Felton Thomas, Jr. is the Executive Director of the Cleveland Public Library. Passionate about addressing community and staff needs, he has launched several initiatives in the areas of technology, education, and economic development. Felton lives in Shaker Heights with his wife and two daughters, is an accomplished musician, and has become a devoted Cleveland sports fan since his arrival on the shores of Lake Erie.
I have to tell you off the bat that I’m completely biased here because I’m big lover of libraries and worked on a library project for quite some time. I’m wondering if you can tell me a bit about the work that you do as a director of a library.
I look at my job fairly simply — it is to make sure I give my staff the resources they need to be successful in serving our community. I always tell my staff that I look at myself as a support staff member and my job is to make sure they have the things that they need.
On the other hand, I have the external job of making sure that I’m out in the community talking about what libraries do — what the Cleveland Public Library does, and the importance of the library in the community.
Moving from your work specifically, how would you sum up the importance of the library in your community and some of the efforts that you focus on?
Our importance can’t be overlooked in a broad sense. We really have two functions with the Cleveland Public library. We’re a community library and a public research library. There’s a research component to what we do and then there are our branch libraries in 27 different neighborhoods where we really are working with folks at every level in our community. I always say, no matter whether you’re 3 or 83, GED or PhD, the Cleveland Public Library is looking to make you better.
People understand that about our library — they understood that even when times were really, really difficult for us. During the 2008 to 2013 recession, Cleveland was one of the cities that was hit the hardest. We had a horrible foreclosure — about the second worst foreclosure situation in the country — even though the library was that one place that everybody was going to.
People were trying to find assistance when they came in. They were looking for food so we partnered with the food bank. They needed to apply for jobs, so we helped them learn computer skills. We tried to provide the services that everyone needed.
We went out for a levy, to just get our renewal of our funds in 2013, and our approval rate was 76 percent, which was the highest level we had ever had in any of our renewals. That high renewal rate showed us that we were on the right track with the services and programs we were providing.
I’m sure you have many success stories, but I wonder if you can hone in on a specific time where you felt a real sense of success. Tell me about that.
You get these stories, and all of them touch you in some way. I think the one that touches me the most was when I was going into one of the library branches and a guy stopped me as I was walking in and said, “Are you the library director?” I said, “Yes.” And he continued, “I’ve seen your face on the wall,” (where there were pictures of myself and the board members).
He goes, “I just wanted tell you something — two months ago, I lost my job and my wife was sick. I would come in every day after school with my kids. Everybody would just watch my kids and look out for me while I was going through and filling out applications. Sometimes I’d go and actually drop that application off, and the kids would stay at the library.”
He continued, “I’m just…” he started crying and said, “I’m happy. Last week, I got a job. It’s your people here who’ve changed the life of my family.” Then he just walked away. It was just like one of those sudden things, that you realize that every day we’re changing somebody’s life.
Sort of flipping that question, how about an example of a challenge?
I think the type of challenge that we face and every library faces, is the thought that libraries are no longer relevant. If I had a nickel for every time someone says, “Oh, why do we even have libraries anymore? We don’t really need libraries anymore.” I go out and I speak to people about libraries, and the first question they always ask me is, “Do we really need libraries anymore?”
What’s the argument you use with people, how do you approach addressing that?
I talk to people about the things they’re looking for and need in their life, and inevitably, there is something useful to them in the library that they didn’t know about.
There’s this big gap. Young people use the library until about 12 years old, and then move away from libraries and don’t come back until they have kids. Then generally, it’s the wife or whoever stays at home who brings the child in, and then the other person doesn’t have any connection to the library.
The relevancy is, “Oh my child goes to library, but I don’t have anything that I really want from the library.” So we tell them about the things that we are providing — technology, 3D printing, a MakerSpace where there are many opportunities to create. We have meeting rooms, online courses, and music and books that you can download. As we talk to folks about all the things they can do and eventually you hit something that really connects with them, and they’re like, “Really, I can download books?”
I was talking to a legislator about e-books and said, “We’ve had e-books for 10 years that you could upload.” He was embarrassed a little bit, but then got so excited by it — he just thought that was so cool that he could go online and download e-books at any time, no matter where he was in the country.
In DC, they had a service when the Affordable Care Act came in to help people harness, understand, and apply really concrete practical things like that.
That was so important. It’s one of those things libraries just do. As the president of the Public Library Association, my job was to get out there and do just that.
Let’s turn now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, which is keeping the Web open and free. For you, what is like the open internet?
This is an interesting topic for libraries. Many libraries censor what their patrons can access on the internet. We don’t censor or provide any kind of censors for the folks who come in and use our library — you just walk in and there’s the open internet that’s available for everyone. We respect everyone’s opportunities and willingness to go forward and safely explore. That’s not the way it is everywhere. The federal government doesn’t believe that’s the way it should be — that there should be limits to what people are able to see on other computers.
I think for us, and for our associations, we truly believe that we don’t make any decisions about what people want to view. Obviously, every community has limitations about that, but truly for us we see the open internet as a place of discovery — a place that people can always learn and be creative and to a place of exploration.
I’m wondering if you can give me an example of how these open aspects of the internet have been important for you.
I think they’ve been important, not necessarily to me, but really to our patrons, especially our young people. When you are from a very, very poor community — and pretty much every community in Cleveland is impoverished — the internet is, in many ways, your only way to explore and see other places.
When I was young — and in Las Vegas — it was through books. That was the way I explored and got to see the world. Our young people are able to give a true visual representation at what it might look like to be in Spain, what it might feel like to be on and see Mars. They are able to get access to these kinds of things — not only through books at our libraries, but through the internet. The internet is their window to the world. We really want our young people to be able to explore and we want to work with them to give them some structure in how they explore.
This is why it’s so important for our staff to really understand the best way to create a framework for people — young and old — so they can explore in a way that’s going to be safe and in a way that’s going to be productive.
Can I hear a little bit more specific about Mozilla? How have you gotten involved with them, and what has that been like for you?
I’ve worked with Mozilla in a number of different ways. We’ve worked as colleagues on committees with different folks from Mozilla. Recently, we’ve been working with them on a project in which we are looking at how to better train our staff members — to give them better internet skills. We want to be better guides for our patrons — both young and old.
We are in a transitional period for libraries and librarians. We still have the generation of folks who work with us who were born into the period where libraries are seen as a book repository — many of them did not transition easily into the internet world — so we are working to improve and build their technology skills.
A lot of folks bring in technology skills, but they are technology skills on how to play games and not necessarily how to help people find things that matter. A friend of mine at the Knight Foundation said this one key thing, “People before screens.” A lot of the young people we have coming in have to understand that their technology skills are only as good as their skills with dealing with people.
That’s the kind of gap we’re trying to work with — the transitional period — where libraries transition into their next form. We want make sure we bring everybody along with us and they’re going to need to have technology skills.
Have you seen the impact of this work with Mozilla yet, or is it early days? Tell me, at this point in time, what you’ve gotten out of Mozilla.
The staff just started having their meetings with the trainer and what I’ve heard so far is that they are starting to understand how knowledge of technology will help them personally. They already knew about the many folks that were coming in to use the computers — to look for jobs or do their homework — but what they didn’t necessarily recognize was the importance of staff to have those skills.
They always said, “Well, the library is going to have a staff member that knows all about computers that will know all of the things about libraries and I won’t have to do anything around it. I will just send to Jeff over there and Jeff will give them everything they need.” What we’re trying to say to them is that while it’s great to have Jeff — but Jeff isn’t always going to be working and we don’t really want that person to have to leave until Jeff comes back.
I’m wondering if you’ve been able to take advantage of any of the curriculum Mozilla has created?
I know that we’ve been using the guides that were provided to us in training — and then using those trainings with staff. You mentioned earlier, about the challenges — we found the challenges early on were that staff felt some of the exercises were too technical for some of the staff members. We had to have a conversation about having expectations that were too low for our staff — we should at least attempt these trainings to see if it was going to work. If they didn’t work, then we could readjust.
You can’t go in with such low expectations. I think they that found those low expectations were just that, low. Folks actually liked doing those exercises — they found them to be helpful for their community.
How about any feedback that you may have a time where the interactions with Mozilla haven’t met your expectations?
I would say right now I have not found any interaction that has not met my expectations from them. They’ve been a great organization to work with.
Is there anything more that you want to tell me or ask me?
I think, if I can just say this — I think this is a bold attempt on Mozilla’s part to work with the Institute of Museums and Library Services. It’s bold of them to say, “There is a big gap in learning and we think we can help. We’re going to work with these seven library systems, and we are going to change the way their library systems approach training our communities, and being better at dealing with them, and once we do that we believe we can scale it up and do it all across the country. We think we can change the world, and we’re going to go out there and show people this.” That’s bold thought — I’m happy they’ve been willing to think so boldly.
Yeah, I mean you and me both. When I hear that Mozilla is working with IMLS, I want to get up and do a happy dance.
I absolutely agree with you. I think they have been willing to see the potential of libraries to be the number one out-of-school learning organization within five years — but it is up to us to create that future.
I really appreciate that about Mozilla — that they can recognize that it’s not only going to be up to librarians to create this future for us. We need a big team around us, working with us, saying, “We believe in that vision.” We need them to be a voice for us — to come in and say, “We want to be a part of helping and creating a solution.”
I think that at a sort of a DNA level, the big commonality, at least that I’ve seen from volunteering in both spaces, has been what you mentioned at the beginning, advancing yourself and building the sense of self efficacy and confidence. I think both the foundation and library as an institution, that’s the core thing.
The book is the tool. The internet is the tool, but it’s about a safe space to be a company, to be supportive, to have peer support, and to bring yourself forward, wherever that is going to be.
That’s exactly it. I’m excited for the future of libraries because I really do believe we’ll all be connected somewhere down the line. Something like what Mozilla is trying to do will connect us and give us a certain mindset about what we’re doing with technology.