Theodore N. Foss
candidate for 2019 oak park library board
1. What motivates you to seek this office? What skills, experiences, and perspectives would you bring to the Board, and why would those contributions be valuable to the Library?
When I first sought to be a library trustee in the election of 2015 I had just recently retired from a career in academic administration. During my education I had also taken coursework in library science and have closely followed the work of the American Library Association and public libraries both professionally and through colleagues. It seemed a natural next step to get involved with my local library, having closely followed the aspirations and accomplishments of friends and institutions that have been more directly involved.
2. What do you think makes an effective Library Trustee?
Advocacy of the idea of the public library. As I often jocularly say “social gospel without the religious guilt”. Seriously, I believe that the institution of the public library is an important component of a healthy community. That said, I also recognize the limiting parameters of the work of a trustee. We identify a director, let that person manage the library without our undue interference, we listen to the community and set policy and budget. Above all we defend the core principle of intellectual freedom.
Understanding the place of a public library in the community of Oak Park and its independence from the political.
As a community we invest in public libraries as a nurturing environment that we aspire to be outside partisan issues. The library strives to be a bastion of public democratic ideals and a truly safe space. It may seem to be a bit high-minded, but absolutely sure, to say that our public libraries are one of the places where we strive to have all people equal. Oak Park and communities throughout the world invest and treasure and fight for this core value. Just as we protect the sanctity of free and fair elections, a public library should stand firm to value inclusion. This comes at a cost that the community should understand. We strive to be stewards. I believe that our library and its board is elected to listen to the community, to be fiscally mindful but to be allowed to be independent of governmental interference. This is why in state after state there has been an established independence of library trustee boards from political meddling. We are given our budget to handle openly and responsibly. Citizens choose to elect a board and judge our conduct; however, I hope that everyone holds to the principle that the founding and support of a public library is worth having and that it be there as an intellectually unfettered place for all.
3. What is your understanding of the purpose of the Library Board? What do you see as the appropriate relationship between the Library Board and Library staff?
Referencing my answer to the second question, I believe it is important to maintain a respectful distance to staff. It is the job of the library director to manage staff and it is inappropriate for a trustee to intervene in matters of library operations. While I very much enjoy my friendships with staff I strive to keep my relationships to the level of library patron to valued professionals. It is not the place for a library trustee to interfere in the dynamic of library management.
To quote from Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction, AE3: "Who Runs the Library":
“This charge from the legislature provides library boards, but not individual trustees, with considerable discretion to operate libraries as they deem necessary independent of direct control by other municipal players—city councils, town boards, mayors, village board presidents, etc. In providing this governance structure for libraries, the legislature was attempting to keep library operations under direct citizen control and as far as possible outside the political sphere of government. Compared with other appointed boards, library boards have extraordinary powers and responsibilities. Many other appointed boards can only recommend actions to an elected board or council higher up the ladder of government. Library board actions are made independently of any further approval by other government bodies or officials as long as such actions are within statutory authority.
The independent authority granted to public library boards is intended to protect the historic role of the public library as a source of unbiased information."
4. When in your experience have you had to balance competing interests? What process did you use? What did you learn?
An interesting question. If by competing interests you mean complaints of bias on the part of the library and its policies, I think that it is important to address a concern that might arise by articulating the underlying principle of the purpose of a public library as a neutral and welcoming place for the exchange of ideas. A well-defined statement of mission has been articulated and the exposition of that set of values can be pointed to whenever an issue comes up.
5. What does transparency in government mean to you? How would you put it into practice?
I believe that our financial and intellectual practices are very well presented to our public.
6. As more of our local discourse happens in social media, what is your view on how local elected officials should communicate with and respond to constituents? How will you engage with the breadth of the community, and not just the voices that are loudest or easiest to find?
Personally I do not have a “Facebook page”, A “Twitter” account, etc. I do have a published e-mail address and I strive, through constant dialogue, to listen to the community. I have served on the Intergovernmental board of representatives from the Oak Park elected officials. I believe that one of the important functions of a library trustee is to advocate for the important place that a public library has in the building of a dynamic and flourishing community for all.
7. In what ways have you sought to better know and understand the concerns and needs of residents outside your demographic group (specifically the demographic groups of race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status)?
Two ways to respond to this question. One of the most enlightening things for me is to visit and interact with other communities and their experiences with their public libraries. Breaking outside of Oak Park to see how public libraries elsewhere in the nation and abroad approach their mission has been really helpful. As for the local demographics I believe that the current board is striving to tackle diversity in many innovative ways. Both staff and board have embraced the principle of “looking outward”. Personally as a gay white male I bring one perspective lens to a community of amazing diversity and I am constantly learning.
8. In recent years the Library has shown leadership in undertaking a number of cutting edge initiatives, replacing security guards with social workers, paying part-time employees a living wage, and eliminating late fees for borrowers. How would you continue or expand this work?
These three initiatives are just the beginning of what might be accomplished. I am concerned that we must do a better job in reaching out to our neighboring communities, that we not focus simply on the black/white divide and look to diversity as a larger issue.
9. How do you define equity? Do you favor implementing a formal equity lens/framework at the Library, and if so, what specifics should that policy include?
The definition of “equity” is a lens that needs constantly to be polished and focused.
10. What should and shouldn’t change about the services provided by the Library going forward, in an era of radical changes in how people can find and consume information?
One of the strangest persistent comments that I hear is “Where did all the books go?” We need to do a better job in articulating what a local public library is. It is a joy to be a trustee for an institution where people actually say “we love the library” and we can do a better job of letting people know why they should love us even more!
11. Please list the three largest donors to your campaign by dollar amount contributed.
I have sought no outside contributions. To quote Winston Churchill… it’s just my own blood, toil, tears and sweat. : )
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[The above answers were supplied on 2/17/19. It may be possible to find more current financial information at the Illinois Sunshine website. Illinois Sunshine is also a useful resource for identifying past contributions by individuals to political candidates and committees in Illinois.]