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If we step away from concerns about not seeing forests for trees and look, instead, for the hidden roots to projects like the new San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) Leadership Academy, we discover encouraging stories about leadership, patience, and how long projects can take to reach fruition.
One traceable root begins with SFPL City Librarian Luis Herrera who, through his previous work as President of the Public Library Association and the California Library Association and in his current position as Chair of the Public Library Association Leadership Taskforce, has long supported leadership training initiatives. Another slow-growing root came in the form of Maureen Sullivan’s introductory Infopeople Eureka! Leadership Program “Exploring Library Leadership” workshop in 2006; she was so surprised by the level of discourse springing from a session offered exclusively to SFPL staff that she handed the large sheets of class notes over to Herrera while the two of them were at an out-of-state conference in autumn 2006. The notes returned to San Francisco in Herrera’s hands, along with the beginnings of SFPL’s Leadership Academy. Herrera convened a meeting of the workshop participants before the end of that year, contacted Sullivan so she could conduct a series of focus group discussions with managers and staff throughout the organization in summer 2007, and rolled out the first offering of the Academy in November 2008—something he hopes to offer to staff on an annual basis.
Current participants are meeting once a month for four months in day-long sessions led by Sullivan; invited to hour-long informal coffee groups with SFPL administrators to discuss leadership issues; and, in an activity similar to what Infopeople’s Eureka! Leadership Program Institute graduates are engaged in, will be completing projects which help develop their skills while making major contributions to the library for which they work.
“It’s actually exceeding my expectations. When I talk to people who are participating, they are so jazzed. The expectations are high that we’re off to some systemic changes in the organization,” Herrera said during a conversation last week. “Every (Library) division is represented with the exception of one—Finance, which was short staffed…Within those divisions, we have folks from the page level to the middle management level. We have librarians, we have technical assistants, we have custodians, we have security personnel, and we have engineers. That’s as broad as it gets.”
Brian Castagne, who works in SFPL’s Project Read literacy program and is among the members of the Library’s first Leadership Academy cohort, calls Sullivan “exceptional” for what she is offering and notes that the program offers both the comfort and encouragement of learning from others who are in the program and the challenge of moving beyond the routines of working within one library work unit: “I’m in a transition period,” he acknowledges, “more self-reflective. Perhaps I’m challenging my first response to things, my immediate response…listening and processing other people’s viewpoints, learning how to slow down and thoughtfully expressing ideas…Almost everything I do is a work in progress.”
Orkideh Sassouni, a Deaf staff member of SFPL’s Deaf Services Center, also is finding that exposure to colleagues throughout the organization is broadening her awareness of how a large library system like SFPL operates. She also, she says, is learning how she might, as a member of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Deaf communities—learners of American Sign Language, interpreter students, researchers, Deaf senior citizens, Deaf international visitors, and others--assume a positive leadership role: “Prior to going (to the Leadership Academy sessions), I didn’t realize the hierarchy of the organization and how it all fit together—how things are organized…I’ve realized that all of us have the same problems…it’s all about communication.” Echoing ideas expressed by San Diego County Library Training and Web Services Manager Polly Cipparrone in a separate conversation, she spoke of wanting to serve as a bridge within Deaf communities and within the library—a role she already is beginning to play through her activities as an American Sign Language instructor on the Santa Rosa Junior College campus in Petaluma and positions she has held elsewhere, including with the archives department at Gallaudet University.
And, as always, the winners are obvious: all of us who, seeing what Herrera, Sullivan, Infopeople instructors, and others are accomplishing, learn from these examples and help perpetuate them.

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