Tomorrow, June 30th, Josh Cohen will retire as the Executive Director of the Mid-Hudson Library System after 10 years in the position.
Josh began working at MHLS in 1987 as the Outreach Coordinator and took over as Executive Director in July 2000. A decade later we are celebrating a man the current MHLS Board of Trustees has honored as "the best director the System has ever had."
In the past month Josh has received recognition from Senator Stephen Saland, Senator John Bonacic, Senator William Larkin, Assemblyman Marcus Molinaro, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, the Ulster County Legislature, the MHLS Directors Association, the Columbia County Library Association, the Greene County Library Association, the Ulster County Library Association, Jerry Nichols, Director of the Palmer Institute for Public Library Organization and Management at Long Island University and many individual member library directors, trustees and colleagues around the state.
Clearly, Josh has had a positive impact on many libraries and many lives.
From his initial push for the migration to a new automated circulation system and getting 100% of member libraries online to helping 30 libraries secure stable funding Josh has changed the face of libraries in the Hudson Valley for years to come.
During Josh's tenure libraries have experienced massive growth in most areas. Usage has increased by 55%, funding has increased 109% and 27 libraries have done a significant facility expansion project. Josh has helped member libraries through these times, always willing to talk over a problem, find solutions and adjust System services to meet member needs.
Josh's model for System services has been to "Do whatever we can to help our libraries provide quality service." He has crafted a model that is adaptive rather than constrictive, better positioning the System to remain relevant to members by responding to member needs quickly.
About mid-way through his tenure Josh started working to help library address the fact that things change whether libraries want them to or not. More people will come in, more demands will be made of libraries' staff, facilities and budgets and the library does not have much control over that. However what they do have control over is how they prepare for and respond to these situations.
To that end he has supported directors - helping new directors understand that the job is not to be a librarian but a leader, he has advocated for fair salaries and benefits and mediated director-board conflicts; he has educated trustees - helping them understand their roles, how to respond to community needs and make libraries stronger; and helped position libraries for the future - investing System resources in learning how to help libraries build their base of support, pass budget votes, build better libraries and respond to the ever-changing landscape of technology.
Josh began shaping his vision for what libraries can mean in their communities in the mid-1990s with the advent of the Internet. The Internet fascinated Josh, engaged him and motivated him to stay involved with libraries. "Back then things were changing so fast, every 6 months you'd see something completely new, something you never saw coming. Now you can predict what's coming next pretty easily, it's very clear that 'the next big thing' will be streaming video and we've got time to prepare and respond to that."
He frequently reminds us that librarians underestimate themselves when it comes to technology, "We are not behind the curve; in fact we are usually ahead of most places. We are doing well." Part of the reason libraries are "doing well" is because Josh has made it a priority over the years to use the power and resources of the System to help even the smallest library provide high-tech services to their community - the online catalog, Request-a-Title, remote access to library databases, downloadable audiobooks, etc. "By working together we can all provide these services where many libraries, acting on their own, would have no hope of connecting their patrons with this stuff."
Josh has always encouraged directors and trustees to have vision - "Have a vision of what the library can be for the community - what you should be. What does it look like? Then just plan how to get there."
In the past ten years Josh made more than 400 visits to member libraries, spending over 600 hours helping, consulting, and working with Directors and Boards. He has made System staff available to libraries as well - staff time spent in libraries over the past decade tops out at over 4,600 hours. He, Merribeth and Rebekkah have helped to educate over 1,000 trustees. This hands-on time with libraries has helped System staff help the next library - learning what worked and what didn't for one and passing that knowledge to the next library to help produce positive results and outcomes.
As Josh makes his way out the door of MHLS and into the land of retirement he shared a number of thought-provoking comments that provide a blueprint of sorts for what happens next:
Words of Wisdom from Josh
Work Together to be Stronger:
Last year Josh convened the System Funding Taskforce, made up of member library directors and System staff, to address the funding situation the System is faced with after almost a decade of flat funding and cuts. " recognize that the decisions you make need to be for the collective good and for future success. Over the last ten years we have seen this work, I hope it will not just continue but get better."
Stand Up & Fight: Josh is puzzled by libraries' lack of confidence and pride in what they do for their communities, "There has been increasing recognition of libraries as essential institutions in the past years but libraries do not seem to know how to capitalize on this. Libraries seem fearful when they should be confident, now is the time - you have the support." Josh feels libraries need to be less passive about what is going to happen in the future and urges libraries to take control of their future. "There's no reason libraries should not be more aggressive in their marketing."
Expand the View: "Libraries are not just about circulation and books. We are the cultural conscience of our communities. Libraries are community institutions, active within the community and having an impact. Embrace this, don't fight it."
" Since Josh Cohen will be leaving us shortly, we have asked Merribeth Advocate to be the Interim Director of MHLS until a new Director is selected, pending final approval by the Trustees at the 7 July meeting. Merribeth has most graciously accepted this responsibility, which has also been cleared with the NYS Education Department. Merribeth is beginning her duties at this time in order to provide a transition while Josh is still present. Please provide Merribeth with your support as she assumes responsibility for running the MHLS."
-Jim Tuttle, Board President, Mid-Hudson Library System, in a message to member library directors on June 22nd