Library Leadership

9. Felton Thomas, Director of the Cleveland Public Library

There are some leaders who are able to share their journey in such a way that it makes all of us want to come along for the ride. Felton Thomas is just such a leader. As Director of the Cleveland Public Library and past president of the Public Library Association, his visionary style and pay it forward attitude has made a huge impact on the profession.

Climb on board as we listen to what brought him to where he is today, the leader of a five-star rated library known as the “People’s University” a place where everyone can seek out knowledge in ways that are beneficial to themselves, their community, and the world.


This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University where library leaders are created—with program sites in Kansas, Utah, Oregon, Colorado, and South Dakota, and by the Park City library making film and podcasting possible with green screen and sound recording resources.

Adriane Herrick Juarez : 

Today on Library Leadership Podcast, we’re fortunate to have Felton Thomas speaking with us. He is the director of the Cleveland Public Library and past president of the Public Library Association. He shares with us how he got into the field and how he’s paying it forward in bringing others into the profession. It’s an inspiring story you won’t want to miss.  

Welcome, Felton.

Felton Thomas: 

Thanks, Adriane. Thanks for having me.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: Oh, it’s great to have you on the show. As we get started, will you tell us a little bit about yourself, and your work both with the Cleveland Public Library, and with the Public Library Association?  00:52

Felton Thomas: 

I’ll start about how I got into libraries and then move into how I ended up in Cleveland, and ultimately as the president of the Public Library Association. It seems like not so long ago, but it has been so long since I was a 13-year-old kid who was going to the public library in Las Vegas, which is where I was growing up. I had an idea that I had to ultimately make a decision around what I was going to do with my life. I was hanging out with friends who were starting to get in trouble—starting to hang out in gangs.

So, I just started going to the library every day. As we got off the bus we would go by the library before we’d go and hang out. So, I just stopped them and said, Oh, I got to go in the library. Then I just started doing it every day and soon enough, the Children’s Librarian saw me and said, You know, you’re here every day you should work for us.

I said, Yeah. Pretty soon I ended up working there. Worked all the way through undergrad—got a chance to leave as I got my undergraduate degree in psychology. I thought I was going to move on. The library’s really—I had been growing up there and they were like, Felton, we love you like our son. We’d love you to go and get your degree. If you do then we’ll have a job for you when you get back.

They were giving me a stipend to go and they said, You can go to any of the accredited library schools. I looked on the bottom of the list, and there was the University of Hawaii. I said, That sounds great. And, that’s where I ended up getting my library degree from.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

That does sound great.

Felton Thomas: 

It was also great because this was also the place I met my wife. I ended up coming back, working. I still didn’t fully understand the importance of being a librarian until I ended up coming back and being the assistant manager at the library that I had grown up in—then, ultimately becoming the manager there.

A couple of years after being the manager there I got a letter from a young man who said, You may not remember me but I’ve been coming to the library every day. And I know you did the same thing when you were young, and I always use you as my role model. 

Because the neighborhood we grew up in was a really tough neighborhood. He said, But, I’m going to come back to the neighborhood just like you did. I’m getting my teaching degree right now. And, I want to come back to the neighborhood and give back like you did. And, I just wanted to thank you for doing what you’ve done.  And, it struck me right there, the importance of what I was doing. And, it really made me become much more serious about my librarianship. I really started to focus on how libraries could be more than just the traditional library, how we could really affect neighborhoods.

The work I started doing in the West Las Vegas Library, in West Las Vegas, opened the eyes of the Cleveland folks here. The Cleveland Public Library approached me and they said, We see what you’re doing in the West Las Vegas neighborhood in the City of Las Vegas. They said, We have a lot of neighborhoods like that in Cleveland and we’d like to see if you’d be interested in coming to Cleveland as our next director.

So, went through the process, became the Director of The Cleveland Public Library nine years ago. It has been a fabulous opportunity for me. I love the city—so much culture here in the city. I really started to examine my role in what we believe in here—in the Cleveland Public Library, as the library as a community deficit fighter.

I started to see an opportunity when the Public Library Association said, Are you interested in running for president? I had to think about it. There’s always that fear that I could run for president and maybe I’d lose—wondering if it is something you want to do. I thought about it and I said, I really do, because I believe that some of the philosophies, and the goals, and the things that I believe in, and the values I believe in, I wanted to bring to the Public Library Association. I ran for president, ultimately ended up becoming president, and that’s where we are now.

I can’t believe that I ended up going from that 13-year-old boy to one day being the President of the Public Library Association and the head of an organization that leads the nine thousand library systems we have across the country.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:  

Question #2: Well, we’re so glad that you did. Clearly, you’ve inspired many along the way, including myself. I wonder if you could talk about some of the projects that mean the most to you as you move forward, and their importance to the profession. I know Cleveland Public Library’s known as the People’s University—inspiring people to find knowledge that’s beneficial to themselves, their community, and to the world. Can you give us some ideas of what you’ve got going on?  06:15

Felton Thomas:  

I think the thing that I’m really proud of here at Cleveland is when I came on we had just started to have conversations with our Hunger Network, at that point in time. They were interested in coming into our libraries during the summer because they knew kids weren’t having the opportunity to have school lunches during the summer. They pushed about doing summer lunches. We were getting some pushback from our staff about doing it, and we were mildly committed to it. That was right in the midst—in the 2009 recession. I knew that there were a lot of kids who really needed food. So, we started to push that forward with the thought of, Let’s see what we could do. Let’s have this conversation with our staff. Let’s have this conversation with the community about it. We started doing about twelve to fifteen thousand meals every summer.

Little by little, we started to expand that. We started to go beyond doing our summer meals just during the summer because I would go into the libraries and visit and our staff would say, You know our kids are coming to us after school and they’re saying, ‘We’re hungry.’ So, we started having conversations with our Cleveland Food Bank. They were very interested in how they could bring in a meal for the kids after school. So, we started doing bag lunches for the kids after school. We continued to do that, and we expanded it with a few libraries and now we do it at all of our libraries.

We started saying, Well, what other areas are we able to do that kids don’t have access to? We have a lot of food deserts in the city. People don’t have access to produce, so we started providing produce in our libraries. Last year we were able to provide 1,750 meals for our community and our young people mostly, through our library.

That’s something that I am really proud of because it also culminated in a partnership with the Food Bank, and me joining the Food Bank board, and ultimately becoming the president of the Food Bank’s board. Those are ways in which the library has had more relevance to the city, more relevance to our community, through this idea that no child should ever be hungry.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #3: Absolutely, It does seem that if you have kids with hungry tummies, they’re certainly not going to be able to move on to the next step of libraries feeding their hungry minds. So, it fills a lot of needs and makes the library the center of the community. 09:53

Felton Thomas: 

it’s really interesting because we do a lot of different programs around it. We’ve got the Feed the Need to Read and our writing, and other things, but we also have homework help centers in our libraries. It was a little choppy at the beginning. Anytime you’re trying to do something with staff, and with the kids, and all of this—you’re trying to figure out how you do it. Now we’ve got to have a refrigerator in every library that is separate from our staff refrigerator. You’re trying to work through how all of these things are going to work.

Ultimately, we started to find the way to make it consistent. Every day the kids get out of school they come to the library. They sit down. They have their meal. Then tutors come in and provide tutoring for them. It’s a consistent thing. They start to see the same kids every day doing the same thing. It’s something that the kids can rely on, the parents can rely on. And, ultimately it’s shown some betterment for our schools.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #4: That’s outstanding. I wonder as you think about that, what ways might librarians learn from the kind of leadership that turns that work that you do into a reality that would benefit all libraries?   11:18

Felton Thomas:

I think what we as librarians have to always be thinking, What are the issues that our community is facing? And, is there a way that I can be helpful in solving that? I think a lot of times we do look at issues and problems that are out there in the community and we say, Well, that’s the social worker’s issue, or that the school’s issue or that’s a police issue. We have to look at it in a different light. Are there ways that we can do things that will make it easier for our community to be safer—for our community to have food.

In many cases, it’s just opening up our space to folks. It’s creating collaboration with organizations that may not have thought we could work with them. Every first Saturday of every month our Legal Aid Society comes to one of our branches. It will work with our community on non-criminal issues that they’re facing. I’m always surprised—our libraries open up at 10:00am on Saturday. At 8:00 o’clock, when I would drive by the library, there’s a line of folks waiting outside to get in. They’re lining up, waiting for the Legal Aid Society. They have all their paperwork with them. They’ve got a lot of issues that they’re facing.

There was a gentleman who probably was in his either late 70’s, or early 80’s. He walked into the library just as they usually close, at 12 o’clock. I was walking out and I saw him and he seemed confused like, Is this where somebody can get some help on legal? And, I said, Well, they may be closing up, but let me walk you over there. And, he started going through the issues that he was facing and they said, No problem, we want to work through this thing, and you just saw his face—that concern go away when they took him. That’s what we do this for.

We’ve always gotten caught up in—well our job is to facilitate learning through providing books, and providing entertainment, and providing the things that we do. But in reality, our job is to make our communities better. We can do it in a variety of different ways. Certainly the foundation has been through our learning initiative but, there are many other ways that we can make our communities better.

Often when I go talk to librarians, especially young librarians—don’t allow yourself to be pigeonholed. We do that as we get older. We stop thinking about different ways—we just tend to do things the way we’ve always done them. Now as your young librarians are coming in, keep that optimism about how you can change the world.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:  

Question #5: That’s fantastic, and I know a lot of us are thinking of the next generations of librarians coming into the field. As a leader, what advice would you give them to make them better as they move into professional roles?14:50

Felton Thomas:  

We get into librarianship because we are very interested in learning. Sometimes I’ll talk to folks and I see that there are a lot of librarians who are really excited about continuing to learn something new, and they’re always wanting to find that. Unfortunately, for every one of those librarians that are coming to this program, or listening to your podcast, there are a number of librarians who are not—who have stopped learning, who continue to do things the way they’ve always done them. 

Once you come out of library school as a new librarian, once you become a new librarian, continue to think, I want to continue to learn. I want to continue to get better. I talk to folks and I say, If you believe that you should only be learning during the time that you are working, that you shouldn’t be taking some of those magazines or books home to make yourself better, then you’re not going to get to that ultimate place you want to get to. And, ultimately you’re going to be disappointed with what you take away from librarianship.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #6: Lifelong learning is so important for us as leaders in the field and librarians across the board, and also for the people we serve. What is your vision as you move forward now as a library leader? 16:23

Felton Thomas: 

We’re very fortunate that with technology learning is so much easier than it was beforehand. You basically either read a journal, or you attended a conference. Now we are providing great webinars. PLA and other associations are providing great webinars. There are many different newsletters that are out there. There’s your podcast out there. There are so many different opportunities for people to learn. I think that’s one of the great things that I’m so optimistic about—that whether you’re learning things through social media, or you’re listening to a podcast, or you’re going to conferences there are always ways for us to start having conversations about the things that are happening within librarianship and how we can make them better.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #7: There are so many ways to access learning now. And, thank you for the kind words about the podcast. I wonder if you have a favorite leadership book that you have used throughout your career, and if you would recommend it and why? 17:38

Felton Thomas: 

I was thinking about this because there are so many really good leadership books, and I always struggle to talk just about one. But, I think one book that I would recommend would be Resonant Leadership. I’m in a PhD program right now at Simmons College. One of the first books that we were introduced to in that program was Resonant Leadership. It really speaks to us as a leader—how you become more balanced with yourself. This is an important part of it when folks like me, and many other leaders who are driven —it’s very easy for you to get out of balance.

Resonant Leadership speaks to how we stay in balance, how we think about that life/family balance, how we work through our own individual work balance that we have to work through. Those are the really important parts of ourselves that somehow, sometimes, we lose. Because as you’re trying, and trying, and are in it—or can be an ambitious person, you start to really let work take over that time that you might need to really balance yourself where you want to be.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: That’s important. So many of us are so passionate about what we do and want to make such a difference every day. I think it’s a good reminder to give ourselves time to also have balance in our lives and enjoy things outside of work. So, that’s a great book to refer people to. In closing, what does working as an advocate for libraries mean for you personally? 19:35

Felton Thomas:  

I think it goes to that story I talked about earlier, where the young man sent me the letter, and I spoke to the fact that I had gone to The University of Hawaii. I still needed to pay for a plane ticket and all of that. I was a young man, twenty-six years of age in Las Vegas— having fun. I didn’t have any money saved aside. I told one of my bosses that I was going to go to library school when I was able to buy the ticket and get a place, and all of this that I hadn’t done but that I was going to go next semester.

I was certainly going to do it. So, I showed up the next day to work, and in my box is an envelope, and in that envelope was a check for a thousand dollars. In it was a note, as well, that said, Never let anyone believe in you more than you believe in yourself. So, I knew right from that day. I went to library school and I ended up paying her back. But, her point was, to me, that she was going to believe in me and that I needed to pay it forward when I got the opportunity. So, there are a lot of folks who I mentor informally, and formally, and speak to about whatever they need to—to give back because so many people paved the way for me to get to where I am. So, it is such a commitment to advocate on behalf of them.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:  

Question #9: We’re certainly glad she did that, and also that you are mentoring others. It’s an honor to have you on the show today. Is there anything else you’d like to talk to us about before we end?   21:50

Felton Thomas: 

Well, I appreciate you having me on the podcast and I want to thank you for what you’re doing to promote library leadership. I think we all have our own ways of doing what we can to make library leadership better, and we need to get better. 

We understand that there is a stereotype that has been given to us about how we are as people, meaning librarians. And to a certain degree, a number of our folks fall into that place. It sometimes makes it difficult for us to lead in the way that we can, and we should. So, having these conversations around leadership, pushing us to be better is so important. So, thank you for what you did.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Thank you. It is wonderful to be able to serve our communities through library work. And, it’s a pleasure to come to work every day. I’m sure you feel that way as well. So, thank you, Felton Thomas. It’s been fantastic to have you on Library Leadership Podcast. We’re fortunate to be able to talk to you today. Thank you for all your good work. And, we look forward to many great things coming out of your library system.  

Felton Thomas: 

Thanks for having me.

It’s been a pleasure. You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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