This article featuring an Asian/Pacific American library leader highlights Dr. Kenneth A. Yamashita, former APALA president and author of the article “Asian Pacific American Librarians Association: A History of APALA and Its Founders.” The article is available in the About section of APALA’s website. Most recently, Dr. Yamashita served on the Steering Committee of the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color 2012 as the Treasurer.
Between late August and mid-September 2013, I corresponded with Dr. Yamashita about library leadership. This article is an edited version of our asynchronous conversation, focusing on the questions I sent that emphasized his library experiences and career.
Melissa Cardenas-Dow (MICD): Could you please give us some detail about yourself and briefly describe your career path to date?
Kenneth A. Yamashita (KAY): I was born Akira Yamashita on Sept. 11, 1945 in Topaz, Utah, a WWII Japanese American incarceration/concentration camp. I spent my youth in Berkeley, California, Bergenfield, New Jersey, and Montclair, New Jersey. I graduated from Rutgers University with a BA in English Literature, Indiana University with a MA in Fine Arts History, Rutgers University with the MLS, and Simmons College GSLIS with the DA in Library Management. I worked at several different libraries across the country, including the Montclair (NJ) Free Public Library, Decatur (IL) Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library. I also worked for Computer Library Systems Inc. (CLSI), a company that developed an early integrated library system, in Newtonville, MA and Anaheim, CA. I spent some time at the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners in Boston and the New England Library Board in Augusta, Maine while I was studying for the Simmons College DA program. Since 1981, I worked at the Stockton-San Joaquin County (CA) Public Library (S-SJCPL). I retired as the City Librarian of S-SJCPL in January 2010.
MICD: When we talk about diversity, we often discuss the differences that are immediately noticeable—ethnicity, gender, age, culture, etc. Can you describe the ways in which you see yourself as a diverse professional?
KAY: I’m a third generation (Sansei) Japanese American, gay man. I was born in an American incarceration/concentration camp in Utah. Both my parents were second generation (Nisei), born in California as U.S. citizens. I was raised in the East Coast, in New Jersey. My library career is predominantly in public libraries set in rural, suburban and urban environments. I also have marketing and staff training experience in an early ILS company and have state library agency/interstate cooperative experience.
MICD: Can you describe an instance when your diversity played a beneficial role in your library work?
KAY: At the Chicago Public Library, I helped the Assistant Commissioner and the Commissioner with interviews of Librarian I candidates for the branches and the Commissioner’s office staff. I had the ability to personalize the formal interview process to ease the candidates’ nervousness and to encourage them to talk about themselves. I was particularly effective with candidates of color who had no prior interviewing experience. This skill was greatly appreciated by the Assistant Commissioner and the Commissioner, as well as the candidates.
MICD: Please describe how you progressed from your first professional position to the next step. What positive or negative role did your diversity play in attaining the next position?
KAY: My first professional position was as a reference librarian at the Montclair (NJ) Free Public Library (MFPL). After the MFPL director Arthur Curley called the dean of the Rutgers University library school and got me enrolled, provided a trustees fellowship and a part-time job as Librarian Trainee, I decided to continue working at the MFPL after graduating with the MLS. Curley’s philosophy, “an excellent librarian working anywhere is a benefit to libraries everywhere,” encouraged me to apply for an Extension Services Supervisor position at the Decatur (IL) Public Library (DPL). The DPL director at that time, Robert Dumas, had actively recruited and hired new, younger professionals to develop and mentor. I presume that my Asian American ethnicity may have played a positive role in my hiring (I was the only librarian of color out of the 5 librarians hired) but my age, beginner’s level experience, and readiness for mentoring and developing were more compelling reasons for it.
MICD: In your experience, have you found it significantly more challenging to move higher up the leadership ladder? How did you make the move from middle management to upper management?
KAY: When the Deputy Director of Library Services at the Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library moved on to a County Librarian position in another county, the Director of Library Services decided not to conduct a national search for her successor and chose to appoint me to the position instead. I had been a Library Division Manager for 16 ½ years, had worked with 4 directors, and had applied for the DD position once before. The fourth director, a younger, progressive African American woman who had been hired “to bring the S-SJCPL into the 21st Century,” provided the opportunity for advancement.
MICD: How does your diversity influence your leadership style?
KAY: Inclusiveness and consensus-based decision making are very important to me. These qualities might be characterized as my Asian American (emphasis on “American”) leadership style.
MICD: As someone who currently occupies a leadership position, what would you say are the attributes you look for in future leaders?
KAY: Demonstrated leadership skills and/or potential. Future leaders should have a passion for their work and out-of-work-time activities. I also look for the ability to work well with subordinates, colleagues, and administrators and the ability to see the whole picture as well as the details. Demonstrated ability to make connections and work effectively with library constituents and their communities, especially constituents/communities of color, are other attributes I look for in future leaders. Effective oral and written communication skills, a healthy sense of humor, technological competence (if not expertise), membership and participation in professional associations, and commitment to continuing education for themselves and their co-workers are other significant hallmarks.
MICD: What skills or talents do you recommend that diverse professionals might develop as they seek new leadership positions?
KAY: The sorts of skills, attitudes, and activities that I mentioned earlier.
MICD: What advice would you give young professionals, especially those from diverse backgrounds, who are interested in attaining their first leadership positions?
KAY: Do your homework before you apply and interview for a position at a library. In addition to perusing annual reports, financial statements, five-year plans, etc. and learning about the library’s community, talk to librarians on staff, make a site visit to see how well (or not) you might “fit-in” and assess the potential for advancement in the organization. Ask colleagues about their knowledge of the pros and cons of working in the library in question. Volunteer for committee assignments and request the chair responsibility in your new job. Join professional associations, including but not limited to your own ethnic librarian/library association, attend their library conferences, on your own time and dime if necessary, to develop your leadership skills by chairing committees, running for elected offices, serving on executive boards, ALA Council, etc. Find a mentor to guide and support you and your career.
MICD: What advice would you give mid-career professionals, who may already have some supervisory responsibilities or are in middle management and are interested in moving into higher management?
KAY: Demonstrate exemplary work in your current position that can be reflected and acknowledged in your performance evaluations. Quickly bring any “Needs Improvement” areas up to standards, even exceeding them. Let your supervisor or director know that you are seeking advancement and ask for his/her advice on the most effective way to achieve your goals. Talk to mentors and outside colleagues who can offer more personalized/authentic advice and counsel. Be willing to relocate yourself and your family if advancement opportunities are not locally available or obtainable.
MICD: What message would you give to library administrators regarding the value of diverse leaders and how they might grow or urge those leaders within their organizations?
KAY: Capitalize on the diverse view/talking points and strategies to fulfill the Library’s Mission and achieve the common goals that diverse staff bring to the table, when they are allowed to sit at the table. The diverse leaders should be encouraged and developed because they are typically connected to (an) un/underrepresented segment(s) of the constituent population. They can bring trust, credibility, and a sense of inclusiveness to the library as a public service provider. As such, they are valuable human assets for the library who deserve all the development and support that administrators can provide.
MICD: What final thoughts would you like to express to APALA members?
KAY: I entered the profession in the early 1970s, when many seasoned librarians were retiring and the recruitment and retention of new librarians was a national priority. At the same time, the African American civil rights and women’s equality movements’ activists were clamoring for changes in society, libraries, ALA, and the profession. I had the good fortune of working for Arthur Curley, Betty Turock, Ella Yates, Robert Dumas, and David Reich—all activist library directors and leaders—in the first 10 years of my professional career, of being taught outreach and social responsibilities by Robert Wedgeworth at Rutgers University library school, and of working with Eric and Ilse Moon, E. J. Josey, Jana Varlejs, Helen Wright, and Jean Coleman at ALA. All of these library leaders felt that it was an honor and privilege to mentor and develop future leaders, particularly but not exclusively, future leaders of color. My finest and final mentor was Dr. Ching-chih Chen, who generously provided personal, as well as professional advice, coaching and support through the Simmons College DA program and my Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library career.
For more information about Dr. Kenneth A. Yamashita, please visit his profile at Simmons College.