It was 2010, and Susan Hildreth had just put down roots. She was enjoying her second year directing the Seattle Public Library and was planning to stay for a long time.
Then the White House called. The Institute of Museum and Library Services – the main source of federal funding for museums and libraries in the United States – needed a director, and it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. As hard as it was to leave Seattle, she was off to Washington, D.C.
Her term ended in 2015, and as fate would have it, Hildreth would soon welcome a chance to return to the Northwest. This fall, she will bring her professional expertise to the faculty of the University of Washington Information School as its first Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, focusing on the future of public libraries.
The position is funded by a 10-year, $1.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant will provide funding for up to five professors of practice, with each serving for two to three years and bringing a fresh perspective from the library world to the academic one.
“I think it’s really exciting to be able to serve as the inaugural professor in this role,” Hildreth said. “It shows such vision that the school is identifying this post, particularly with its efforts with the future of libraries. It’s a chance to translate my work in the trenches into advice and guidance, to look at the curriculum and to work with students.”
iSchool Dean Harry Bruce said the school couldn’t ask for a better person to initiate the role than Hildreth, who has experience at the local, state and federal levels and recently was elected treasurer of the American Library Association.
“Susan is a high-impact, visible, distinguished visionary in the field,” Bruce said. “She will be able to share with us where leading edge research is heading and where the profession is going.”
Hildreth’s appointment as a professor of practice is the first of its kind for the iSchool, which has made the future of libraries one of its key initiatives. Professors of practice typically come from outside academia to lend their experience and provide a practical perspective to scholarly pursuits.
“We are setting up a model for practitioner immersion in faculty life, and Susan will be a model for that,” Bruce said. “Each individual will bring their interests to the role and a different point of view.”
During her time at the iSchool, Hildreth will develop and shape curriculum, teach courses, and conduct a research project that focuses on the future of libraries. She will also serve on the Master of Library and Information Science program committee and the advisory committee for the iSchool’s Technology and Social Change Group, a partner in the Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries Initiative.
The iSchool is a key partner as the Global Libraries Initiative winds down, with continued funding over the next decade. The grant for the Distinguished Practitioner in Residence is a key part of the effort to leave the field strong, said Deborah Jacobs, director of the Global Libraries Initiative. The Gates Foundation hopes to see a ripple effect as other information schools follow the UW iSchool's lead by engaging public library professionals and educators.
The appointment comes at a key time for public libraries. As a leader in the field, Hildreth has seen libraries change dramatically in recent years, from serving in a gatekeeping role to one of facilitating, teaching, and promoting civic engagement.
“This role of civic participation is critical,” she said. “The public library is becoming much more of an actor in civic engagement, in bringing different parties together who may not have the same points of view.”
She sees a future where libraries are flexible and nimble, where programming and even buildings can change with the needs of the people they serve.
“I think we need a mindset of being very close to your community and knowing that audience very well,” she said. “We need to be proactive in providing new services and willing to iterate changes in designs quickly. We need to be able to address whatever the need might be.”
Hildreth saw the changes and growing challenges first-hand as she led the San Francisco Public Library in the early 2000s, as California’s state librarian from 2004 to 2009, and at the Seattle Public Library after that. As director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, she oversaw a $250 million annual budget.
After several years in management roles, she’s looking forward to hitting the ground at the University of Washington.
“In the jobs I’ve held, I’ve managed organizations of significant size in a CEO capacity,” she said. “When you move from running a business to the world of the academy where it’s much more about idea sharing and reflection and moving forward in a thoughtful manner, it’s going to be a great opportunity and fascinating for me.
“This is a great opportunity for me. It’s an honor to be joining the faculty at the iSchool.”