Downtown Public Library building Credit: Nashville Scene File Photo

After more than a year without an executive director, the Nashville Public Library system is finally moving to select a director from a pool of candidates with some baggage. 

Former Director Kent Oliver retired in July 2022 after notifying the board of his departure in April. Eighteen months later, Terri Luke still serves as the interim director following a prolonged hiring process. Four candidates were selected as finalists for a two-day public interview process on Monday and Tuesday. Of those four candidates, one is an internal candidate. The other three come from all across the country and bring some baggage that has been the subject of public controversy. But despite all of this, board member Keith Simmons said they could reach a decision sometime in the next few days. 

“I think we have four really good people today and I don’t want to diminish in any way their selection as finalists because I think that they would all do a good job,” Simmons told the Banner. But while he may be happy with the outcome, he said the process itself has been far worse than it needed to be. 

“It took almost a year for Metro procurement to issue what I would regard as a pretty simple [request for proposal] for a search firm,” said Simmons. “I have yet to understand why it took that long.”

Simmons said that a decade ago when Oliver was hired, the NPL board ran their own process, which he characterized as much smoother. While he is happy with the job done by the selected search firm, Bradbury Miller Associates, he said that not only did the procurement process take too long, it did not offer the resources he would’ve liked to see offered. 

“I think they did a good job under the circumstances but they were constrained a lot by [Metro] procurement not being willing to pay them what a good search firm will require to do a really good search, even though the money was going to come out of the library budget,” said Simmons. But despite a convoluted process, he said he is happy with the outcome and enjoyed the presentations given by the finalists on Monday. 

During a two-and-a-half hour-long presentation, each of the four candidates were given time to introduce themselves and talk about their visions for the library system. While all candidates presented somewhat similar priorities — intellectual freedom in the face of book bans nationwide, transparency and communication, diversity and finding creative ways to provide childcare and homeless services — the interesting part came at the end of each presentation, when candidates were faced with questions from the audience read out by Karen Miller, president of the search firm. Two of the candidates were asked about past controversies.

“Could you elaborate on why you left your last job?,” Miller asked Chad Helton. Helton was the subject of multiple news stories in Minnesota, where he served as Director of the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota up until Feb. 1 when he resigned. This came following public outcry when it became widely known that he had been running the library system remotely from Los Angeles, where he was previously the head of the public library system, while getting paid nearly $200,000 a year. 

“I had no plan of working out of state until I went blind in my left eye,” Helton explained to a room full of librarians, board members and former mayors Karl Dean and David Briley. “So I asked my supervisor and I asked the County Board of Commissioners, could I move to Los Angeles because I needed to have eye surgery with the top eye surgeon for my particular issue in Los Angeles.”

Helton said that after two surgeries, his sight had still not been restored and he needed to go through more surgeries. During that time, he said there a policy changed at the Hennepin County Library system that would have required him to move back to remain its director, leading to his resignation. During this time, he had also become a finalist for the role of Seattle Public Library director, which he ultimately did not get. 

Of the three outside candidates, only Jason Kuhl currently runs a public library system. Kuhl has been the executive director of St. Louis’ public library system since 2017. Prior to that, he was the executive director of a library in the Chicago suburbs. He “resigned abruptly” for personal reasons following a dispute over an immigrant-focused event the library was supposed to hold. During his time in St. Louis. He stood firm despite being called a “political activist” and an uproar from parents over books deemed “sexually explicit” in the library and an employee with a goatee wearing nail polish. 

Kuhl was asked by Miller what his experience and response has been to censorship campaigns. 

“It’s consuming my life right now,” Kuhl responded. “Feel free to Google me. I’ve stopped googling myself. Because I can’t sleep at night when I do.”

Kuhl explained that similar to Tennessee, the state legislature in Missouri targeted schools and libraries. 

“One of the things that I have hit hard, is that it’s actually a conservative position to say parents should be able to determine what their kids use in the library,” said Kuhl. “I mean, how is parents rights not a conservative point of view? It absolutely is and we the government, the public library, should not be making that determination for you the parent.”

Similar to Helton, candidate Roberta Phillips does not currently hold a library director position but instead is a consultant. In July 2022, she left her position as CEO of Prince George’s County  Memorial Library System in Maryland. Her departure came months after a former library official won a discrimination case against the library system over his firing. A jury found that Phillips had wrongfully fired an older white man. She later replaced him with a young black woman. 

While Phillips did not address the specific incident, she did spend much of her presentation talking about the importance of diversity and inclusion.

“I think it’s really important to be bold in your stance, that this is not about a political point of view,” said Phillips. She discussed a few initiatives she worked on in Maryland to increase diversity, including starting a Diversity and Inclusion team. “This is about human rights, and libraries are not neutral about human rights.”

The only internal candidate is Linda Harrison. She has worked in the Nashville Public Library system for over 20 years, most recently as the assistant director for education and literacy. She made it a point in her presentation to talk about the importance of being ingrained in the community. 

“Every person in Davidson County should know who their librarians are,” said Harrison. “They should know who their library employees are.”

Connor Daryani is a staff reporter. He has previously freelanced for the Nashville Scene and the Nashville Post covering the state legislature and Metro.