Bronson’s new library chief, a veteran educator, faces opposition over lack of library experience

Anchorage’s new top librarian, Sami Graham, stands in the Loussac Library. (Municipality of Anchorage)

Anchorage’s new head librarian, appointed by newly-elected Mayor Dave Bronson, has two masters degrees, in counseling and educational leadership.

But Sami Graham has never worked as a librarian, and that’s prompting library advocates to lobby the Assembly against her confirmation, saying the city’s top librarian needs specific experience. Graham’s predecessor in the $120,000-a-year job, Mary Jo Torgeson, had masters degrees in library science and public administration.

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Installing a library system leader who lacks library experience also puts state grant funding at risk, Graham’s opponents say.

Graham, in an interview, said she’s been a teacher, a principal and a counselor — and as someone who was born and raised in Anchorage, she added that she’s familiar with the city’s neighborhoods. She said she brings experience in education and leadership to her new job, and has written grant proposals for school libraries and championed them.

“I’m a lifelong learner, so I’m more than willing to learn,” she said. “But there’s nothing that I’ve seen that would be insurmountable, that we couldn’t work through as a team.”

Graham, 62, has worked both in the public and private school system, including at Grace Christian School.

She narrowly lost a race for the Anchorage School Board earlier this year. After the election, Graham said she sent a letter of interest to Bronson’s transition team — not specific to the librarian position — and that the job was subsequently suggested to her.

Related: Politics take center stage as Anchorage school board race gets underway

While Bronson campaigned on a platform of spending cuts, Graham said she has no specific ideas to reduce the library system’s $9 million budget, nor is she planning other substantial changes to its operations. And while she’s a Republican who drew support from several prominent conservatives in her school board race, Graham said she’s not bringing a political agenda to the job.

“There is a great vision set for the library,” she said. “My focus is just to continue that mission, of connecting people to education, information, the community.”

First, though, she’ll have to be confirmed by the Anchorage Assembly, whose members have been receiving a steady stream of correspondence about Graham’s appointment — including from current and former library employees and other residents who say she lacks needed experience.

John Weddleton, who represents South Anchorage, said he’s received more feedback about Graham than any other municipal appointee during his five years on the Assembly.

a person poses in front of a brick wall
John Weddleton (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“I’ll tell you, fans of the library are very passionate about the library,” Weddleton said.

Library boosters have several concerns about Graham’s appointment.

One is her lack of library-specific training and experience.

After Torgeson, the previous top librarian, retired but before Bronson was elected, the city posted a job advertisement for the position. The posting’s minimum requirements included a masters degree in library science and seven years of professional library experience, three of those as an administrator at a “moderate to large library system.”

Applicants included the library’s interim leader, Jacob Cole, along with others who met the qualifications, said Kim Hays, who chairs the Anchorage Library Foundation, a nonprofit booster group. The foundation has not taken a formal position on Graham’s appointment, but it’s been discussing “shared concerns,” Hays said in a phone interview.

“I don’t think that seven years of professional library experience is necessarily something you can get on the job,” said Hays. “Some of this stuff is very technical, and it’s not something you learn without having that background and education — or at least working in a library setting for years.”

The Alaska Library Association is also holding meetings this week to hear members’ concerns about Graham, said Jonas Lamb, the association’s board president.

A spokesman for Bronson did not respond to a question about why Graham was appointed if she didn’t meet the posted qualifications.

Graham said that she’s worked in school libraries and even shelved books. She said she’d also written a grant proposal to the state Legislature to keep a school library open during the summer, and would look to city library staff in areas where she’s less experienced.

“Anything that I don’t know, I know there’s a great team here that will help me learn it,” she said.

The other central objection to Graham’s appointment is that it could jeopardize $35,000 in yearly state grants. State regulations say that city libraries only qualify for the grants if the library director has a masters degree in library or information science.

But Patience Frederiksen, the state librarian, said she can waive those regulations, if asked.

“That is a possibility,” she said. “I don’t yet have a request from Anchorage to do so, because we don’t know the outcome of the confirmation hearings for Sami Graham.”

Assembly members have not yet scheduled a work session or vote on Graham’s appointment.

Weddleton, the Assembly member, said that generally speaking, he gives a new mayor substantial deference in forming their own team. But he’ll be taking residents’ feedback into consideration, he added.

“I think people raised good points,” Weddleton said.

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