Newsmaker: Kathryn Matthew

New IMLS director discusses opportunities for libraries to form community partnerships

January 4, 2016

Kathryn Matthew is the new director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Kathryn Matthew is the new director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Kathryn Matthew, the new Institute of Museum and Library Services director, comes from a museum background—leadership of the institute alternates between museum and library representatives in four-year terms—but she brings to the position a strong interest in how organizations dedicated to nonformal learning can serve as community anchors. She recently spoke with American Libraries about libraries’ evolving missions and how IMLS can help libraries achieve them.

What do you see as the key issues facing libraries right now?

I think nonprofits, and particularly libraries, are stepping back and examining how we become community anchors and develop meaningful, deep, and sustained partnerships with other players in the community, rather than acting as a single entity trying to reach target populations. Balancing digital and print collections is another key issue, and everyone’s trying to do more with the same amount of funding or less. It’s also very important to think about small- to medium-sized institutions that may not have the bandwidth to embark on that digital journey.

How does IMLS balance its mission between libraries and museums, and what opportunities do you see for partnerships between libraries and museums?

Partnerships related to family learning, early childhood programs, and STEM are already happening and should continue. Libraries can serve as entry points where families can spend time together, whether in storytelling or STEM or maker programs, and then they can continue their experience at museums.

The National Digital Platform is talking about collections very holistically and how we can preserve them digitally and make them more discoverable to users, whether they are in libraries, museums, or archives.

I’m also hearing a lot about professional development being discussed at conferences. An example of how we’re working on that is the Coalition to Advance Learning in Archives, Libraries, and Museums. This effort, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and IMLS, has the goal of developing and strengthening sustainable continuing education and professional development programs. That’s a great example of how we identify entry- and mid-level topics of interest across the fields.

I’m particularly interested in how we can help our professionals assess how to quickly pilot and develop ideas to help their communities. It’s all about being agile in how we think about new programs.

What kind of challenges do you anticipate in building a relationship with the next president and his or her administration?

There’s always an opportunity, both currently and in a new administration, to partner with federal agencies. For example, with US Citizenship and Immigration Services, we’ve hosted 10 webinars for libraries about playing a role in helping people to become citizens. We’ve also worked with groups like the Broadband Opportunity Council, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education. We’ll continue to develop partnerships with federal agencies and with the private sector.

What do you think of the maker movement and the role libraries play in it?

It’s doing two important things: It’s attracting younger technology professionals who traditionally haven’t been as frequently engaged with libraries to be involved with children and giving them an opportunity to share their expertise. It’s also a great tool for engaging kids and families. If you think in terms of developing career skills, it’s a real opportunity to take it to the next level. It fosters a basic enthusiasm for science and engineering, but it also takes a subject that kids love and helps them see how it applies to what professionals do in real life.

What would you like librarians to know about IMLS activities and services?

One of the wonderful surprises when I started at IMLS was learning more about the grants to states. Through that program, combined with discretionary funds, we support library services in every state. We are in touch with librarians in the field through grant programs, site visits, and programs in communities. We’re also a bridge to the administration, so we can raise issues for the administration to consider.

Also, we want to hear from librarians and get their feedback. We attend library conferences, and I am active on Twitter (@IMLSDirector).

In your view, what does the future hold for libraries?

We’re at a very interesting nexus. We are viewed as hubs and repositories for history and intellectual content. But we’re also, rightly so, being expected to evolve with and reach out to our changing communities. I think libraries need to learn from one another and know how to adapt one another’s experiences to their own unique context. We have great examples in rural and urban communities, but we don’t have a single answer. Coming together and developing frameworks that can adapt would be a big accomplishment for the field.


Jennifer Burek Pierce

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