For many community members and local experts in the trending field of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), if there’s one Oak Park institution that actually lives out its ideals of being diverse, equitable and inclusive, it’s the Oak Park Public Library (OPPL).
In February, David Seleb — the man who cultivated and shepherded the library’s reputation as an institutional leader in equity — retired after nearly a decade at the helm. Lori Pulliam, the library’s director of public services and programs, has since stepped into the interim executive director role.
And so far, the search for Seleb’s successor reflects the library’s longstanding penchant for the nontraditional.
Earlier this year, the library board hired John Keister & Associates, a firm that specializes in recruiting library and nonprofit leaders, for $18,500 to lead the search to replace Seleb. A few months later, however, Keister was out.
According to John Keister, the search firm’s principal and owner, and multiple library board members, the break seems to have been mutual and, at least in part, driven by a difference of opinion about the criteria for the top job.
“The message was clear to me that the library board was not going to require that the next executive director be someone from the library field,” Keister said, adding he feels strongly that candidates “should be rooted, and have a background, in [public libraries].”
Matthew Fruth, the library board president, said Keister had “a couple of conversations” with library staffers and trustees about “not making a master’s in library science” a requirement for director candidates.
“He’s a strong believer in having that in place,” Fruth said. “I think it was just a feeling that he was not going to be the right person to work with us [based on] where our priorities were. … So there was a mutual decision to part ways and he resigned and returned the check. He didn’t charge us for anything.”
After Keister’s exit, the library board opened the bid process up again, eventually tapping RGW Consulting, a boutique consulting firm with deep Oak Park roots, owned by Reesheda Graham Washington. Fruth said the library will pay RGW $28,000 to conduct a search that the board and Washington believe a library as unconventional as OPPL needs.
Washington, an Austin native and former school administrator, is also the founder of L!VE, a wide-ranging nonprofit and community development business that launched a cafe in 2017. Her firm, RGW Consulting, has worked with an array of Oak Park institutions, including the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation and District 97, among many others.
“We were reassured that, in a lot of ways, she would be able to hit the ground running,” Fruth said. “I think she is in a position to know our staff well and our staff has a level of trust with her.”
In 2020, the library hired Washington and RGW Consulting to conduct an internal equity audit. A year later, the library trustee board approved the library’s Anti-Racism Strategic Plan.
The plan was “developed over several months by the library’s Anti-Racism Advisory Team, a cross-section of stakeholders (administrators, staff, patrons, board representation, and young adults) who would work together to develop new protocols that shape the library’s strategic direction,” according to the library’s website.
In a recent interview, Washington said she expects to get applications from prospective candidates through early May, but that she’s also open to expanding the application process, if necessary.
“We’re more committed to getting a diverse and effective pool of candidates than we are to the deadlines,” Washington said, adding that, eventually, her firm will facilitate a community forum designed to solicit public input and allow residents to ask questions. The slow and steady approach is necessary, given the stakes, Washington said.
“I’ve worked with probably about a dozen libraries in the Chicagoland area alone and many of them look to Oak Park Public Library and its [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] and anti-racism journey for insight and guidance,” she said. “So I think this is a critical time to make this selection.”
Fruth said input from the Anti-Racism Advisory Team was also an important factor in pivoting from Keister to Washington.
“Based on where we were in terms of our anti-racism work and our strategic priorities, in terms of pushing our model of service for the community forward, I think he may have been a little bit more traditional in his view of how libraries prioritize and operate and not as forward-looking as we’ve been in the last few years,” Fruth said.
“The more traditional view of a lot of people in public libraries is, we are here to provide audio books and magazines and some digital stuff,” he added. “As in any field, there’s a wide variety of opinions of how people should be doing their work and I think we’re more on the progressive forefront of how public libraries serve their communities.”
Throughout Seleb’s tenure, the library has been an early adopter of many equity-based policies that have been growing in popularity over the last five years.
In 2019, Chicago’s library system became the largest public library system in the country to eliminate overdue fees for library materials. OPPL went fine-free a full two years earlier, when “over 90 percent of libraries in the U.S. were still charging small change for late returns,” according to a 2020 article in The Atlantic.
The Atlantic notes that what’s called the “Fine-Free Movement” has been gathering momentum among many librarians who are starting to question whether fines are consistent with their mission to provide the public with information and knowledge without inequitable barriers.
Oak Park has also been on the vanguard of a national reckoning happening in the world of libraries as the institutions confront a changing literary landscape, with screens and social media replacing printed books and quiet nooks.
In 2016, the Oak Park library hired a social worker to enhance services for its most vulnerable patrons, particularly people experiencing homelessness. The same year, the library’s Dole Branch debuted as the new home to Oak Park’s Multicultural Collection, an aggregation of thousands of artifacts and other materials from cultures around the world that had outgrown its space within the District 97 school district.
And last year, the library hired Stephen Jackson, a community resource specialist, as its first equity and anti-racism director. The position is part of the executive director’s leadership team and is responsible for putting the library’s Anti-Racism Strategic Plan into action.
Washington said part of what’s made the OPPL a model for other institutions in the area of equity is their “genuine commitment to listening to the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] community when developing their goals and expressed felt needs.”
She said the library’s inclusion of community members on the Anti-Racism Advisory Team, its hiring of Jackson “as someone to carry the work” of making the anti-racism plan real, and its consistent, comprehensive training provided for all employees have helped the institution develop a strong memory muscle for diversity, equity and inclusion.
“The staff and leadership created a synergy across the organization that you wouldn’t have if everyone wasn’t walking the same walk and talking the same talk,” Washington said. Now it’s up to her and her firm to find the next leader responsible for maintaining that culture.
“To me, it makes sense that we would leverage the commonality, content, context and culture of the DEI and anti-racist journey all of these organizations [D97, the Community Foundation, etc.] have been taking alongside RGW and say to ourselves, ‘Where can we take this from here together?’ And I think the next executive director of Oak Park Public Library will be part of that stream of work,” she said. “It just makes sense that we will carry that work forward together.”