St. Paul Public Library Director Catherine Penkert to step down Sept. 16

According to an email sent by Catherine Penkert to the library employees on Tuesday, she will leave her position as director of the St. Paul Public Library system on September 16 in order to spend more time with her family, which includes her 9- and 12-year-old children.

Barb Sporlein, the deputy director of operations for the library system, will take over as temporary library director while the city looks for a permanent successor, according to Penkert.

In her email, Penkert said, “I am moving out of the post of Library Director after more than 14 years of service to the city of St. Paul, including almost five years with SPPL. I’ve been collaborating on a transition plan with Mayor Melvin Carter and Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher. I am looking forward to spending more time with my family and kids as the new school year gets underway.

Soon after winning his first election in 2017, Carter chose Penkert, a former municipal Parks and Recreation administrator who joined as a project manager in 2008, to run the library system. Given that Penkert had sought to be appointed Parks and Rec director, a position that stayed with longstanding Parks director Mike Hahm, husband of city council president Amy Brendmoen, at the time, several members of the St. Paul City Council were surprised by the choice.

In a brief interview on Tuesday, Penkert noted that she had previously worked as the city’s Right Track youth internship coordinator, which closely collaborates with low-income teen workers and young workers of color. “When I interviewed, I said the things that are most important to me are youth development, are innovation, are racial equity and partnerships with community,” Penkert said. It was a perfect fit, very natural. I knew a lot of the individuals there. I had collaborated with them on many projects.

The mayor’s office quickly oversaw the abolition of late fees at libraries via Penkert, enabling more families to use the system, which includes the George Latimer Central Library in the city’s center off Kellogg Boulevard, 12 branch sites, and a bookmobile. The construction of a brand-new, contemporary Hamline-Midway Library will cost $8.1 million. In addition, the city has developed or expanded new learning and outreach initiatives, such as the “Read Brave” community reading challenge and social workers and cultural liaisons who work out of the libraries.

Even before the epidemic, tough choices had to be made because to budget constraints. Then followed COVID-19 with all of its social reverberations. Nearly 25% of the city’s public library employees had left their positions as of April, with some blaming the stress of dealing with customers who had serious behavioral issues but few alternative ways to pass the time.

Following months of public confrontation with Penkert, city councilwoman Jane Prince, who had served as head of the city’s library board, resigned from her post on August 3. Prince stated on August 30 that “the library is suffering mightily under Catherine’s leadership,” citing both her opposition to the demolition of the Hamline-Midway Library and worker safety concerns. A group of historic preservationists have attempted to nominate the Hamline-Midway Library for an official historic designation.

On Tuesday, Prince adopted a more amiable stance. She remarked, “Catherine and I have our disagreements, and I wish her well.

Currently, library board chair Rebecca Noecker is a council member.

According to Beth Burns, president of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, “working with Catherine was a tremendous joy for the Friends board, our staff.” “I would say Catherine’s term was defined by tremendous compassion and ferocious intellect. It was a significant position.”

In an email sent to library workers on Tuesday, Penkert acknowledged recent difficulties and said it had been “the privilege of a lifetime” to serve in her leadership position, particularly since March 2020, when COVID-19 turned the world upside down. There isn’t a group I would have preferred to work with at this momentous time. We appreciate all the many ways you participated in our community, including creating masks, using Library Express, hosting online storytimes, and more.

In response to security concerns, the city will use $1.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan money to increase library security, use radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to better secure books and resources, and respond to disturbing instances.

Penkert said that “a worldwide epidemic resulted in a complete shutdown of all our buildings.” Since that time, we’ve been working nonstop to rebuild, repair, and reinvent SPPL’s personnel and services. The police killing of George Floyd sparked demonstrations outside our library and a global debate with racism. We have also been internally confronting the ways that racism manifests itself in our workplace and at work. Across the country, libraries are grappling with how to address social issues in their neighborhoods, and St. Paul is no exception.

Penkert is the latest regional library director to start a new chapter, joining a growing list of others. Jake Grussing, the director of the Ramsey County Library, left his position in early August after less than five months on the job in order to return to Scott County, where he had previously worked as the library director since 2014. Chad Helton, the director of the Hennepin County Library, resigned in February after facing criticism for managing the network of libraries remotely from Los Angeles during the epidemic.

In order to say farewell to the workers in person, Penkert announced that she will do a “reverse welcoming tour” of all of the St. Paul public libraries during the week of September 12. She said, “I’m still in St. Paul. “My family will continue to visit the St. Paul library.”

In a statement released on Tuesday, the mayor’s office said that it will be posting a formal job vacancy and inviting community people to join a hiring panel in the next weeks.

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