Inside Track: Embracing the changing landscape
Executive director of Kent District Library hopes ‘to make libraries viable for another 100 years.’
Lance Werner often is just a fat guy from Detroit.
Werner recites that line as a way to stay grounded and keep a level head. He loves life and his job as executive director of the Kent District Library, and he hugs nearly everyone who he comes into contact with simply because “the world would be a better place if everyone hugged.”
“We have a lot of fun here,” Werner said of the KDL headquarters in Comstock Park. “We are a family, and we want the public to feel as part of the family. We serve everyone, and it’s our job to give people what they want out of their library.”
In a time of rapid technological changes, the future of libraries remains in limbo. A library is no longer a place of “shhh…,” Werner said. Last year, KDL branches welcomed 2.8 million visitors, making it the most visited cultural institution in Kent County.
KDL has the largest collection of e-books in Michigan, more than 100,000, and was the first library in Michigan to offer e-magazines, e-movies and e-streaming video games for its members. In Northern Kent County, Werner said the library is working to help provide Wi-Fi hotspots for an area where technology is lacking.
Unlike many of his industry colleagues, Werner is excited about the prospect of keeping KDL at the forefront of the library industry.
“We want to establish a new model to make libraries viable for another 100 years,” Werner said. “We don’t have an understanding of that right now. I go to a lot of conferences, and I hear a lot of librarians running around and saying the same thing about the death of libraries the last decade, but I think it’s an exciting time because it’s a time of chaos, but good things can come.
“For good things to come, you have to be willing to be brave and willing to reach and fail and push boundaries and get out of your box and not be worried about being comfortable.”
Werner has pushed boundaries his whole life. Despite being part of a family that has called Michigan home for seven generations, he spent most of his childhood in Wyoming following his father’s career in the military. He moved around, including California, Arizona and a stint in high school as an exchange student in Helsinki, Finland.
He pursued a degree in psychology from Northern Colorado University and worked through school as a small business manager for several years, before deciding he wanted to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. To make it to the FBI, Werner knew he had to either get an accounting degree or a law degree, and since he feels accounting is “terribly boring,” he enrolled in the Michigan State University College of Law in 1998. Halfway through law school, he met his wife and her daughter and decided the FBI was not a career for a family man and switched his career path. He still finished his law degree in 2001 and passed the bar.
“If you start something, you should finish it,” Werner said. “If you go to law school, you should finish it, and if you finish it, you should take the bar, just in case.”
While at MSU, he worked part time as a reference librarian in the law library; he liked it. So in 2001, he enrolled at the Wayne State University School of Library and Information Science, graduating with his master’s degree in 2004.
His multi-faceted background made him a perfect candidate to be the Library Law Specialist at the Library of Michigan. There, he helped law schools, drafted legislation and helped libraries with day-to-day legal questions. He also compiled the Library Laws Handbook, even updating the book in 2013, long after he had left the job, simply because no one else was going to do it.
He said he still takes legal questions from libraries across the state.
After five-and-a-half years at the Library of Michigan, Werner said he became bored with his duties. With his work there, he saw the important functions of public libraries and developed a “profound respect for their mission to transform lives.”
The Capital Area District Library in Lansing needed a new director in 2009, so he applied. While at the CADL, Werner was named “New Kid on the Block” by Capital Area Michigan Works! for his effort to create collaboration between organizations to help residents find jobs during the Great Recession.
A little more than a year later, the KDL job opened up, and with Werner’s view of its innovation, he felt it was the perfect job for him.
“You have to look at what the public wants first, and the library should respond,” he said. “We want to be the cornerstone of the people we serve and drive foot traffic and bring families and people together. We want to be whatever the people need and want us to be; we don’t get to decide what people need.”
Books — and their electronic counterparts — are at the center of a library’s mission, but Werner knows the role the library plays elsewhere in life is important, too. He wants to create a “library of things,” so children can check out activities that help develop science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) skills.
He believes literacy shouldn’t be a function of academia and wants to make it fun. He hated reading and was a poor reader, until he discovered comic books.
“If we people aren’t having fun, they won’t keep reading,” he said. “We want to establish a culture of literacy in family. Literacy is important, whether you go to college or a skilled trade. We want to cater to the interests of our population.”
The library will forever be evolving, he said, just as he will. He said it’s always important to keep improving, because once a person or organization stops evolving, they begin to die. Werner said experimentation is good, even if it results in failure. Without failing, lessons are never learned.
Werner takes very little credit for his work at KDL, and throughout his career, despite winning numerous awards in his nearly six years at the library, including from the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Library Journal, Library of Michigan, Michigan Quality Council, Women’s Resource Center, Disability Advocates of Kent County and the Michigan Innovative Users Group.
“At KDL, there are no kings or queens, we’re just all gears and sprockets in a big machine,” he said. “I’m not the king here. I’m just a fat guy from Detroit who works here and has a profound love of what he does, the people he serves and the people he works with.”