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ARL Sits Down with Mary Lee Kennedy for Q&A

Mary Lee Kennedy

In anticipation of Mary Lee Kennedy’s start as ARL executive director on April 1, I conducted a short, informal interview with her this month to introduce Mary Lee to those in our community who do not yet know her. Our chat made me look forward to working with Mary Lee even more than I already was. I hope you enjoy reading the following Q&A as much as I enjoyed the process of producing it.

Why and how did you get started in librarianship?

I was a very curious kid who had to know about everything and was endlessly asking questions. I was also fortunate to travel a lot—my parents balanced travel with learning about people and cultures. In this way, I was privileged to have a rich information environment while growing up. At the same time, I thought I wanted to be a detective or a spy, influenced by the many spy books I read. I met some librarians who had been spies in WWII and realized I couldn’t be a spy because I was too afraid of violence, but librarians are a lot like detectives—they solve mysteries of a certain kind. After college I took two part-time jobs at the University of Alberta Libraries, working as a clerk in government documents and in the periodicals reading room. There I spent a lot of time reading about how world governments work and about current events. I saw how empowering information can be and was excited to see it was possible to change the world with information. I decided I could help change the world by making information more widely available as a librarian. My first professional job, at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in Mexico, was doing just that—changing that university’s library system to open up information to students and faculty.

What is a highlight of your career?

There are many highlights; I’ve been fortunate in many ways. There’s a category of highlights that stands out when I look back on my career: the times when our team was able to identify a set of shared goals and bring them to life. There’s nothing like being part of a team that achieves a goal and seeing the difference that work makes in people’s lives. I’ll give you three examples of this.

At the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán we redesigned the entire library system. When we started the card catalogs were behind a railing and were off-limits to anyone except staff. It’s mind-boggling how different that library is now—it’s a welcoming, modern library.

The New York Public Library has a huge commitment to the library as a place to learn. That program saw tremendous growth while I was there. We brought together people with different subject expertise, especially in high-need neighborhoods, and re-emphasized reading.

Harvard University has done substantial work on scholarly communication. While I was there, we emphasized advancing open access to scholarship and metadata. We addressed the challenges of open access by working with the community of faculty and staff.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I consider myself a mission-focused leader, meaning I focus on strategy to create the maximum value on what we prioritize, and I’m deeply committed to the growth of people and community. (Some people call this a “servant leader.”) We can’t do it all, so we need to focus on what we can uniquely do to bring the greatest value to those we serve. It’s not about me, it’s about what I can do to activate our collective intelligence and motivation to achieve our shared goals.

What is your vision for ARL in 2020 and beyond?

We’re in a transformative moment in our society. Our systems, the way we do our work, our lives are all undergoing change. This can’t help but affect how research and teaching happen and how we learn. I’m a fundamental believer in the value of what research libraries and their teams do in this increasingly connected world. ARL can make a positive difference in the way the research and learning ecosystem creates knowledge and opportunities for knowledge. ARL can do that for the collective, for subsets of the collective, and for individual institutions. ARL can have an impact on a global scale by activating collective thought leadership, expertise, programs, and content, and leading through all these changes.

ARL is also a learning laboratory. It needs to be okay to try things even if they aren’t a “success” on the first attempt—that creates innovation. ARL is a recognized forum for research library knowledge, leadership, advocacy and policy, professional growth, and innovation. We can’t always predict the opportunities that will arise, so the ability to be agile is vital.

ARL attracts leaders, partners, professionals, and staff who share this worldview of the role of research libraries, and who value fairness, integrity, inclusion, equity, and nondiscrimination. We attract thinkers and doers who want to lead. We have to be a leader and a partner. We will work with partners of many kinds to achieve the goals most valued by our members.

Is there anything else you want the ARL community to know about you?

I’m really looking forward to getting to know all of you. I bring an international perspective, being Canadian and having worked in Mexico, Canada, and the US, and with colleagues around the world, in public as well as academic research libraries. It helps that I can relate to those various environments, but we each have our own unique experiences and identities. I’m looking forward to meeting with you at the Spring Meeting and one-on-one in the coming months. And I’m excited to be working with you and on your behalf. If you want to talk, please give me a call or send me an email—my door is open.

What do you like to do when you aren’t working?

I enjoy spending time with my two sons. I’m an outdoors person—I grew up near the Rocky Mountains—so I try to get outside as often as possible to hike, bike, and walk. No cliff-climbing, though! Indoors, I love to cook for people, and also enjoy music, reading, and visiting art museums. Moving from New York City to Washington, I’ll miss the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park but am looking forward to learning my way around the museums and parks of DC.

About the Association of Research Libraries

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is a nonprofit organization of 125 research libraries in the US and Canada. ARL’s mission is to influence the changing environment of scholarly communication and the public policies that affect research libraries and the diverse communities they serve. ARL pursues this mission by advancing the goals of its member research libraries, providing leadership in public and information policy to the scholarly and higher education communities, fostering the exchange of ideas and expertise, facilitating the emergence of new roles for research libraries, and shaping a future environment that leverages its interests with those of allied organizations. ARL is on the web at ARL.org.