In March, Executive Director Mary Ghikas will mark 25 years at the American Library Association (ALA). Although she’s stepping down on February 21, she will serve as deputy executive director until her retirement in June, working under Tracie D. Hall, who will head the Association beginning February 24. Ghikas sat down with American Libraries to talk about her future plans, rising through the ranks as the only woman at the table, and how she came to be known for her signature hats.
What plans do you have for retirement? The rumor is you’re going to Greece.
Yes, that’s true. Well, that’s my plan. What’s the old saying? “People plan and then life happens,” right?
I have two children. The younger one, who’s almost 38, she’s pretty much in Greece permanently and has been since 2007. She moved there to do geology—there’s great geology up in the Pindus Mountains. It’s what I call Alpine Greece. It’s beautiful. It’s so high and snowy with ski resorts. People don’t think of Greece and ski resorts in the same breath. My husband, Tasos, is from Euboea, one of the Greek islands.
My son is in the Army. He’s currently Lt. Col. Ghikas and is posted at the Pentagon. It’s been nice having him in D.C. because usually he’s been in hard-to-get-to places like the west edge of Louisiana or down in El Paso, which is lovely; I love El Paso. So D.C. is nice. He’s also spent a lot of time in Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, and other places.
We hear your son-in-law has a goat farm in Greece? Do you plan to help with the goats?
No, I’m useless on this adventure. That’d be quite an interesting education for a city girl. We’re talking somewhere between 100 and 200 goats.
At what point did you realize you wanted to get into librarianship?
I was all over the place in high school and as an undergraduate, and I always read. But that’s not a good reason to be a librarian. I started out life as an English major at UCLA and then switched to history, mostly because I got tired of English professors telling me I wrote papers like a history major. So I actually finished a major in Latin American history and then weighed grad school options, looking at a graduate degree in history and one in library science, and I ended up in library science at UCLA.
You mentioned you loved to read when you were younger. What were you reading?
Pretty much anything. By the time I was a teenager, I worked my way through the stacks at the local library. I’d look at a bookshelf and make a commitment to read something from it. Then I’d move to the next and pick a book from it, and then the next one. I’d just work my way through the library, reading basically anything that caught my eye, and I still do.
Were your parents influential in fostering a love of reading?
There were always books around the house. People would sit around and read out loud to each other at night. People read and played music; there was always a piano in the house. We didn’t own a TV until I was about high school age.
Do you play the piano?
Well enough to amuse myself.
What did your parents do?
My dad was an engineer and a first-generation college grad. And my mother was my mother. She died when I was about 8. My stepmother was executive secretary in a variety of places when I was growing up.
Were you and your sister expected to pursue your education?
Yes, but there were limits. There were things that girls didn’t do, like medicine. “Those were for boys. These things were for girls.” I was frequently in the professional position of being female around a table mainly populated by men, even in libraries.
What was that like?
I used a lot of shoulder pads. Always wore jackets. And I never admitted I could type. Never. I’m actually quite fast, because I learned how to type in a journalism class in high school where the teacher insisted on covering all the keys.
It was a period in which women were all of a sudden working. And you just didn’t want to be seen wearing a cute dress versus a serious suit. No. You did the suit.
Did you encounter challenges, sexism, or harassment?
You just learned to punch right back, figuratively. It was a different time. When I started at Los Angeles Public Library, I got in trouble on all kinds of accounts, but the first time was when I showed up for work one day in a short-sleeved shirt and was emphatically informed that we “didn’t do that sort of thing.” They definitely had a dress code that said women didn’t wear trousers. So I wore them. I had never worn them growing up. It wasn’t part of the lifestyle until about the time I became an undergraduate. But at that point, things changed very rapidly.
I remember a group of women in public libraries who used to get together routinely at conferences. They called themselves something like the Uppity Women. They were dealing with the fact that, disproportionately, library directors were still male and had a much faster trajectory than women. A woman would work her way up over a period of time. Men graduated and moved up rapidly.
When I look now at some of the really strong library directors around the country—both in academia and public—there are a lot a lot of women out there. But 30, 40 years ago, not so many.
What would you say to your younger self, the one who started at ALA in 1995?
If I had known in 1995 what I know now, I would have done some things very differently: to balance my tendency to be responsive to people with a bit more structure, to push for one more question, to ask why one more time. You learn to dig harder to get at the information you need—questioning why something’s happening and what to do about it.
You were acting executive director in 1997–1998, and you’ve seen a number of executive directors in your time here. What insights have you gleaned on leading and managing people?
Every executive director I’ve worked for has been a totally different experience, but the defining experience of life from where I sit is that your boss changes every year. Every ALA president is different. They’re not going to change their way of working to accommodate you. So you have to accommodate them. Which means you tweak how you work and how you communicate with them. Inevitably it flows down to other people, because all of a sudden, for the people who work with me closely, I’m doing something that’s a little different than what I might have done the previous year.
How about the people you lead? How did you learn to lead?
I’m really bad at being a micromanager. For better or worse, I do have an assumption that whoever’s working with me knows what they’re doing, and if I just let them alone, they’ll be okay. I also have an expectation that if you need something from me, you’ll tell me and tell me pretty bluntly. But you need to be clear, and you need to speak up for yourself.
In terms of learning to lead, I think I’m still learning. There’s stuff I could be better at, and so I try to get better. I don’t think I ever really set out to lead; I set out to do stuff.
Being social is not my strong suit. To this day, working a crowd is painful. I’m relatively withdrawn and an introvert.
What are your proudest moments?
My kids. They’re both really good people who’ve done interesting things, and they’ve not been afraid to go off and do what they want to do.
What’s the story about your signature hats?
You know, I always liked them, and I used to wear them. Then all of a sudden I had a 16-year-old who had opinions, so I quit wearing them for a while. But then I would walk onto the exhibit floor at ALA, and people I’d known for a couple of decades would not say hello to me but instead ask, “Where’s your hat?” So I went back to wearing the hat.
And I’ve had staff say, “Okay, there’s the hat over there. Go ask her. She’ll tell you.” So it just became a shortcut. I’ve literally had people who I knew sit down beside me when I didn’t have a hat on, and about 10 minutes later they say, “Oh! It’s you.”
It just started and then it became a thing. To this day I take a hat or two to conference. People at ALA can look for the hat and I’m usually underneath it, so it saves a lot of trouble.
How would you like to be remembered?
As somebody who thought a lot about this Association and the people in it. Who tried to make sense of it and make it even better, more effective than it was.
What advice would you give to staff?
Have confidence in your capacity to do things. There are tremendous numbers of good people here who do really good work. Have confidence in yourself and in working with other people. It takes people who have a good sense of their own capacity to collaborate effectively, and we’ve got the right people here.
What will you miss most about your time at ALA?
There are many people I’ve known for so long, and when I think about people in my life, a huge percentage of them are ALA members and staff. Library people are interesting people. They read books. They tend to be curious about how things work. They always have conversation. You’re never stuck with last weekend’s football scores—though you might be—but there’s a range of conversation, a range of ideas. I find that they are people who care about stuff. That matters to them. People matter to them.
The world is full of people who have closed the world around themselves. They’re focused on their stuff, their next activity. I find a lot of people in the library world—both staff and members—who aren’t that way. They have an energy about improving life for other people. And that’s attractive. I spend more time with some of my colleagues than I spend with my spouse because I’m here more. I see people in membership who I see two, three, sometimes four times a year. I don’t see most of my other relatives that often. These are the people I see. This is where my life has been.