Deb Hunt on Taking a Leap

Career Blog

Published: March 10, 2017 by Kate M. Spaulding

Deb Hunt is the library director at the Mechanics’ Institute, a job she got because she is “always willing to take a leap to the next level of expertise.”

I first heard about the Mechanics’ Institute in INFO 280: History of Books and Libraries. As you’ll see below, it has a rich history, and my classmate was intrigued enough to write her final paper about it. We traded manuscripts for editing, so I learned a lot about its storied past, and I was thrilled when the opportunity to interview the Library Director presented itself. Deb Hunt has served in that role since 2013. She told me that although her “career has been mostly outside of libraries, the Mechanics’ lured me back to libraryland.”

The Mechanics’ Institute is located in the Financial District of San Francisco and serves “avid readers, writers, downtown employees, chess players, and the 21st century nomadic worker.” The website reveals robust programming, inviting seating, and a community focus. I thought it was a private library, but Deb set me straight: “We are not a private library. That generally connotes a high barrier for entry such as recommendation by a member, high fees, etc. We are a membership library with very democratic dues of $95/year and have always welcomed everyone from our beginning in 1854.” If you’re local, student membership is only $35/year, and monthly librarian meetups are held there.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and where you work?
I’ve spent most of my career zigging and zagging in and out of the library realm, mostly in parallel careers such as DAM, DM, ECM, KM, and KMKS (digital asset management, document management, enterprise content management, knowledge management, and knowledge management/knowledge services), which take my library/info pro skills to a new level. I’ve even co-authored a book about how to do this: The Librarian’s Skillbook: 51 Essential Skills for Information Professionals.

However, in 2013, when I saw the posting for Library Director at the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco, I was intrigued by the world of independent/membership libraries and threw my hat in the ring. It was a crazy year as I was also international President of SLA (Special Libraries Association).

The Mechanics’ Institute is the oldest library on the West Coast of the U.S. The building fell to the ground and burned in the devastating 1906 earthquake, and it is now housed in a beautiful beaux arts building erected in 1910. Our building also hosts the oldest continuously operating chess club in the U.S. (Bobbie Fischer and Boris Spassky have played here, and we continue to turn out world-class, ranked chess players), as well as over 100 programs and events each year.

What’s a typical day like for you? Is there such a day? 
Each day is different. Along with our 8 FTE (full-time employee) librarians, I also staff the reference desk regularly, do collection development and other librarian things. However, most of my time is spent envisioning how we can continue to thrive and grow, serve our members and potential members better, creating and managing a large budget, leading our entire team of 15 FTE librarians and support staff, and liaising with other department heads.

The library is the largest part of the Mechanics’ Institute and I report directly to the Executive Director. I also serve with him as an ex-officio member on our Board of Trustees and its committees. This past November we hosted Reinvention: Thriving in the 21st Century, the 4th international conference of mechanics’ institutes and membership/independent libraries. It was a great way to show off the MI as well as share with and learn from our colleagues from around the world.

What are your favorite parts of your job? 
I try to spend a part of each day walking around to talk to members, find out what is working for them, and understand what they need. I love our members, and they love the Mechanics. Our members include pensioners for whom this is their social center, famous and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, aspiring writers of all genres, and nomadic workers.

I have a lot of freedom in my position, as I’ve demonstrated my leadership abilities and passion for what we do here and how we can do even better. Our membership has increased from 4,500 to 5,000 members in the last few years and we continue to grow.

How did you end up as the Library Director at the Mechanics’ Institute? I see from your LinkedIn page that you also run your own independent information business, teach part-time at Diablo Valley College, and previously worked at the Exploratorium. How did your earlier jobs help you get this one? 
I am always willing to take a leap to the next level of expertise and then bring along others with me. I’m not afraid to try something new, even it if doesn’t work out, because I learn from it. However, I’ve learned that I cannot do everything, and I delegate responsibility and mentor staff so they can grow in their own jobs here.

I’m definitely an extrovert who believes learning never stops, and as someone who continually presents and teaches, I am always running fast to keep up with the latest in my areas of expertise. I just wrote an article for the upcoming issue of SLA’s Information Outlook – “Expand Your Skillset, Competencies and Impact Through KMKS: A World of Opportunities for the Savvy Information Professional” – because I constantly beat the drum that information professionals (AKA librarians) have a heck of a lot to contribute beyond libraries.

Top photo courtesy Andy Spearing. Bottom photo courtesy Mike Behnken.


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