September 7, 2021

Indy Public Library Interim CEO Talks About Plans To Build Relationships, Trust

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Indy Public Library Interim CEO Talks About Plans To Build Relationships, Trust

The Indianapolis Public Library has come under public scrutiny after current and former employees complained of a toxic work environment and that their concerns were ignored by leadership. CEO Jackie Nytes resigned last month after a special board meeting and Chief Public Services Officer John Helling was appointed interim CEO.

WFYI’s Terri Dee spoke with him about his vision moving forward and the responsibility the library has to its patrons.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WFYI Reporter Terri Dee: You are assuming the top leadership role within the Indianapolis Public Library system in which accusations of racism and ableism were made. And there were accusations of dismissiveness made against Judge Jose Salinas, who still serves as the library board's president. What is your management style? And does it include transparency? And how will it be used to address these accusations?

Indianapolis Public Library Interim CEO John Helling: So my personal experience is that we arrive at the best decisions when we have input from, you know, the broadest possible set of stakeholders. So sometimes that means formal things like meetings, sometimes it means informal things like a staff person asking you for a minute of your time. Transparency is a huge part of that.

So our engagement and approachability as the interim CEO, you know, my role is to make sure our house is in order for the next CEO. But the word that probably captures everything is listening. And partner listening means that if a decision or policy can't hold up to difficult questions posed by staff or patrons, that it probably wasn't good enough in the first place. And we need to do better. I think I recognize -- I think we all recognize -- that when we listen, we learn what we need to improve.

Dee: The Central Indiana Community Foundation recently announced it is withholding future funding to the Indianapolis Public Library until the institution makes, and I'll quote them "significant, meaningful and measurable change toward a more equitable internal environment." And until a library board approved climate improvement process concludes. How do you see these requested improvements unfolding and presenting themselves not just to the library staff, but to the community?

Helling: So the proposed climate improvement process is not only just board approved, but it's actually truly board-driven, you know, is something that's been initiated by the board as part of their community oversight function, and it's going to be led by them, not necessarily by library staff. So for that reason, I wouldn't want to speak too much on the board's behalf, because that's not really my place. I do know that they have not finished putting together the framework for that process yet.

But I would feel comfortable saying that whatever it looks like community engagement is going to be a huge part of it. Because the way that our patrons experience and perceive the libraries is extremely important to you know what, to all of us.

Dee: Is there anything that I have not asked you that you would like the why listeners and the community at large to know as you're moving forward in your position?

Helling: Well, I would just say that you know, we all recognize that this is a very tough time for everyone. We want to do our best to listen to everyone staff and patron alike. I view it as my role as the interim CEO to build and rebuild relationships, to build and rebuild trust, and just to facilitate the transition that the library is going to make to the next CEO. That's my goal.

Dee: Thank you for your time today.

Helling: Thanks, Terry.

Contact WFYI All Things Considered newscaster and reporter Terri Dee at tdee@wfyi.org.

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