You need to keep in mind that in Philadelphia barely 50 percent of the households have internet access, so digitization is not as essential to our constituency yet as it is to users of academic libraries.
We do provide internet access for free. Not with a monthly subscription fee. Free — as in the Free Library! We provide the computers, the connection and the high speed, and our librarians will even teach you how to use it. We’ve got 70 work stations in the Central Library on the Parkway, and when we finish the expansion there will be over 300. We are truly leveling the playing field. Think about today’s economy — if you don’t have computer access, how do you apply for any job? We provide to the underprivileged what the affluent have in their homes. We’ve always done that! When the next great technology hits the market and the gap again widens, the library will bridge that gap. We are spending the money to digitize — collection by collection, maybe not fast enough for some — but speed matters little until the access gap is eliminated.
Did you have any difficulty transitioning from board member to executive management?
As a trustee, I had a sense about what was going on here. Now I really know. These perceptions are remotely related. But I feel I made a very sound choice. The campaign and the development program are vital to the institution and to the people of this city. It is a lot of work. But that’s a good thing.
How can you create a constituency for the library’s capital campaign?
Well let’s start with the fact that this is a $175 million campaign. That’s very big, but we absolutely had to think big and for the next 100 years. There are a lot of campaigns underway — but there always are here, so that isn’t an excuse. It is a 50-50 public-private partnership and it needs to be that. We’re late to new library spending, and most of the new buildings have been 100 percent publicly funded. Seattle and Salt Lake are just spectacular examples of what can happen when a city’s public leaders support the effort. Our citizens aren’t less deserving of a world-class library, and I believe that a first-class library is essential to the future of the city. So to get there, we are calling on private money as well as public funding. We will ultimately need to include the entire community once we are near the end of the process.
So how are you doing with it?
Amazingly well. We’re now in the middle of a $15 million challenge grant that came from an anonymous donor; we have until June. Every dollar raised from private donors and family foundations between now and June generates an additional dollar, so donors can really leverage their gifts. Once we complete that we’ll have garnered over $100 million—an incredibly good start. The city committed $30 million, and we have $11.5 million from the commonwealth. The foundations — William Penn and Independence — have come in and we’re working with others. Sunoco committed $1 million — again terrific. There is so much demand on these local companies it is hard here.
There is a unique phenomenon at the library. The supporters of the museums are typically museum-goers, but for the library, the users, more often than not, are not our benefactors. We are all things to all people. In the morning adults attend literacy classes given by the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy and at the other end of the spectrum our author series includes Nobel laureates and attracts the most highly educated members of the community.
Aren’t you feeling the heat from inflation and the shelf life of the campaign?
Oh, am I! Escalation in construction costs over recent years is frightening. We must be in the ground by the end of 2008. But before we break ground, we have to have $130 million pledged and be sure we know we’re the rest is coming from. Breaking ground is critical to reinforcing the reality of what we are doing and should help propel us across the goal line.
What are the big hurdles for executing a massive campaign for a sleepy old institution like the Free Library?
The biggest hurdle is visibility. We’ve never focused on self promotion. We are one of the best respected and most used institutions in the region, but we are taken for granted. We have not had any consistent branding. We are fixing that. Plus we have a very unique — almost antithetical — business model. The library has a set annual budget. But the more people we bring into the library, the more it costs to operate because everything we do is free, and we generate no revenue. More customers, more costs, no revenue. But we’re a major player on the Parkway, and with the advent of the Barnes and the Perelman Museum come great opportunities for us. Unlike the other institutions here, we’re in the information and knowledge business and provide a great resource for every Parkway institution. We’ll be the place to learn about everything else going on here.
How are you going to differentiate your campaign and project from everything else that is going on?
The Free Library is simply the best place to invest charitable capital as a means to make extraordinary differences in the lives of Philadelphians of all ages and walks of life. Look, I love the arts, and Philadelphia has an amazing array of world-class fine and performing arts. Arts open eyes and opportunity. But we take people from illiterate to literate, from unemployed to employed — these are the fundamental things we do. Ask business leaders in this city what the library meant to their development and growth. — the stories are heartwarming. People come here to develop business plans in our business library, to solve tax messes, to research health problems. People are working collaboratively. We need the space and technology to enable and encourage collaboration. The library will be a place where people can experiment with creating content, not just come to look at the published works of others. Our new space will be a laboratory — create music, a blog, video, a book — you’ll be able to do all of these at the New Central Library on the Parkway.
How will you measure this impact?
Books in circulation, web hits and library cards no longer fill the bill. We need some new performance measures, and I will be thinking about that. Before I came, there was a brilliant decision to renovate every one of the neighborhood branches. But unless we fix the Central Library, the system’s lifeblood, we can’t maximize the benefits of investment in the branches.
What’s enthused and disappointed you?
When I was thinking about taking this job, I sought advice from a friend who told me that I would be overwhelmed by the incredible generosity of some and surprised by the lack of response from others where I’d had high expectations.
Was he right?
I haven’t given up on anyone yet, but he was sure right on the plus side.
Why give up the life of the entrepreneur for the life of a nonprofit executive?
I still think it is important to be financially rewarded for your efforts, but this work has so much more meaning for me than anything else I could be doing.
You have to measure your success differently. I was raised to place a premium on the value of giving back. This is fulfilling that need in ways I could never have imagined. I am on the go all day. I’m always out after work talking about the library. What could be better?
You’re getting new neighbors with the Barnes moving next door. Changes at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Conversion of the School Building. Big changes on the Parkway. A lot of competition?
We see a lot of synergies and opportunities for us to play a role. We’re all about information, so being the Parkway visitor’s center makes sense. We can also support and enhance the educational missions of our sister institutions; we look forward to more cooperative programming. Don’t forget – a Moshe Safdie-designed building will be a destination too. We look forward to being a major part of the revitalized Parkway.
You’re from here but you’ve been away. Any surprises?
Not really. There are things that I had not given much thought; for example, the strength of the community is impressive. The philanthropic and corporate communities are very generous. The problem is supply and demand. My point of reference is New York. You hold an event and you can raise a million dollars. Here it depends who you are. The PMA can do this. For others this is more daunting. New York’s library has corporations climbing over each other to become corporate sponsors. I’d like to see that here.
Which libraries, in physical plant and operations, are state-of-the art and are peer-group role models?
New York first and foremost. Vartan Gregorian (former CEO of the New York Public Library) started this, and Paul LeClerc has carried it forward. The New York Public Library’s leaders haven’t come from the ranks of library professionals. That leadership model has gained some traction. Salt Lake and Seattle are doing great things too.
Are libraries making a comeback?
I’m not sure that libraries were ever as out of favor as your question implies. Librarians and libraries have had to change. The field is becoming cool again. The Institute of Museum and Library Service is helping us increase the ranks of librarians, for which there is currently a shortage, by “growing our own,” funding graduate degrees in library science. By the time we finish the program, we will have about 60 people enrolled to develop skills to have careers as librarians. Ten thousand librarians from around the country just wrapped up their annual mid-winter American Library Association convention, hosted this year in Philadelphia. So this is a business that has had great days and continues to have them.
The Library Foundation board has a range of players. Are they as supportive as they need to be?
My board is absolutely amazing. They have stepped up with time, money and contacts, and are as good as any I’ve seen or worked with anywhere. This group is just what we needed, and they never disappoint! Philadelphians would be impressed if they could watch them in action.
Do you find any barriers as a women working in a leadership position here?
No. The problem is in the corporate executive suite and in the corporate boardroom. The women who started and worked with the Forum for Executive Women — which I joined — they did all the hard work. I realize that this was a big issue, but it is much less so today thanks to their efforts. Philadelphia’s nonprofit world is dominated by strong and successful women. Penn, Temple, Moore, the Museum of Art, Pew Trusts, William Penn Foundation — all headed by strong and effective women. I feel pretty good about this here.
Are you negatively impacted by having the library be a city agency?
This is a good question. No matter what, the new building will be a city-owned asset. The premise of the question is correct, but if providing these services and skills is important, this is how it is done in this city today. Some might use it as an excuse, but it isn’t a good one.
What are your aspirations for the library?
Philadelphia has world-class institutions. The Curtis Institute. Penn. Swarthmore. Children’s Hospital. The Philadelphia Orchestra. The library aspires to be world-class. It’s not that big a step to become that. I think providing world-class services is essential to a city aspiring to be world-class. That’s what the Free Library will be able to do when this campaign succeeds and our new facility opens.