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Bravo to Rochester library’s listener-leader

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Written by publisher team

Mar. 8—Great leaders have a lot in common.

They surround themselves with talented people. They spend more time listening than talking. They learn from the past while planning for the future. They accept criticism with grace and receive compliments with humility. They don’t take careless risks, but they aren’t afraid to break with convention. They share credit when things go well and take more than their share of blame when things fall apart — and they never forget that leaders who serve themselves aren’t really leaders at all.

For more than two decades, the Rochester Public Library has had such a leader.

Audrey Betcher joined the library staff in 1996 and became its director in 2000. She retired Friday, and it’s not an overstatement to say that she played a huge role in transforming the library into a 21st-century facility. Even more important, however, is the role she played in helping library users embrace unfamiliar technologies and creating a new vision for how a library can serve its community.

The library’s transformation under Betcher’s watch is startling.

Twenty-two years ago, libraries were largely seen as repositories for books, music and periodicals. The vast majority of library patrons entered through the front doors and left with books in their hands. The tech-savvy users were the ones who had mastered the online card catalog system and understood the process for interlibrary loan.

Today, the library offers an astounding variety of services and ways to access a dizzying array of books, music and information. It’s not just a warehouse — it’s an event center. It’s a gathering place. It’s an ever-changing art gallery. It’s a point of access for social services and medical screenings.

Senior citizens come to the library for help creating a will. Musicians make recordings in a sound booth. Teens who feel marginalized elsewhere gather to write, unite and grow together. People who don’t have internet access at home can checkout Chromebooks with built-in WiFi. And, of course, thousands of users electronically “checkout” materials from the comfort of their own homes — an ability that came in very handy when the pandemic turned us all into hermits.

Betcher, of course, isn’t responsible for this transformation. As she prepared to leave her post, she credited the entire team at the library for “make sure we change intentionally,” and she also said that she simply guided the library in the direction the community wanted to go.

Still, we think it’s worth noting that Betcher came to the library with a background in automation. She saw change coming and didn’t fear it — she embraced it and helped Rochester stay ahead of the curve.

But Betcher’s tech savvy would have meant little without her basic humanity and her desire to help the marginalized, the at-risk and the underserved. She made it her mission to open the library’s doors to all comers, to listen to their needs and goals and provide potentially life-changing services and programs to people of all incomes, ages, races, creeds and orientations.

That inclusive atmosphere is main reason the Rochester Public Library received the National Medal for Library Service from the Institute for Museum and Library Service in 2018. Only three other libraries in Minnesota have received this award — and it is a huge feather in Betcher’s cap as she departs

But what now?

For nearly a decade, Rochester leaders have talked about the need to expand or even relocate the public library. The current facility is showing its years, and if the library is to continue to adapt to the community’s changing needs, it will require more space and an even greater investment in technology. The pricetag will be substantial, and naysayers will put up roadblocks at every turn.

Karen Lemke has taken the library’s reins, and while don’t envy her the tasks that lie ahead, we predict that in her seven years as the library’s head of marketing and community engagement, she learned from Betcher’s example and her formula for success.

That doesn’t mean she’ll follow Betcher’s footsteps, and she shouldn’t. We expect the next 20 years will bring as much change as the previous 20, and Lemke will need to chart a new course for the library.

But she will be well advised to do as Betcher did, to listen to the community and to the people on her team who know the library and its patrons very, very well.

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