After 33 years with the Peoria Public Library, executive director Leann Johnson is turning the page on a new chapter in her life with her retirement July 2.
“I know this is really predictable, but I want to catch up on some reading, and we’ve got some road trips in mind,” Johnson said of future plans.
Over the years Johnson has served as a department head and branch manager. She was assistant director for 17 years and serves as interim library director three times before agreeing to take the helm as executive director following a unanimous board vote in February 2013.
Johnson also served as the staff liaison to the building committee and was heavily involved with the $28 million building project that saw the construction of the North Branch library and renovations and restoration of the other four library branches.
“I’ve always felt lucky to be at the Peoria Public Library because for me it was perfect,” Johnson said. “We’re not too big so we can still be very personal, but we’re not so small that we can’t do the big stuff.”
Noting that there’s never really a right time to retire, Johnson said, “You kind of just have to pick a time to do it. I have a long list of things that I want to do once I retire, and I began to realize that probably at some point I actually needed to retire to get to some of those things.”
Growing up in Ford County about 90 miles east of Peoria, Johnson originally wanted to be a teacher. With that goal in mind she majored in secondary education with an emphasis on English at Eastern Illinois University and minored in library science.
“I didn’t really decide not to be a teacher. The economy kind of decided that for me,” Johnson said, recalling that many high schools were consolidating or closing when she graduated from college in 1979. “My plan B was to find a library job, and once I got into the libraries I really liked it and never looked back.”
Johnson moved to Peoria when her husband, Dennis, got a job in the area, and she initially worked for the Illinois Valley Library System with an office in the Peoria Public Library’s main branch. Dennis retired as principal of Morton High School in 2012.
One of her first projects after being hired by the Peoria Public Library involved an inventory of the library’s oldest books. Around that time she also obtained her master’s of library and information science from the University of Illinois after taking classes in Peoria.
Among the biggest changes in library science Johnson has seen during her tenure involves technology, which she said has made some library services easier but has also significantly impacted traditional services.
“I would say one major impact is that when you were calling a library before and asking a reference question, that librarian was looking for the best answer from an authoritative source,” Johnson said. “We were being very careful that we were providing the correct factual information. That aspect of the library job went away as people were coming in less or calling less to have reference questions answered, because they were relying on the internet. The bad part of that is people don’t seem to be able to discern what is an authoritative source for factual information. That’s part of the problem with the fake news and people believing everything they read on the internet.”
Johnson said she very much enjoyed her job as assistant library director and was raising her two children when the opportunity first arose to become executive director. That’s why she would only agree to be interim director three times initially.
“I think there were always other things going on in the background in the rest of my life that made me really think hard about whether I wanted to take on the role of director because I wanted to be able to fully commit to it,” she said.
Among the biggest challenges Johnson said she’s faced as executive director was enduring concerns about future funding.
“There’s been a lot of talk about property tax freezes, and since most of our revenue is from property taxes, a freeze would have a significant impact on the operating budget,” Johnson said. “I don’t enjoy crisis planning, so I’ve always tried to plan ahead on what different scenarios might occur.”
Among her favorite parts of the job have been overseeing the library’s 100 employees and watching them grow and shine under a pay-for-performance system.
“I think over the last five years what we’ve seen as people have been rewarded for performance specifically are innovations in programming or customer service because people have been encouraged to stretch and try new things. That’s been really nice and enjoyable to see some of our employees find their special area of expertise and continue to expand in those areas,” Johnson said. “I think the schoolteacher in me likes to see the individual grow and find their niche.”
She also is proud of her part in an intergovernmental agreement with Peoria Public Schools and the Illinois State Library system that allowed every Peoria school student to obtain a library card.
The Johnsons plan to stay in the Peoria area, and Leann will stay active with the Peoria Historical Society, which she currently serves as board president.
As she leaves the library, Johnson said she’ll miss the day-to-day operations. “I’ll miss the inner workings. All the things that take place behind the scenes to get that book back on the shelf,” she said. “I’m going to miss being part of all that activity. I think the Peoria Public Library is a great place to work.”
The Peoria Public Library Board of Trustees has started a search for a new executive director and plans to have someone in place soon.
—New chapters ahead as Peoria Library boss retiring after 33-year career with system–