As state librarian, Cindy Aden is always on the run

Monday, October 30, 2017

As Washington state librarian, Cindy Altick Aden might spend her day at her home base in Tumwater, figuring out how to stretch grant money to serve communities. She might be at a prison library, or she might be visiting a tiny library in one of the most remote parts of the state.

She is always on the move, and that’s exactly how she likes it.

“There is nothing more satisfying than meeting people face to face and seeing those libraries and getting inspired by all the different resourceful and creative ways that libraries are serving their patrons,” she said.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman appointed Aden as director of the state library in 2016. It’s the latest stop in a career that’s taken Aden to the Library of Congress, the University of Washington Libraries, and Kitsap Regional Library since earning her Master of Librarianship degree in 1987 at the iSchool, then known as the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. She has also worked at organizations such as Corbis, the Online Computer Library Center, and Amazon, where she became the company’s first professional librarian in 1998.

Aden was working as a newspaper editor when she started graduate school. Her advisor, Raya Fidel, enlisted her to work on a project funded by the National Science Foundation to study artificial intelligence. Along with Fidel and fellow grad student Mike Crandall, now a principal research scientist with the iSchool’s Technology and Social Change Group, she studied how people search databases and whether their decision-making processes could be emulated artificially. The work perfectly suited Aden, a self-professed “data geek.”

“It was cool!” she said of the research. “It was hard back then – I think artificial intelligence is very sophisticated now – but we had to acknowledge that there are a ton of factors that go into a decision.”

Retrieving data and trying to anticipate how people would want to narrow it down was an early window into the kind of thinking that companies like Google and Amazon would later turn into hugely successful enterprises. It also provided a glimpse of where librarianship and the information profession would be heading.

“The myriad number of things that a librarian might know about that dataset were hard to completely imagine AI ever picking up on,” she said. “It’s one of the things that I think distinguish us as information professionals. Not only do we know how people search and think, but we really understand some things about the data.”

At the state library, Aden leads an organization that traces its roots to long before statehood. It came into existence with the establishment of the Washington Territory in 1853 and acquired its first 1,850 volumes later that year. The library now maintains more than 2.25 million items, including print and digital collections, genealogy resources, photo collections and historic newspapers.

In addition to its main location, the state library oversees nine prison libraries, two state hospital libraries, and the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library. It supports the work of researchers, policymakers, public librarians and school librarians, but it keeps a low profile – something Aden is working to change.

“One of my big challenges and opportunities is to raise the library’s visibility and really make it relevant across the state,” she said.

The state library often works in tandem with libraries as large as the King County system or the Seattle Public Library, and as small as the Odessa Public Library, which has $1,000 a year to spend on books and is open 10 hours a week. It works with the state’s Native peoples, who often combine the library’s functions with those of a museum or cultural heritage center. And it helps school libraries update their collections, some of which have fallen far out of date.

Aden is working to make the state library known as an essential community partner, a role she sees growing for public libraries and for librarians.

“I think they’re going to continue to become more and more relevant because they are changing so much,” she said, noting that today’s libraries help people find jobs, find housing, learn English, and get an education. “There are going to be huge opportunities for us to use our broader toolbox, of amassing information and understanding how people learn, and understanding what communities need and how to be a real partner.”

More iSchool alumni in library leadership

Alumni from the UW Information School are in leadership positions all across the country, with many responsible for state, county and city library systems.

Brian Bannon, MLIS, 1999; Distinguished Alumnus, 2015
Commissioner & CEO, Chicago Public Library since 2012. CIO, San Francisco Public Library, 2006-12.
he Chicago Public Library is the most visited civic institution in Chicago and among the largest public library systems in the U.S. Under Bannon's leadership, this 140-year-old institution has reimagined traditional services for new audiences and served as a national model for how large legacy institutions can adapt and thrive in the knowledge and information economy.

Jill Bourne, MLIS, 1997: 2017 Librarian of the Year (Library Journal)
City Librarian, San Jose Public Library since 2013. Deputy City Librarian, San Francisco Public Library, 2006-2013.
Under Bourne’s leadership, the San Jose Public Library was the first library to receive both the Gale/Library Journal Library of the Year Award and the Institute of Museum and Library Services National Medal. The goal is to enrich lives by fostering lifelong learning and by ensuring that every member of the community has access to a vast array of ideas and information. Bourne’s oversight includes the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library (in partnership with SJSU) and 22 branch libraries.

Georgia Lomax, M.Lib, 1984; Distinguished Alumna, 2006; MLIS Advisory Board member
Executive Director, Pierce Country Library since 2015. Deputy Director Pierce County Library, 2006-2015 and Managing Librarian, King County Library system, 1993-2005.
The Pierce County Library System consists of 20 libraries that offer families and children free access to 1 million books, CDs and DVDs, and numerous events to help kids read and do their homework. Under Lomax’s leadership and with community input, a system-wide plan was developed in 2016 to identify commonalities and distinctions at each of the 20 library branches.

Rivkah Sass, M.Lib, 1978; Notable Alumna, 2001; 2006 Librarian of the Year (Library Journal)
Executive Director, Sacramento Public Library since 2009. Executive Director, Omaha Public Library, 2003-2009
The Sacramento Public Library is the fourth-largest library system in California, serving a population of more than 1.3 million with 28 locations. Sass’s stated goal is to help SPL be recognized as national model for engaged and creative staff, serving as the community’s heart. For example, in a collaboration with Sacramento Steps Forward, the library is connecting homeless people to housing and other services.