Jo Anne Mondowney
Jo Anne Mondowney, executive director of the Detroit Public Library, calls herself an accidental librarian, drawn to the profession by the library’s ability to improve quality of life for anyone regardless of economic resources. Encouraging her staff to take risks and be independent is a hallmark of her leadership style.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Detroit Public Library Executive Director Jo Anne Mondowney
: It means guiding and inspiring others to serve. There are ways I would do things, but I am always open to how others would solve a problem, and I am there to help. I know it is better to teach them how to do it and then let them do it -- and let them fail and learn from failure. I want to put them in an environment where it’s okay to make mistakes, because I believe we learn better from mistakes. You see people become far more competent at what they are doing, and more accomplished.
What is your dream for kids?
That they live happy and productive lives. One of the things libraries do is that we intentionally help to build resumes of children and enhance what they are learning through education. The library has a program for the past 50 years called Junior Great Books to teach young people in second grade through 12th
grade about the great books. They meet on Saturday and talk critically about great books. It’s an opportunity to be expressive, give opinions, and think critically. We also have arts and crafts provided in a technical way. Our teens in the HYPE Teen Center have had the opportunity to create things in a Makerspace. It helps to build resumes and broaden their perspective not just about the local environment but One of the things libraries do is that we intentionally help to build resumes of children and enhance what they are learning through education.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
I really think it is intentional collaboration. There needs to be more opportunities for many people doing the same things and attempting to get the same result to be able to work together. That could go a long way. We have a lot of groups come to the library wanting us to help them promote this or that initiative. We’ll ask, “Are you familiar with this same group doing exactly the same thing you’re doing?” And they’ll say, “no.” Let’s say Kellogg was funding something, they would tell the organizations receiving funding that they have to find three groups doing what they’re doing, and they have to find ways to work together and expand on that.
How do you know you’re making progress?
I spend a lot of time with the people I work with getting them to be creative, and when I see them actually doing those things I have been encouraging them to do I know I’ve made progress. I have this little thing about how much I love “latchkey” employees, when I see them handling so many complex issues and problems, and I couldn’t have handled their issues any better. As a leader I show that I want people to be far more independent than dependent. If I am not here, I would not want the institution to dissolve because they are so dependent on me. When people proudly show me how they have made I was kind of an accidental librarian. I came out of marketing and retailing. You hear a lot of people say they got into the library profession because they love books.
progress on an issue where someone else would have said, “Why didn’t you come to me?” that’s when I know I have made progress.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of people I have mentored that are doing great work. In my previous work prior to coming to Detroit and to Michigan, I worked in Baltimore and managed to write a book about delivering services to at-risk teens in library settings. Many of my colleagues have expressed how it has inspired them to continue to serve young people.
What originally drew you to your current profession?
I was kind of an accidental librarian. I came out of marketing and retailing. You hear a lot of people say they got into the library profession because they love books. Once I got into it, for me it was the opportunity to instill the love of reading in young people. The library is a wonderful resource for enhancing one’s quality of life -- and we serve everybody.