Head Librarian Interviews (Liveblog)

(Sorry, I missed the first interview, but you’ll have me for the next two…)

Candidate 2: Mark Contois from Framingham

(As he approaches his seat, he says, “This looks like the hot seat.”)

The City of Worcester’s guidelines for this process…13 questions.  Board will ask the questions, and the same questions are from all candidates.  Decision will be made tonight about who the next head librarian will be.

Kevin: Describe approach to decision making and implementation.

Mark: Likes to think he’s pretty inclusionary, surrounded by terrific people.  He doesn’t always have the answer, by including people in process, result is always better.

Kevin: How do you approach financial challenges for libraries?

Mark: We need to do our best to get the message of libraries across every single day.  By being polite, persistent, political, but always professional, you can get the story across.

“Everyone likes libraries…some people may not know it.”

Always optimistic, but have to hustle and find different funding sources.  You will be rewarded (by various governmental bodies) for doing that.  [Big summarization on my part]

What is source of employee satisfaction?

We’ve got a great cause, the employees care, …if I care, …good things can happen up and down the library.  We’re not highest paid people, in public libraries, so people are working here for a reason.  Involving staff in decision making, putting resources in their hands, listening is key.

Describe experience working with boards, government, elected officials.

In previous position, worked with board of selectman and finance committee.   In Framingham, 5-member select board that he deals with frequently.  He’s worked with state reps and senators, particularly in Palmer. 

Discuss involvement with working with unionized employees.

In W. Springfield, was assistant director of the union.  In Palmer, was not unionized; still not unionized, but benefits have been brought up to par.  In Framingham, unionized — SEIU — one of the things working on is labor management committee to address long-standing quality of work issues and has been a great experience.  Work with board of health on people smoking directly outside the library.


What has been the most challenging situation in your professional career, and how did you address?

In Palmer, building of new library.  He was young.  He bought land abutting the library, board of directors approved it.  Received a grant; only in hindsight did he look back on that and feel that it was a small miracle, to be able to raise $1.7mil.  It was so much fun at the time that he didn’t realize how difficult it was. 

Think of someone in your career you’d never use as a reference, what they’d say if we called them, and why.

My staff thinks I’m Mr. Softy, so I don’t know…at Springfield Library was in charge of circulation, just beginning automation process, and they had 8 branch libraries.  The person who ran the show saw the computers as only a positive.  But now he and I are good friends.

“There’s probably people out there, I just don’t know it.”


Tell us about a significant risk you took, and what were the results.

Last year’s operating budget in Framingham, a month into the new fiscal year, I saw problems coming.  I know that the town’s CFO would be looking for money back from departments.  I chose not to fill two positions; it’s tough times, and you have to be able to see through to the other side.  Wanted to be able to have some money to set aside to show to the CFO.  He was able to save a few positions for the library as a result.  Have carried vacancies this year and will carry them next year as well.  Union has been very kind to him.

Bill Coleman notes that he’s “Mark John.”
Mark notes that his mother calls him that when she’s mad at him.

(And, of course, I missed the question.)

Something about numbers.  Sorry — I’m going to sit this question out on the liveblog to go cough.  (Luckily, they offered me a Coke Zero, which is almost as good as Tab.)

Crisis situation in library; can you think of a physical one?

Library needs distaster preparedness plan (in the office, under my bed at home, in my car).  Call in the resources you need (police, fire, etc.)  Safety is first: you can replace the books, you can replace the carpet, staff members and the public come first.

Tell us about the most fun you’ve had on the job.

There’s been a lot of that, not all that I can talk about (mucho laughs).  Moving from library in Palmer, which turned into demo/rebuild, moving into schoolhouse, packed up books ourselves, and with volunteers.  It was a little eerie, because it was like going back into elementary.  We turned 1905 schoolhouse into a library for 2.5 years; we had one staff bathroom.  I felt like Dwight Eisenhower on D-Day.

Finding shelving: we found it in a WWII bunker.  A lot of fun, and so many town members were involved.

Best part was when we opened it, and all the people who’d gone to school there came back.  The owner had class pictures from 1905-1992, and they were put on the walls, so people came to see themselves.

What distinguishes you as the right person for this position?

Oh, I don’t know.  (Laughs).  After 26 years in this business…you’ve probably interviewed much better librarians than me.  In terms of librarian skills, you’ve met other people with better.  What I have is a profound respect for what librarians do, and have ever since I was a kid.  “Beyond fighting with my brothers” the branch library four blocks away was my favorite place to be.

Going from Palmer to Framingham was a big leap, but a lot of it is still the same.  Believing in what you do, the people, working with the community and your board, and then good things happen.

(end of formal part of interview)

His wife is from Worcester.  Impressed with long-range plans for the city.

I’ve never learned anything from myself, but I’ve learned a lot about myself from interacting with others.

Regrettably, the library community has gotten small, so it’s not hard to know that who’s where.  He knows Margaret Cordello, another candidate, and praises her.

(discussion of candidate)

Oh — wait — there were only two candidates.  One dropped out (?)

So — here’s the final discussion.

Some impressions: Mark was very humble but also very budget-focused.  Very enthusiastic and able to sell what he believes.

Mark spoke highly of his staff, included himself in a group.

(Margaret must have been the other candidate…sorry about that…)

Doesn’t feel they got an answer from either of them on why they wanted to be here.  [Nicole — Well, did they really ask it?]  There’s obviously a concern about a head librarian being long-term.

Mark seems like he made a good impression.  Seriously, very charming guy from this side of the room.  [And goodness knows my primary method of evaluating someone is charm.]

Concern with substance (or lack thereof) of what Mark had to say, especially since this is very different from Framingham or Palmer.  Ditto legislative ability.

Didn’t feel that either of them told their own story.  Margaret had good experience with regional library, which is a real strength.

Another person said that the Palmer situation would kind of prove an ability to work with government leaders to get things done, etc.

Question about were references checked.  They are usually checked at the end of the process, once they decide on a candidate.

They will choose a candidate tonight and also a backup choice, in case the references (or something else) doesn’t work out.

Margaret writes well, and discusses the big picture well.  Felt Mark’s had mistakes and vagueness.

What does library need right now?

Discussion of Foundation, need to promote it.  Do we need an advocate, someone to put us up a notch, someone with multi-faceted skills (City Hall, working with staff, etc.)?


(Sorry — I’m zoning out at the moment — lots of praise for the two candidates all around)

During Skype conversation, more obvious than in this interview that Mark had a good sense of Foundation and Friends work, and also good legislative experience.

Mark’s personality might be a better fit.  He visited bookstore on Friday, visited GBV and FPBL as well as the main branch.

(While I space for a moment, can I just say that the gentleman who does facilities is totally awesome?  Just thought I’d share.)

Question about Margaret’s experience with actual patrons, versus being a librarian to librarians.

Vote: Mark, unanimously (at least from here).

Second choice: reopen search.

So, there you have it.  You’ll find out soon if he accepts.

Blackstone Activists: Officially Awesome

Why didn’t this get letter of the week?

What good news that the Upper Blackstone treatment plant’s current upgrades are not only meeting the 2001 permit limits, but much to their credit, they are also meeting the new nitrogen limit of 5 mg/l, and they are close to meeting the new (correct) phosphorus limit of 0.1 mg/l for the 2008 permit. This success is to be applauded and we were pleased to see it officially reported in an editorial (Telegram & Gazette, June 20). There now seems to be little reason to go to federal court.

The city and the Upper Blackstone staff insisted that it would be next to impossible for a treatment plant of this size and present technology to meet both the new nitrogen and phosphorus limits without additional huge overhauls and exorbitant costs. But the plant has met the 5 mg/l nitrogen limit without any additional overhaul; and, according to the plant manager, is saving money in the process. Meeting the phosphorus limit, which the plant is close to doing, will take some upgrading, but nothing approaching what now seems to be a quite obsolete and inflated $200 million estimate of consultant Camp Dresser McKee.

Since the Upper Blackstone plant is so close to meeting the new limits, why not take some deserved credit, accept the new permit and spend the avoided legal fees on closing the now much narrower gap to comply with the Clean Water Act?

We all will benefit from this prudent approach. So will the Blackstone River.



Blackstone Headwaters Coalition