In Conversation With Bill Ptacek, Former CEO, Calgary Public Library

In Conversation With Bill Ptacek, Former CEO, Calgary Public Library

Leadership | Posted by - March 9, 2020 at 12:30 am

In March, YouInc interviewed with former CEO of the Calgary Public Library Bill Ptacek. While we were preparing to publish the conversation, we learned that Bill Ptacek peacefully passed away from cancer. He was 69. In memoriam of Ptacek and his passion for community building, our team wished to publish the transcript: 

Bill Ptacek could hardly contain his excitement of the Calgary Central Library, its growth, and its people, when we spoke in March 2019. The flagship branch of the Calgary Public Library opened its doors in November 2018 and has become one of the most active libraries in North America. An investment of five years and $245 million saw immediate results - in the first six months, nearly 700,000 people, more than half the city’s population of 1.2 million people, signed up for a library card. 

Ptacek who became CEO of the Calgary Public Library in 2014 was proud of what had been achieved and he saw the potential of what his team could still do for patrons. Ptacek, who was born in the southside of Chicago and before moving to Canada lived in Seattle, described Calgary as a “vibrant city and young city.” He said, “Alberta has typically been characterized as an oil or energy city, and slowly over time it’s transforming and becoming something bigger. I love it here.” 

We spoke about how the Central Library has become the centre of the city - a network of patrons, partners, and possibility for people of every profession, culture, and economic status. He shared how he built his team and why they’re willing to fail, and what 40 years of working in libraries taught him about being CEO: 

YouInc: You grew up in the south side of Chicago. What did you like to do as a kid? 

Bill Ptacek: Get in fights [laughs]. Mischief. My first experience at the library, I got kicked out. I remember it was the Avalon branch on Stony Island Avenue. It was part of the Chicago Public Library. I checked out a bunch of books, and I read several of them and I returned them the same day. One of the library assistants got mad and said, “you can’t do that,” and she kicked me out. Ironically, at the end of my career in Chicago, I was the head of personnel at the Chicago Public Library and I presided over the retirement of the lady, who kicked me out, which was kind of fun. 

I thought, “this doesn’t make any sense at all.” The only thing I used the library for was research. In Chicago at that time, if you wanted material for an in-depth paper, you had to go to the main library downtown because that’s where the books and magazines were. One of the things that’s changed with libraries over the years is that with digital resources, we don’t have to impose on people. They can get that at home and at their local library. Relevant to the Calgary Public library, it means you don’t have to put everything in one big building in the middle of the city to provide a library service. I think that’s what a lot of libraries are starting to understand. 

I like to think of libraries as the information book for the community.

YI: What is the average experience looking like for patrons of the Calgary Public Library?

BP: There’s a combination of things. People are patrons like they are at libraries in cities around the world. There’s still going to be people, who are interested in the old fashion paperback, but I think for convenience and access sake, a lot of folks have resorted to digital resources. We’re the second busiest library in Canada for downloading books. I know our mayor Naheed Nenshi is devoted to the digital magazines and newspapers the library offers. 

I like to think of libraries as the information book for the community. We don’t care whether it’s a book, CD, or a program we offer live at the library, it’s about giving our population, people, and community access to ideas and information, and that can take a lot of different forms. 

YI: How have you stayed connected to what patrons want and need?

BP: One of the things that we did, that’s different than any other library probably in the world, is that we have bifurcated service to develop all of the programs and services. Then we have a delivery side, which is where they implement things. People on the design side come from backgrounds that aren’t necessarily librarianship. They might come from early childhood education, museums and education or the arts. Those people are the creatives, if you will. One of their jobs is to stay in touch with what’s going on outside, in their field and in the community. We encourage them to be involved. 

A lot of the work we do in the library and our success is based on working with partners. It’s important that we not just stay inside the four walls of the library, but that we get out there and find out who’s doing good stuff and see if there’s a way that the library can collaborate with that particular partner.

YI: What’s an example of information you’re learning? 

BP: Canada is welcoming to the people who are new to the country, unlike our neighbours to the south—I’m American so I can say that. The point is: when people come here, they may need English as a second language classes. They might need classes about how to start a small business. They may need all sorts of information and they may require, if they have families, to come to the library and spend time here.

One of the things we do is work with our local YWCA, to provide a child-minding service, while people are going to classes. That’s a great example of a partnership. We also work with the high-tech community. We have a group doing classes in the library. We’ve rented them space. They’ve agreed to do programming throughout the city for us, and the idea is that we create a more inclusive community. We want to ensure that everyone who wants to learn how to use technology can learn and incorporate technology into their careers. We don’t have that expertise. But the partners we brought in have that expertise. That’s an example of things we could never do by ourselves, but we’re doing it with partners. 

We have a great partnership with our local school system. We made sure that every student in Calgary has a digital library card and has access to all our resources in the digital component. Teachers also have access, so they can utilize tools in the classroom. The partnership with the school system is so good, that they rely on us to provide digital resources. If there’s resources that they want that we don’t have, they’re willing to share in the cost of those resources. That’s the definition of a good partnership, when the other partner is willing to contribute money to something. 

With our school system we’re in good shape. The school system would claim we have the best partnership of any organization in the city. It’s a big part of what we do because a kid isn’t going to get everything they need from school, and having a public library where we can provide other resources for them and their parents is an asset. 

YI: Are these partnerships unique to the Calgary Public Library?

BP: I think other libraries in North America are doing similar things, but I don’t know if any of them have done it to the extent that the Calgary Public Library has, or if any of them have the relationship with their school boards. 

Usually the tradition with schools and libraries is that libraries stay away from schools with supporting the curriculum. As far as we’re concerned there are a lot of families in Calgary, and I think those families would expect that their public library would be an aid or asset to their children's education. That’s the approach we take. It’s a great opportunity.

Let me give you an example. In reading literature, there are kids that have a hard time learning to read. They turn to phonics to learn to break down words and in some cases it has been shown to be effective. It’s not something our schools spend a lot of time on, but the library is interested in making phonics and phonics resources available to kids and parents throughout the city. 

We look for gaps. We look for opportunities. There are 90,000 kids in Calgary under the age of five, and a kid’s ability to read and succeed in school is born before they even go to school. It’s a great opportunity for the library to be involved with young people and their families and help them go to school and learn to read. We go to daycares, we go to dayhomes, we go to any place where we can find three or more kids together. We’re going to go there. We’re committed. 

You learn that it’s not about what you can personally do, it’s how you can facilitate others to be successful.

YI: Before Calgary Public Library, you were the director of the King County Library System in Seattle. What did you learn from your leadership that you wanted to bring to the Calgary Public Library?

BP: First, I knew Calgary was busy building the central library and other libraries. I was fortunate to be involved in the development of a number of replacement libraries, which gave me good experience in construction and design, which I was able to bring here.  

The other thing I learned is about being responsible for a large organization. We had a budget of more than $100M and we had a lot of employees. You learn that it’s not about what you can personally do, it’s how you can facilitate others to be successful. That’s what I’ve been able to bring here. 

One thing I promised the board is that there would be a number of people in this organization that if I were to leave, they’d be able to take over. 

This is the golden age of the Calgary Public Library. A lot of our success is because some people on our team are better at motivating and inspiring people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Others are good at coming up with ideas and being creative. Others are good at organizing and managing. 

My role isn’t to be the most knowledgeable person or to have the last word. We have these wonderful administrators, and our system needs to take advantage of their capabilities. It shouldn’t be my show. It’s our show. We work together. My goal is to facilitate their success and make sure we’re all working well together.

YI: How did you hire your team? 

BP: We look for people who get stuff done. We say, “Okay, we want to do this, how do we get it done?” The world is full of people who can talk a good game. What I like about the people I work with is they’re all capable of getting stuff done. We have two mantras here: the library needs to stay relevant to the people we serve. And second, we need to get stuff done. 

YI: Take us through a day in your life at the library. 

BP: My typical day is to come into the office and connect with people. I’m more of a walking around person. Then, there’d be meetings with people form outside the organization. Partnerships are important to us. It might be other cultural institutions or other social services agencies. I’m involved in some of those partnership meetings.

This is cool: we’re working on an event for Saturday, June 1st. It’s called superhero day. We’re opening up several of our libraries to families. We’re going to have kids dressed up as superheroes and then they’ll get involved in all sorts of activities. Then the University of Calgary Faculty of Arts will dedicate three professors to do a workshop the night before the superhero day to talk about the cultural antithesis of superheroes. 

What I like about this event is that we’re using resources in the community. We’re doing something that’s going to be popular, we’re doing something that speaks to people of all ages. It’s a really neat thing. Even the people in the technology industry are interested, because they get involved in gaming and developing games. That’s the kind of thing a library can do; I don’t think there’s another institution in the world, that can pull it off.

‘We’re not an institution that you have to be able to read Latin and Greek in order to come through the doors. Anyone can come in.’

YI: Well, you’re involving people of all ages. Adults have superheroes, too. 

BP: It gives people an idea that the library is for everyone. We’re not an institution that you have to be able to read Latin and Greek in order to come through the doors. Anyone can come in. We want people to have fun at the library no matter how old they are. That’s a big part of it.

YI: What do you like most about your job?

BP: My favourite thing to do is work from the library. We have 21 libraries. I like to shelve books. I know that sounds stupid—it’s the only thing they let me do. When I’m shelving, people are more likely to talk and engage, then when someone is working in a library and standing behind a desk. As I’m shelving books, I’m aware of how much people get from a library. What a positive thing. Even my wife, who is a retired librarian came in one day and said, “I want to work here and come out of retirement.”

It’s such a positive institution. Where else in the world is there an institution that’s willing to lend millions of dollars of materials on the promise you’ll bring it back in a couple of weeks? Whether you’re interested in stories or information for work or school, we’ve got something to welcome everyone in the community.

We’ve become a centre for the city.

YI: What are you most proud of so far since the opening?

BP: I’m proud we’ve had more than 700,000 visitors since November 1st. I’m proud that as a library system, we have more than 700,000 people, who are registered and have cards and have used them since last year. That’s up from 200,000 several years ago. It’s the idea of being relevant to the lives of people we’re serving. 

We’re able to make great connections. What’s cool about the Central Library, unlike a lot of downtown libraries, is that we’ve become a centre for the entire city. We have people from around the city coming to the Central Library. We don’t close at 5 p.m. on a Friday. We’re close to music venues. We have travel writers doing programs. Our city recently hired a new head of the police department and they wanted to do the induction the library. It was more important to nail down the library as a site for the induction, then who they selected for the police chief, which is cool. 

One of the things that makes me proud is that the central library is getting so much notoriety. The people who come into the library are engaged. We spent four or five years testing and piloting. This was intentional. What we wanted to do was show the best of what a library could offer in this particular building. If you were to come here next week, you’d have the same experience. The Minister of Infrastructure came and I couldn’t get him out of the building. He was supposed to be giving the city a bunch of money and the press conference started and he was still in the library talking to patrons. He enjoyed himself so much. 

YI: What came from the research that keeps people engaged with the library? 

BP: We do different things. We don’t just put books on shelves. We organize by themes for kids and adults. We try to make it more like a book store experience. Then we have spaces where kids or adults are creating; we have civic engagement going on. We have journalists who started a pop up newsroom called Sprawl, and they’re involved in identifying or making it possible for people to come and ask, “what’s the future of Calgary? What’s going to happen in 10 to 20 years in the community?” That’s the engagement we like to have. 

We took our archived materials that used to be in a locker and put them out on display. People can access historical materials that they couldn’t see before and couldn’t use before. We have a lot of Indigenous art that we’ve incorporated in the building. We have an Elders’ Guidance Circle where elders from some of our nations are available to everyone in the community. Our performance hall is always booked. Whether it's travel writers or musical concerts, there’s always something on. 

I’m grateful I've been able to have a career in librarianship.

YI: Alberta has always been known for mining. How do you think the Central Library is helping shape the perception of the city and province from the rest of the country? 

BP: It’s doing well. It’s one of the top reasons why the New York Times listed Calgary as one of 52 places to go in 2019. When I started working at the Chicago Public Library at the south Chicago branch in the early 1970s, you could count on one hand the number of people who came through the doors in one day. It was dead. There were a lot of problems in the neighbourhood. The library wasn’t the centre of the community.

I kept wondering, “what have I gotten into?” I fast forward to where we are today, and we’re seeing thousands of people come through the doorn; people are having positive experiences, “this is cool.” It’s turned out to be a good thing. I’m grateful I've been able to have a career in librarianship. 

YI: You’ve said that a library has to stay tapped into what everyone in the community needs. What is it about the Calgary Public Library that anyone can walk in and feel welcome? 

BP: We don’t just have library cards, you get a membership. You’re not just a customer, you’re a patron. What that symbolizes is that whether you’re homeless or the most affluent person in the neighbourhood, we treat everyone with respect. We treat everyone with the information that we can help them to, that the books or stories will improve their lives. That’s powerful when you work in a place where you’re making people’s lives better—short of being a doctor, that’s cool. That’s the most pleasure I get. It’s visible, whether it’s school kids, parents, students or people new to our country and people learning to read and speak English. There are many examples of how people are getting something positive from our institutions.  

YI: In your 40 years working with libraries, how has the experience shaped you as a person?

BP: In a lot of ways. I personally adapted the philosophies, that people should have free and open access to ideas and information and you shouldn’t be judged by that; people should treat everyone with respect. Those are qualities that have been part of my life. 

We’re living in a difficult time and there's a lot of posturing going on and as that happens there needs to be a place like a library, where people can get back to being civil with one another. That’s one of the great things that happens in a library. You get people from all walks of life; they have to act civilized together and they do it and they get it and they have this trust with the library. It’s tangible. You can see it. You can feel it. 

YI: That’s what I’m curious about: if you take all of us out of the library and put us in a different setting, the environment might not work. 

BP: Think about it: when you go to a store, you self select. A lot of it is geared towards your economic situation, maybe your education level or which neighbourhood you're from. In the library, people come together. When I worked in the Seattle area, we had the library that Bill Gates and his family used. He loves that library and his kids loved that library.  

I remember seeing Bill Gates in the library, and there was a woman there who I knew to be homeless, “where else in the world can the richest man in the world be using the same institution as the poorest person in the world?” That struck me. That’s an image that will always be with me. When we get kids in the library, there in the library with Syrian kids, they’re there with Iranian kids, they’re there with Canadian kids. They all come from a different background. That alone is a learning experience. That alone you can’t replicate anywhere else. 

Better to try stuff and fail, then sit back and don’t do anything.

YI:  What do you know for sure at this point in your career?

BP: Well, I think there’s an important role for libraries that will continue to be there. I know that will only happen, if libraries are open to the possibility and understand it’s not right to impose their way of thinking and organizing. They need to understand who they’re serving and stick close to what they know about the community. That’s the key to success. 

Don’t think about it too much. You might say, “okay let’s do it. Let’s try it.” You have to be willing to fail. Better to try stuff and fail, then sit back and don’t do anything. I know that works. I know it’s worked here. I know it’s worked in other libraries I’ve been involved with. It involves a certain amount of activity. 

You have to be out in the community. You have to be connected to the community. I spent a lot of years with Rotary. I did polio vaccinations in Ethiopia, other things in Uganda. It’s important that all of us, who are involved in this institution, get outside of the walls of the building, whether it’s our nearest neighbourhood or the world community. 

YI: What hasn’t worked at the library? 

BP: There’s no part of the library that I can point to and say hasn’t been successful. When we got here, we tried a lot of stuff. Everything in this library has been piloted and tested in our old Central Library or one of our other libraries. We’ve had a lot of failure. 

Before we opened, we had an opera singer and jazz trio go through the building. They said the acoustics were beautiful. We raised money to have music in the library. My idea would be that we’d have music going in the building all of the time, but we haven’t been able to do it as much as we’d like to. 

We keep asking, “how do we make the library fun and engaging?” Sometimes it works. 

When you put a book on hold at this library and pick it up, one of the things we tried was to offer other books that were like that book. We didn’t get a good response. 

But at the same time, we’re not going to stop teaching technology in libraries if we don’t get good attendance. We’re not going to stop doing early literacy, if we don’t get the kind of response we get from families. We keep working at it. 

You’re better at work when you have other interests.

YI: When you have a Sunday morning to yourself, what do you like to do?

BP: I’m a woodworker and I like to listen to jazz. I’m not that creative of a person, but it’s one area where I seem to get my mojo on. With woodworking, I work on stuff and build. I enjoy my jazz station, and I’m happy as a pig in the mud. You know what, I used to be a runner and I’ve done a lot of marathons. It was a good time to think. You’re better at work when you have other interests.

Tags: communication, entrepreneur, leadership, motivation, reading