Q&A with new library director

Jon Mark Bolthouse, 47, is a technology expert, father of 11-year-old Ivy, husband to Monica Walk and, in his spare time, an accomplished (and busy) keyboard and guitar player for the Madison-based band Fuzzy Side Up. He took over as director of the Fond du Lac Public Library on July 23. Bolthouse, who has lived in Fond du Lac for 8 years, has worked in libraries for more than 13 years, including as technology projects manager for the South Central Library System based in Madison, automation librarian for the University of Wisconsin Colleges and systems coordinator for the libraries of Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore colleges located outside Philadelphia.

You’ve described yourself as someone who enjoys solving puzzles. What is it about working for libraries that taps into that?

Throughout my career, friends and neighbors would ask, “You’re just reading books all day, right?” Nothing could be further from the truth. Libraries are vibrant, ever-changing spaces within a community, whether that means a community like Fond du Lac, an academic community like a college or university, or a private corporation with a business librarian on hand to research information. It’s trying to figure out how all the pieces of that vibrant environment fit together that interests me. Changes in the way books and other material are processed could mean changes to the discovery tools within the online catalog, which may affect circulation statistics, which can affect library programs. On top of that, technology continues to bring rapid change to all facets of library service. Solving the puzzle of knowing just which technology would work best and under what conditions continues to challenge me, but in a good way.

What interested you in the idea of running a public library?

The thought of becoming a library director has been on my mind ever since graduating from library school. Most graduates of the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana program eventually go on to become directors, either of public libraries or academic libraries. However, it wasn’t until this position opened that I really gave it serious thought.

About the time the position was advertised, I was helping with an equipment installation in one of the South Central Libraries. It’s a very cool machine, an Automated Materials Handling device, which essentially uses conveyor belts, sensors and computer software to sort the books, DVDs, CDs and other materials returned to the library. In this installation, the sorter was visible to the public. While I was there, a girl a few years younger than my daughter watched with fascination as the machine dropped her items, one by one, into the appropriate bins. It occurred to me then how great it would be to bring innovative and exciting library services to my own community. When I saw the position of director advertised, I knew it was a great fit for me.

You’ve been most heavily involved in the technological side of libraries. How do you think this job will be different from what you’ve done before?

The biggest difference is that I will be responsible for the vision and direction of the library as a whole, rather than just technology. But I’ve always been heavily involved with all aspects of running a library since technology shapes other services in profound ways. I’ve had to keep all the functions of a library in mind as I shaped the vision of technology. I’ve have immersed myself in circulation functions, backroom functions like technical service and programming for all departments. I have a lot of experience working as a reference librarian. And my mother was an early child development expert, so I’m well-versed in the canon of children’s literature.

What do you see as the strengths of FDLPL?

We are lucky enough to have abundant strengths in so many ways, but I’ll touch here on just three major points: First, we are blessed with a staff throughout the library that embraces the mission of the library and lives that mission every day, delivering exceptional customer service to the community. I’ve experienced this first-hand: for the last 8 years, my family and I have been avid library users. Second, we are fortunate to have the support of our community, which has to be in place for any library to thrive and grow. Third, we have an overabundance of opportunities at our disposal. From the massive Windhover renovation to institutions such as UW-Fond du Lac, Moraine Park and Marian University, there are numerous opportunities to create amazing partnerships with other community organizations.

What challenges do you see ahead for the Fond du Lac Library in particular and libraries in general?

The challenges facing Fond du Lac Public Library are not unique to us; the same challenges we face are facing all libraries, big and small, across the country. Our biggest challenge is financing and continued support through public funding. Another big challenge is planning for not only the next 3-5 years but 10-20 years as well. The decisions we make today regarding our library building, satellite services like the Express branch and long-term partnerships will affect us for years to come. We need to keep the future in mind whenever we make strategic decisions.

What do you most enjoy reading? What are you reading now?

I tend to read mostly nonfiction for enjoyment. I’m interested in pretty much anything a liberal arts major would be reading in college: philosophy, theology, history, fine arts (especially music), as well as business and science. I do read a lot of technology-related books, though the ones I enjoy the most are about how technology is shaping our everyday lives, or books like the recent Steve Jobs biography. And I really like reading anything to do with food, drink or cuisines from around the world.

Currently on my nightstand are: “Made By Hand” by Mark Frauenfelder, “The River Cottage Meat Book,” by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and “The Violinist’s Thumb” by Sam Kean. Plus a stack of magazines (The Week, Imbibe and Mojo).

You’re a busy musician, appearing with your band around the region. What are your favorite bands? What are you listening to now?

I’m a child of the ’80s, and my tastes in music reflect that. The Clash, The Replacements, Nick Lowe, R.E.M., Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello would probably be my all-time favorite acts.

If you hit shuffle on my iPod, however, my musical interests are much more varied. On any given day I’m listening to Larry Young, Parliament/Funkadelic, The Skeletons, Daniel Johnston, Bollywood soundtrack music, the new Jimmy Cliff record, Richard and Linda Thompson, Nick Cave, Guided by Voices, Blossom Dearie or Led Zeppelin.

Current acts that interest me include Alabama Shakes, fun., The Black Keys, Adele, The Civil Wars and She & Him.

You’re a national expert on the impact that technology will have on the public library. Describe your vision of how the library of 2062 will be different than what we experience today.

In 50 years, the basic overall mission of any library will fundamentally stay the same: providing access to information, content, tools and services to their community. How they provide access in 2062 is where the things will be radically different. Physical representations of media content like CDs, DVDs, etc., will cease to be the way we deliver content. I’m actually surprised DVDs have lasted as long as they have. In 50 years, everyone will have access through networks and clouds. Physical media won’t exist as we know it.

We’ll also see an ongoing shift in the role libraries play in the community. With the elimination of physical spaces needed to house a collection of “stuff,” libraries will use that space for community designated activities: classes, art happenings, job incubators, technology “maker” spaces, youth gatherings and a host of other community-centered activities we’ve only begun to explore. If anything, the need for a public library will grow because communities will find they need the library to play an increasingly larger role as a resource for information gathering and information sharing.

Jon Mark Bolthouse can be reached at [email protected].

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