Princeton Public Library: Referencing the Future

Leslie Burger’s Bio

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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 2, 2000. All rights

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Women in Business: Leslie Burger

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Princeton Public Library: Referencing the Future

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

activities.

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,"

she says.

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.

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Leslie Burger’s Bio

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

says.

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

federal grants

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

Library,

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

interviews

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 Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street,

Princeton 08542. Leslie Burger, director. 609-924-9529; fax,

609-924-6109. Home page: http://www.princeton.lib.nj.us.


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