A Patriot in the Data Revolution
Paul LeClerc, dedicated to information access, takes over the New York Public Library
NEW YORK — LEADERSHIP comes in many styles. Paul LeClerc, who will take over the presidency of the New York Public Library (NYPL) in January, favors partnership. In fact, he says his first job is to listen.
Yet he has many ideas of his own. He insists that Voltaire and other writers of the French Enlightenment - with their strong views on free access to information - will guide his new work.
``Information is power,'' he says. He wants to see if programs based on library collections, such as the great works of children's literature, can be broadcast on TV or radio. He'd like the library play a more active role in the life of the city, becoming a major resource for the city's economic future.
The tall, thin Voltaire scholar, who has been president of Hunter College since 1988, has long championed these ideas of broader public access to information and the widest possible knowledge base for students. Shortly after taking over at Hunter, the largest school in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, he pushed to require a more multicultural curriculum. ``I felt it was a matter of educational responsibility,'' he says.
Faculty members were given a free hand to shape the particulars. ``They had to be empowered to choose the specific content for themselves,'' he says. ``It had to be theirs.''
Hunter's faculty-student senate adopted the new requirement after almost four years of study and debate. The change probably never would have happened without strong leadership from the top. LeClerc played a major role in ``pushing it through,'' recalls Naomi Miller, former head of Hunter's history department.
Professor Miller describes Hunter's president as scholarly (``he has enormous respect for learning and for the life of the mind''), but very sympathetic and direct in his dealings with people. ``When he talks to you, he screens out just about everything else - you feel very much listened to,'' Miller says. A top research library
President LeClerc's leadership style, his interests and accomplishments as an educator, scholar, and administrator all played a part in his selection from a field of more than 100 candidates for the library job.
The NYPL is widely considered one of the world's top research libraries. It is the only one directly linked to a public branch-library system.
Strong leadership for such an institution ``at the forefront of the information revolution'' is vital for everything from setting nuances of direction to follow-through, says NYPL Chairman Marshall Rose.
``Our program is dedicated to democratic access to information at a time when there are some concerns about having two classes of citizens: the information-rich and the information-poor,'' Mr. Rose notes.
The NYPL system includes four research and 82 branch libraries in three of New York City's five boroughs. Queens and Brooklyn have independent library systems. The unusual NYPL system began with the merger of two major private book collections in 1895. Andrew Carnegie later gave $5 million to build a new branch system that he said should be directed by the existing library's board of trustees.
The NYPL's $146 million annual budget is roughly a 50-50 split between public and private money. Corporations are encouraged to ``adopt'' branch libraries. ``The whole history of the library has been one of public-private partnership,'' LeClerc says.
Under LeClerc, Hunter alumni giving increased more than five-fold and an endowment fund was begun. His fund-raising skills, and the fact that LeClerc says he enjoys raising money, will be put to the test very quickly in his new job. A major fund-raising campaign will be launched for the library's 100th anniversary in 1995. The NYPL's newest research center - the Science, Industry, and Business Library - is also due to open that year in the building that once housed B. Altman and Company, the grand department store, on Fifth Avenue
Those plans, plus a return to full six-day-a-week service for most NYPL branches, a stronger partnership between libraries and schools, and a common computerized catalog for all branch libraries are already items on the NYPL action agenda. LeClerc eyes technology
LeClerc notes that libraries these days are taking on many community services, from literacy to career counseling as society's needs change. ``That's absolutely appropriate,'' he says.
The NYPL president-elect is open to using new technology to acquire and preserve materials. Many scholarly manuscripts now are published abroad and are costly to buy. ``We are committed to collecting in depth in all of our major [research] areas,'' he says. ``If we can acquire [material] in an electronic format that is cheaper for us, both in terms of purchase and storage, we'll consider that as an option,'' he says.
Like his two recent high-profile predecessors, Vartan Gregorian and the late Timothy Healy, LeClerc hopes to teach as well. He wants to lead a course for CUNY graduate students next fall that would involve state-of-the-art editing of historic or literary documents from the manuscript collections of New York's Central Research Library. Such editing involves annotating every person, incident, quotation - ``everyting that's humanly possible'' about the document, LeClerc says.
LeClerc has taught six of his 10 semesters at Hunter. He says the benefits include a clear message to the faculty that, apart from research, teaching undergraduates is a ``highly valued enterprise.'' Teaching also gives him ``unfiltered and unvarnished'' knowledge of the students (``they are superior, terrific students,'' he insists), which he can then share with alumni chapters.
Libraries and the pleasures of reading have always played a central part in LeClerc's life. He was born in New Hampshire to bilingual parents of French Canadian descent but moved to Queens as a young boy. His earliest memories of books are of his mother reading aloud to him as a child.
``It was a privileged moment in the day,'' he says. Now he and his wife, Judith Ginsberg, set aside a period every night to read aloud to their six-year-old son whether they are at home, aboard a plane, or in a hotel. His son, who has his own library card, favors the children's science section at his neighborhood library.