Susan Craig Retirement Reception
Meeting Room A, Iowa City Public Library — Sunday, Dec. 2 at 1 p.m.
As I entered Susan Craig’s office to chat about her career with the Iowa City Public Library and her impending retirement, I encountered a familiar sight: Susan at her conference table, calmly working through a ream of budget and statistical sheets. I thought back in particular to a day during my own presidency of the library’s board of trustees, which I was “lucky” enough to have coincide with the early part of the 2008-10 Great Recession. Susan and I needed to talk about some cuts to the library budget thanks to the looming economic crisis, which would have impacts on our city budget as well. What struck me that day was how calm, deliberate and reassuring Susan was, even in the midst of crisis.
The library was not facing an ordeal when I met with Susan recently, but I was reminded of the strengths that have made her career with and leadership of our beloved library such a success. In addition to my descriptors of calm, deliberate and reassuring, Susan’s colleagues and admirers also use such terms as committed, compassionate, advocate, strategic planner, inclusive, partnership, practical, knowledgeable, passionate and visionary. Iowa City is fortunate to have had one of those rare leaders who embodies all these characteristics while heading one of our community’s premier, defining institutions for a quarter-century.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Susan Craig’s retirement marks the end of an era. A self-described “library kid” who grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, Susan started contributing her talents to the Iowa City Public Library in 1975 as a work-study student while she was studying for her Master of Arts’ degree in library science at the University of Iowa. She was hired as a full-time permanent information librarian in 1977 and climbed the ladder to technical services coordinator and assistant director. In 1994, Susan was chosen to succeed legendary ICPL director Lolly Eggers after a national search that yielded three other finalists. Especially in this day and age, it is rare to enjoy the talents of an exceptional leader for more than two decades, let alone someone who has devoted a lifetime career to a single institution.
The ICPL — and libraries in general — have changed enormously since Susan began studying library science in the 1970s. Some changes are obvious, including here in Iowa City — size and technology, for example. When Susan started at ICPL, circulation was a bit under half a million. Today, that has approached tripling, to over 1.3 million. In the mid-1970s, ICPL served around 15,000 ICPL cardholders. Today, that has nearly quadrupled to more than 57,600. In 1975, approximately 300,000 visitors walked through the old Iowa City Carnegie Library doors. Today, that has more than doubled to over 731,000, approximately 2,000 per day, making the ICPL the state’s busiest library building. Today, computers have replaced card catalogs, library resources and materials are available online, and many patrons are just as likely to visit the library to use a computer as to check out a book.
The very character of libraries has changed in that time, too, with Iowa City often leading the way. As Susan herself says, at the beginning of her career, a library was a “cathedral to books.” A library’s message was, “Here we are. Come to us,” she says. Libraries did little to reach out to the community to share what they had to offer, let alone engage in community programming. In the past 40 to 50 years, there has been a major cultural change in what a library is and does. Susan has always been at the forefront of such change, an important participant and then leader in the ICPL’s increasing service to the community.
During Susan’s tenure at ICPL, the library has created dedicated programs for preschoolers, toddlers and children on the autism spectrum; created a special teen center; developed more adult programming, including for seniors; provided programs and access to tools needed by communities in need, such as new immigrants; and much more.
As Susan says, “Our mission hasn’t changed, but it’s become more complicated.” Part of the library’s mission, she says, is “giving people a leg up,” whether it’s providing preschool literacy programs (which hold a special place in this director’s heart), computer and internet resources to those who can’t afford them or free tax assistance through the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program in partnership with the UI’s Beta Alpha Psi honor organization for accounting majors.
And the development of the library as a community center cannot be denied — the ICPL hosts more than 1,500 non-library community meetings and events per year, or an average of nearly five per day.
As a library employee, Susan organized and oversaw the legendary move of the entire library collection to the new College Street building in 1981. Susan does cite the successful property tax referendum of 2000 and the completion of the expanded library building in 2004 as signature accomplishments of her directorship.
The success and growth of the library over the years are due in large part to an unusually effective strategic planning process and implementation (I participated in three in my 12 years on the Board of Trustees), demonstrating the Craig talent for persistence, hard work and attention to detail in order to realize new visions and to meet community needs. These plans empower the library’s departments and employees to innovate, and often ICPL initiatives garner national attention, such as the groundbreaking Local Music Project, through which patrons can stream or download albums by Eastern Iowa musicians.
In 25 years, Susan has weathered many budget challenges, despite Iowa City’s remarkable financial support for its library. A perennial conundrum was the pressure from some to open branch libraries. Philosophically and practically, Susan believes it is essential that Iowa City have “only one central downtown library,” which is not an idea that always meets universal agreement. But Susan adamantly believes that the preeminence of a downtown building — with its location near the university and the city’s transportation hub, cultural center and a significant shopping district — has been and continues to be important to the library’s continued success and, as she says, “the best way to deliver service to this community.”
The library has been proactive in developing outreach across the region, especially those areas that most need the library’s services. The ICPL’s own Bookmobile, which debuted in 2017, aids in the effort to bring materials and services to neighborhoods in ways that even a branch couldn’t.
Susan Craig is a modest person. She admits that the ICPL’s prosperity has a lot to do with favorable demographics. The single most important factor for a public library’s success, she says, is education level. As a university town and one of the most educated cities in the country, then, Iowa City has a head start. We are also a book-loving community — literally. Even as patrons’ use of e-books has increased, the ICPL circulation of hard-copy books and the collection itself have remained remarkably steady.
That Iowa City became the country’s first UNESCO City of Literature speaks volumes about our commitment to books, literacy and literature — and Susan has played an essential role in those ongoing efforts as well, serving as a board member, and a year as president, for the City of Literature organization.
These titles, as well Susan’s myriad local, state and national service and awards, will no doubt be part of her legacy. (These honors include the Iowa Library Association Member of the Year; Press-Citizen Person of the Year; Isabel Turner Award from the Iowa City Human Rights Commission; and much more.)
Susan’s modesty rises to the fore again when I ask her what she would like her legacy to be. She says that she respected, and still respects, the leadership of the Iowa City Public Library that came before her. She just hopes those who come after will say the same about her. For the future of the library, she hopes for the continued growth of community partnerships and service to communities in need. And for her own future, she sees much more time with her family (including grandchildren), volunteer work, gardening and, of course, reading (more nonfiction, she says).
The library’s board of trustees has yet to select Susan’s replacement, but have narrowed the candidate pool down to three finalists — Elsworth Carman, Kim Kietzman and Sheila Schofer — who participated in a public forum on Oct. 29. The new director will be selected sometime in November, and assume duties January 2019.
Susan says she will remain available to the new director for consultation but, for a little while anyway, she’ll likely keep her distance from the ICPL, except as a patron. Yet she’s confident that at some point she will return for some volunteer work at the community center she has led for the past 25 years.
Susan’s vision for the ICPL has been so successful for so long, I believe, because of its trueness, consistency and its simplicity. As Susan succinctly puts it, “Community service and access is our goal.” That clarity of vision, dedication to community service, distinctive talent at planning and willingness to work hard at execution have made Susan Craig’s tenure as director so successful, and the Iowa City Public Library so invaluable to the city.
“I’ve had the best job in the best place for 25 years,” Susan says. Luckily, Iowa City has benefited from having the best director it possibly could for the best library anywhere.
Why we love Susan Craig
ICPL adult services coordinator
My life changed when I started working at the Iowa City Public Library, and Susan, along with other strong women, taught me so much. I was given the opportunity to learn, share and create a library for everyone. Thank you, Susan.
Little Village contributor and ICPL super-patron
I can’t imagine what life would be like in Iowa City without the Iowa City Public Library. It wouldn’t be a very good or rich or interesting one, that’s for certain. … It’s as perfect an institution as a library can be, better stocked and staffed and laid out than any other library I’ve ever visited … the best public library in America.
Former ICPL Board of Trustees member and president
Susan was part of the team led by Lolly Eggers in the 1980s and ’90s that took ICPL from a small-town library to one widely respected around the country. As Lolly’s successor, Susan has continued a fine tradition of outstanding service.
Iowa City Manager
Susan’s leadership has created a sense of place, belonging, opportunity and purpose that many communities work desperately to emulate. … Perhaps most importantly, Susan has demonstrated through action what it means to be an inclusive public servant. … Her vision, tireless advocacy for community and commitment to public service is an inspiration to me and countless other local government professionals.
Allison Ames Galstad
Director, Coralville Public Library
It is rare to meet someone who has the depth of knowledge, leadership talents, community building skills and passion for libraries that Susan possesses. … Susan has worked to ensure that ICPL has remained vigilant in staying ahead of the changes so that all library resources are readily accessible to all.
Director, North Liberty Community Library
When I started as library director in North Liberty, Susan graciously took time to meet with me to advise and coach me about my transition from assistant director to director. … The North Liberty Library staff has been very grateful to the Iowa City Public Library, under Susan’s leadership, for their partnership with Digital Johnson County … [which] has helped extend the reach of our libraries … to offer services across Johnson County.
Former ICPL Board of Trustees member, current executive director, Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature
The Iowa City Public Library … is the hub of our community. That is because of Susan Craig’s vision. She has led the library through a mind-boggling amount of evolution. She is a quiet leader in the community and a passionate advocate for things that matter.
ICPL staff member
Susan is visionary, practical, knowledgeable and compassionate. She is equally adept at getting to the heart of issues and of people.
ICPL community and access services coordinator
Susan always thinks about library services from a perspective of “what does our community need?” “What can the library do to fulfill those needs?” “What is the most efficient and cost-effective way to do this?” … She is a visionary who is strategic and passionate about how the library makes a difference in our community every day.
ICPL collection services coordinator
Susan Craig … is a mentor in every sense of the word. … She truly loves public libraries, and it is this love that makes ICPL strive for excellence in serving our community. … I can’t think of a better legacy than what the Iowa City Public Library is today.
ICPL development office coordinator
Susan has guided the ICPL and our thousands of library friends through tremendous changes, including outgrowing two buildings and adding a bookmobile, during her career here. I think that her leadership and willingness to respond to our community with unique initiatives prompts people to feel passionate about the library.
Former ICPL Board of Trustees member and president
Nowhere have I seen [strategic planning] implemented as effectively as the Iowa City Public Library. I know this was in no small part because Susan was leading the charge … Susan’s vision, hard work and leadership of her outstanding staff are the backbone of our beloved library. Thank you, Susan!
ICPL administrative services coordinator
In my early days as the new administrative coordinator, [Susan] came one day into the office with a bandaged finger and an emergency room story. … I took a black marker and christened her bandage “Fingerella.” I believe that was a turning point in our relationship. I’ve been privileged to have her energy and intellect two doors down from mine for nearly 14 years.
Current ICPL Board of Trustees member and current president
We are all the better for Susan’s commitment to our community. There are few places in our society where everyone is welcome on equal terms, and Susan has made the Iowa City Public Library a home for us all. … She has been an exceptional director who has led the library to be an exemplary institution.
ICPL information technology coordinator
Susan’s imprint on the library is indelible. She has crafted the culture of the library, developed the services we offer and designed the building that we love so much. It’s hard to imagine the library without her, but we know her leadership will carry the library on long after she has retired.
Thomas Dean served as an Iowa City Public Library Board of Trustees member for 12 years and as president for two. He writes the UR Here column for Little Village. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 253.