New library chief makes use of her varied interests

New Lexington library chief called 'such a pleasant change'

jcheves@herald-leader.comDecember 21, 2010 

Virginia Ann Hammond moved through several careers, including Navy officer, stay-at-home mom and forensic scientist, before becoming a librarian at age 41.

Now she thinks she's found a perfect job — running the Lexington Public Library, where she began in September as executive director.

"It's a way to make use of everything you've ever learned in your life," said Hammond, 56, who previously was deputy county librarian in Fremont, Calif. "Nothing is wasted when you're a librarian. Every bit of information that you accumulate is going to be useful to someone at some point."

In library circles, she said, Lexington is attractive because it's considered an educated city that loves to read. She and her husband, Mark, are living in a rented cottage on a horse farm outside town while they look for a home.

Officials who hired Hammond said her background impressed them. She came to libraries in mid-life, "and yet she was professionally ready to take over a city library system and lead it," said Buzz Carmichael, chairman of the library's board of trustees.

"The other people we interviewed were kind of sleepy, like maybe they wanted to come and retire here," Carmichael said. "Ann clearly wanted to come here and lead us somewhere."

Hammond replaced Kathleen Imhoff, who was fired by the library board last year after the Herald-Leader reported she had spent more than $134,000 on travel, meals and gifts over five years with little oversight. A city audit later raised more questions about library spending.

Imhoff has sued the library board and its former chairman for more than $5 million in Fayette Circuit Court. She alleges the library violated her employment contract by firing her without cause and then failing to pay her $137,035 annual salary and benefits for the remaining two years of her contract. Her lawsuit further alleges she was defamed and no longer can find professional library work.

"With a new library director in place, I thought the board would want to settle the case," Imhoff wrote on her blog Oct. 21. "I was wrong."

Imhoff wants arbitration, not a trial, and the judge has made favorable rulings in that direction, said her attorney, Richard Getty. An arbitrator is an outside mediator whom the parties authorize to hear their dispute.

"We don't want them to have the ability to trash her in front of a jury," Getty said.

Lexington does not seem to blame the library for the controversy, Hammond said.

"People whom I've encountered in the community or on our staff are just so ready to put that behind them," she said.

Circulation is up 12 percent since 2007, to nearly 3 million items borrowed in fiscal year 2010, a record high. Public computer use leaped by 61 percent during that period, driven in part by people participating in library programs to help job seekers.

Hammond herself raids the stacks. Asked what she's currently reading, she pulls out her lunchtime book, a library copy of Kraken by China Miéville. She describes it as "sort of steam punk, sort of science-fiction." The due-date slip marks her page.

"I started in public libraries in the young-adults section, and I keep my hand in it," she said.

Career changes

Hammond was born and raised in the Florida Panhandle, the daughter of a Navy photographer who served in World War II. She graduated from Florida State University in 1976 with a bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry, then joined the Navy.

Among her postings, Hammond served on Antigua, in the Caribbean. A few years later, she met her future husband in officer-training school. As they began their family — two children, now grown — she resigned her commission to stay at home. They followed his assignments to Hawaii and Washington, D.C.

In the 1980s, Hammond returned to science. She graduated in 1989 from the University of Maryland with a master's degree in agronomy, having studied plant genetics.

However, the federal agricultural agency she was considering for work had imposed a hiring freeze. Instead, she took a job at a private laboratory, analyzing genetic-based evidence, such as possible DNA matches, for pending criminal cases.

"It was really exciting," Hammond said. "It was a nice time to be involved in that sort of thing because it was just when the science was becoming generally accepted in the courtroom."

It also was really depressing. Hammond said her work immersed her in the dark details of homicides and rapes. She'd had enough after six years.

Again she changed direction. By then, her husband had left the Navy and enjoyed working as a law librarian at The Catholic University of America in Washington. So she enrolled and graduated in 1993 with a master's degree in library science.

During the next two decades, she worked her way up in California, geographically and professionally. She started in San Diego in a part-time public library post and various university jobs. By the end, she helped run the Alameda County Library, near San Francisco, with a local population roughly twice the size of Lexington's.

As a manager, Hammond used her science background to study problems dispassionately and her experience as an officer to listen to and lead people of varying backgrounds, said Jean Hofacket, the Alameda County librarian.

"Ann has an amazing ability to focus and to organize and yet keep her sense of humor and remain approachable," Hofacket said. "Your board of trustees made the perfect choice. A year from now, they will still be patting themselves on the back for their wise decision to hire her."

Year-to-year contract

The Lexington Public Library hired Hammond for $120,000 a year on a one-year contract. By comparison, Imhoff held a four-year contract, which is part of the reason she's now suing. However, Hammond's contract is not a response to problems with Imhoff, said Carmichael, the board chairman.

Lexington should not expect big changes at the library immediately, Hammond said. She toured the library's six locations, has spoken with scores of library employees and patrons and — with a planning committee — is starting a deliberative effort to determine the library's growth strategy.

Long-term, she said, the city is booming around the Hamburg area, near the interstate highways, and the library eventually might need to open a branch there. Short-term, she said, the reading audience wants more than just print materials.

"We look at what are the popular things being advertised now," Hammond said. "There are a lot of new digital media. People are coming to expect this. We're starting up something called OverDrive, for example, where people will be able to download digital books from us."

Hammond speaks quietly. She asks questions and nods along with the answers, rather than jumping in to add her own thoughts. Asked a question herself, she replies with a few complete sentences and then stops talking.

"You know what she's doing? She's thinking, she's listening," said Carmichael. "It's such a pleasant change.

"When we first interviewed Ann, we actually worried about this. We thought, 'Oh no, she's shy.' But then we suddenly realized that she's not shy. She was listening to us as we spoke and thinking about what her response would be. She wasn't going to talk just for the sake of talking."

It didn't go as smoothly with Imhoff, Hammond's predecessor. Not long after the library hired Imhoff, people complained about her aggressive style. The library paid a local management consultant to evaluate Imhoff and recommend how she could improve at listening, building trust and respecting colleagues.

Speaking last week from her Lexington home, Imhoff defended her six-year tenure. Imhoff said she built two branch libraries within the allotted budget and on schedule, put the library on sound financial footing and doubled the size of the Kentucky Room, which archives local and state history.

As part of her financial duties, Imhoff said, she had to change the library's salary program, "and that was unpopular with some of the staff."

Shortly after she started work this fall, Hammond invited library employees to give her anonymous (if they chose) advice on sticky notes. Dozens of them did. The wall facing her desk now is covered with their words, some serious and detailed, others whimsical, a few just relieved.

"So glad you're here," one note says. "You seem like a breath of fresh air!"

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