EDITORIAL: Library leadership

By NEMS Daily Journal

Lee-Itawamba Regional Library Director Jan Willis this week announced his retirement in June, closing a 30-year career in two Northeast Mississippi library systems, all marked by passion for what libraries represent – and adapting new user-friendly technologies for the knowledge, education and enjoyment of the public.
Willis, 53, first used the Lee County Library when he was four years old, and he has used or worked for libraries ever since.
The Lee-Itawamba system was his first employer, 1976-1987, followed by a 17-year tenure as assistant director of the Dixie Regional Library in Pontotoc, culminating with his appointment as director of Lee-Itawamba in 2004.
Some people expected libraries to decline as major community institutions with the use of information technology.
The Lee County Library has defied expectations, acquiring dozens of computers for patrons’ use, increasing its business collection, expanding programs, and strengthening its children’s focus and holdings almost wholly through private-sector support. The Friends of the Library organization during Willis’ tenure has invested $72,000 in children’s library equipment, holdings and events. The emphasis has helped nurture a rising generation of library users and made the young participants more literate in the process.
The library in Tupelo (another branch is in Fulton) – averages 20,000 to 21,000 visits per month.
The heavy use and the success of bringing new users into the system has helped Willis successfully lobby the Lee County Board of Supervisors and the Tupelo City Council for additional annual support, a difficult job in years of tight revenue.
Willis has beaten the drum for construction of a new library to replace the 40-year-old structure on the corner of Madison and Jefferson streets. That campaign remains a work-in-progress, but the library’s successes and its heavy use for special meetings, lectures and other events builds the case for a new facility – on a site with more parking that is more easily accessible.
We hope the new director moves ahead in that quest because the record has been made for a new facility. A search committee – Frances Williams, chairwoman of the board, along with Glenda Segars, Michael Gratz Jr. and Dan Brasfield – has been named to find the library’s next director.
Willis is leaving to become a school librarian in Memphis, working with children and their parents in a campus setting.
Willis would be the first say he is not irreplaceable, but clearly he has set the bar at a high mark for his successor and left the library with unprecedented strengths and assets.