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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 2, 2000. All rights
Women in Business: Leslie Burger
If it were a novel, the building of the new Princeton
Public Library might read like a spoof about entangled government
bureaucracy and a society’s fumbling attempt to keep up with the
rapid pace of technology. Unless, that is, our story’s heroine —
Leslie Burger, the new director of the Princeton Public Library — can
bring this story to a happy ending.
The story’s conflict: a planned expansion of the 30,000 square-foot
library at the corner of Wiggins and Witherspoon streets, held up by a
politically charged sideshow over whether and how to accommodate
additional parking in downtown Princeton. Built in 1966, at a time
when many states determined the size of a library according to the per
capita population, the library now
serves a community much larger than was ever intended. Nowhere is
this more evident than in the overcrowded children’s department, where
reading hour is contained to a corner of the room.
Wiring this pre-Information Age dinosaur is also becoming a big
problem. A digital database of the library’s holdings has replaced its
unwieldy card catalog, and a few palm-sized disks hold reams and reams
of periodicals and database information, but space is ironically more
precious than ever before. The library’s 25 computer work
stations, for example, occupy a good portion of the first floor — and
there aren’t enough of them.
Meanwhile, members of Princeton Borough and the library’s Board of
Directors are embroiled in the debate over parking.
The Township agreed to kick in its share of the funds for the library,
two-thirds, as long as parking would be provided for its residents,
but Borough committee members have been obstinate, citing the
borough’s larger parking problem.
Enter our heroine. Burger, a former library consultant who replaced
Jacqueline Thresher as director of the library, has been hired to cut
through the quibbling and build a library on a precious Princeton
commodity — a parking lot. But Burger has her own unique vision:
maybe a library should be fun.
"Just because you’re a publicly-funded institution doesn’t mean you
have to look institutional," says Burger, who ran a library consulting
business that tackled many problems at several other libraries. "I try
to look for trends going on outside of the profession
that are likely to have an impact here. The success of places like
Barnes & Nobles, the living room types of bookstores — that’s
raised people’s expectations. They want a relaxed, comfortable type of
atmosphere. I’m not suggesting that the library wants to compete, but
we want to create an atmosphere that makes people want to come here
just as much as they want to go to Barnes and Noble. Maybe we become
the anticonsumerism model."
Less emphasis on cappuccino, that is, and more emphasis on community
— providing something for everyone. A good public library, in effect,
says Burger, extends beyond the reach of the big chain bookstores —
both in terms of cushy seating and services. "I always thought
that libraries were this great untapped resource if only communities
knew how much they had to offer," she says. "People tend to think you
go to a library when you have a school paper, or when you need
something in the esoteric realm. But they’re incredible resources of
information for any realm — they can help you make a better decision
on anything. Particularly in urban communities where people may not
have access as much as in privileged communities. In many large urban
communities people don’t have access to computers.
"People come to a library for a variety of reasons," says Burger.
"They come because they have a child that they want to meet other
children, people come for the technology training programs, people use
the library so they can catch up with newspapers all over, people come
so they can socialize with other adults, or get a book that Oprah
mentioned on her program." A community library also has the
flexibility to do things like stay open late the night before school
exams, which the Princeton library did last week.
The new Princeton Public Library, as Burger envisions it, would have a
meeting room big enough to accommodate 150 people (compared to the one
overbooked conference room that it has now), as well as smaller
meeting rooms for after-school tutoring programs, group projects,
literacy training, and ESL. The children’s department would also have
a place specifically designed for children’s story hours and
Although raised within the library system, Burger herself is hard to
catalog. She has not held typical library jobs, but she’s never worked
anywhere else. She could just as easily be labeled market researcher,
consultant, city planner, mediator, activist, politician, therapist,
or business woman. That’s why the board of directors at Princeton
Public Library hired her — it takes more than a librarian to get a
new library built.
"I’ll never forget her saying to me I think I can get that building
built," says Barbara Johnson, former Town Topics writer and now
president of the Friends of the Public Library, an organization that
raises roughly five percent of the library’s operating budget. "She’s
been going about the town and meeting with different focus groups and
putting forward the case for an expanded library, and meeting with the
architect to make sure the spaces are adequate for future development.
It was not one of Jacqueline Thresher’s strong points, but it is one
of Leslie’s strong points.
She’s very soft-spoken. There’s nothing pushy about her, but you feel
this quiet determination."
It may take that kind of patient determination to push through the
stalemate over the new library, but it wouldn’t be the first time
Burger has mediated a long, drawn out political debate. In 1997 Burger
was hired by the Polk County Library Cooperative in the heart
of Florida’s orange-growing country to sort out a 30-year feud over
whether or not the library system should accommodate an influx of new
people living outside the tax district. The state of Florida was
offering incentive money for Polk County to extend its library
services, as long as the county was willing to commit a certain
percentage of the budget as well to make it work.
"After they had argued about this for about 30 years, my job was to
figure out a way to establish a cooperative arrangement between all
these libraries that would enable them to get funding to extend
library service to the two-thirds that did not have it," she says.
Initially the county said it would only offer $200,000 towards
expanded library services, but that wasn’t acceptable to Burger. "I
got them to up the ante, and we finally ended up with the county
putting in $600,000." Once the state chipped in, the total package for
expansion that Burger secured was about $2 million. "I feel I have
personally enabled 350,000 people to have access to library service,"
Persistence and diplomacy might best describe Burger’s approach to her
job. "I think I listen to people and can hear all points of view, and
I’m able to synthesize and come up with a solution that makes everyone
feel that they’ve won," says Burger. "If I’m working with a group and
they want to vote, I tend to not let them vote because in that
situation someone ends up losing and walking away feeling hurt. I tend
to stick in there and continue to work to find a solution."
While she’s comfortable working in high profile settings, Burger is
not an open book. She doesn’t readily open up to questions about her
family and personal interests, and while she reads a lot herself, she
balks at being called a bookworm.
Burger grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where her mother was an
office worker and her father sold office supplies. She worked after
school in the Bridgeport Public Library, at the time the largest
library in the state. Although she liked to read (she was hooked on
poetry and the Laura Ingalls Wilder series), it was the library itself
that impressed her. "When you’re smaller the scale of things looks a
lot bigger, and it contained any information that you wanted," she
After earning a B.A. in library science and art history from Southern
Connecticut State College, Class of 1973, Burger went for her master’s
in library science at the University of Maryland. "I never went with
the desire to be a cataloger," she says. "My area of interest was to
think about how libraries could change, and what kinds of leadership
and what kinds of support I could provide to make that happen."
Burger returned to the Bridgeport Library, where she created a
database of community services. Two years later, she became the
coordinator for the Connecticut State Library where she developed the
annual report and grant-making program.
Shortly thereafter, many libraries began initiatives to implement
technology. At the Connecticut State Library, Burger, now director of
planning and research, helped get funding for new technology. She also
went back to school for a masters in
organizational development at the University of Hartford in
Connecticut. "I realized that an important thing that needed to happen
was to move libraries forward was to learn how organizations work, how
to provide leadership, how to motivate people."
Burger moved to West Windsor in 1987, when her husband was offered a
position in New Jersey, and was hired as a special assistant to the
state librarian at the New Jersey State Library. It was her job to
decide what kind of long-term skills were needed by mid-level library
managers, and to help develop continuing education programs for them.
When she was laid off in 1991, following cutbacks, Burger started her
own business, Library Development Solutions. She has since worked with
more than 60 libraries in the country, including the Idaho State
the Palm Beach County Cooperative and Polk County Library System in
Florida, and libraries at Georgia Tech, New York University, and
Tulane University. She’s been hired to do everything from
organizational restructuring, to building evaluation and space
planning, to mergers between libraries.
Burger still lives in West Windsor and has two teenagers in high
school and one in college. The decision to apply for the position at
Princeton, says Burger, came from a need to be part of a community
herself — something she was unable to do while moving around the
country consulting. "You’re there for a given period of time but in
the long term you don’t create any sustained relationship," she says.
"Here it was the opportunity to have a relationship in a community."
At the time of this interview, Burger was conducting half-hour
with each library employee, quizzing them on their hopes and dreams
for the library. "It might be quiet on the expansion one week, and big
on internal issues, but it changes the next week," she says.
Nonetheless, expansion of the library is front and center in her mind.
"I have a very good staff here and I feel confident that they’re able
to maintain the day-to-day issues," she says. "I’m kind of a new kid
on the block, and I’m trying to balance."
Although she’s accustomed to leadership roles, she’s not entirely
attuned to the notion of power or hierarchy. "I tend to be a team
player or collaborator," says Burger. "I don’t view myself as an
authority, I view myself more as leader and a direction setter." That
became evident to her in a recent situation with her staff. "I had a
meeting with my management team and I casually shared my opinion to a
staff member and later they informed me that the whole program had
changed according to what I had said," she says. "I’m not used to
being in a position where people hang on my words and do the things
that I suggest immediately. It would be great if my kids did that."
In addition to working out the logistics of the new library, Burger
also hopes to change the way the library presents itself to the
public. "I read a lot of professional journals related to business and
I think we want to be careful how we market ourselves, from what our
Web address is to the hours we keep open," she says. "The world is
heavily oriented towards a consumer society, and if that is going on,
we need to figure out how we compete."
Why compete? Because, says Burger, public libraries symbolize a
community’s values. "We foster a community that values libraries and
values ideas," she says. "Libraries are a critical part of what
happens in any community. They contribute to the quality of life and
become reasons why people relocate to certain communities. They offer
something that makes people feel good — they offer an experience. I
think of libraries that are well-funded and look great, but that
doesn’t mean they are critical to the community like Princeton’s
library. This is a very valued library, and we are fortunate that so
many people believe in it."
One of the greatest problems facing libraries, today, says Burger, is
not shrinking municipal budgets, but a shrinking pool of people
willing to enter the library profession. "I think it’s a graying
profession," she says. "We’re not attracting the younger people
because libraries aren’t paying that much. People who graduate from
library school, if they have any kind of good technology experience,
can go work for an Internet start-up, or dotcom, and get three times
as much money plus stock options. There has to be some kind of other
calling besides money for this."
— Melinda Sherwood
Princeton 08542. Leslie Burger, director. 609-924-9529; fax,
609-924-6109. Home page: http://www.princeton.lib.nj.us.
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