Greg Mickells, Madison Public Library
IB's Professional of the Week is the premier way to meet the state's professionals. This week features Greg Mickells, director of the Madison Public Library.
Photo by Shanna Wolf, S. Photography
Business Address: 201 W. Mifflin St., Madison, WI 53703
Birthplace: Omaha, Neb.
Spouse/Partner’s Name: Beverly Mazur
Education: Master’s in library science from Emporia State University, Bachelor of Fine Arts from University of Nebraska at Omaha
We’re introducing a new face today, since you’re a recent hire in the south central area. What was your start date, and what is your day-to-day role with the Madison Library?
I started on Sept. 4, 2012 with Madison Public Library. I am responsible for the entire library operation and its delivery of services to the Madison community. On a daily basis, I am an advocate and representative for the library and for literacy in our city.
You came to Madison via Colorado for the open position?
I am a native of Nebraska and spent a period of time in Colorado as well before coming to Wisconsin. I was impressed by the future potential of the Madison library system and inspired by what they had already accomplished.
What was your first impression of this area?
My first visit to Madison was actually for my interview for the director’s position, and I discovered how beautiful and friendly the city was. One of my first experiences was walking down by the UW campus and, peering down one block, I happened to see what appeared to be a sailboat crossing the street. Now there’s something you don’t see in Nebraska!
In your journey from there to here, along the way, did you have mentors? People who helped form your professional values?
I have been very fortunate to have had a number of excellent mentors throughout my career.
Who would you say was the most influential, and in what way?
The most influential would have to be Jamie LaRue, library director for Douglas County Libraries in Colorado. He reinforced my beliefs in intellectual freedom, taught me the importance of accountability in an organization, and the commitment to stewardship for the community. He always encouraged me to connect directly with the community and become involved. He also continued to encourage me to pursue new challenges and take on new responsibilities, even after I left his organization. He was one of the reasons that I sought the director’s position in Madison.
What was a career high point?
I have been involved in several building projects, including a recent project for a compressed natural gas bookmobile, but my fondest highlight is still from early on in my library career. I was managing a community college library that was located in a challenged neighborhood. I had been helping a young man at the library almost on a daily basis who had been struggling with his studies. He made a special point at the end of the school year to let me know that he was going to graduate, the first ever in his family. It was an affirmation for me that libraries really can change lives.
That feeling will be impossible to top, so instead, I’ll ask for a long-range goal that you’d like to achieve in your position in Madison. What is your vision?
That public libraries remain a viable resource and indispensable asset to the Madison community. In order to achieve this, I want to make sure that the organization is well positioned and prepared to deliver on those goals.
You’ve invested your career in libraries and literacy. Was this always a passion?
In high school, I wanted to be an artist.
Your very first paycheck: From where, how much, and what did you do with it?
My first job was busing tables at Johnny’s Café, a well-known steak house in Omaha, Neb. I was making $1.60 per hour. More than likely, my first paycheck went to purchase music or attend a concert. A side note to my first job was that I returned years later when I was an undergrad student to cook at the restaurant.
And did you develop a transferable skill there?
Perhaps since I worked as a cook to help pay for my undergrad studies, I still love to cook and entertain, as well as eat out at a variety of places.
You’re a foodie?
I am always open to trying new foods and cultural experiences. Growing up, my family always had a garden, and my personal heritage included foods like headcheese, oxtails, and lots of dumplings.
You enjoy food, and what else? How do you relax?
For relaxation, I really enjoy golf. Golfing can put me in some of the most beautiful settings you can find. The game always presents new challenges and definitely keeps me humble. Even if I’m having a bad round, all I have to do is look around and I realize that things really can’t be that bad. Golf is my Zen moment.
Beyond Zen on a Golf Course (sounds like a book title, doesn’t it?), do you like to travel? Have a favorite place?
My wife and I really like to travel, so it is difficult to pick one favorite. I have always enjoyed the diversity of New York City and the numerous cultural opportunities. But we have traveled to the Vancouver, Canada area the most, which will always be a favorite of ours.
Now a fun question, I should think, for a professional librarian with thousands of books at his fingertips: Do you read for pleasure?
Perhaps it may be a little too obvious that a librarian might be a reader. …
Yes, but it isn’t as obvious what kind of book he’d read! Can you share a recent title that might give us the flavor of what you like to read?
I like to read biographies and non-fiction the most for pleasure. Recent reads included Destiny of the Republic, a biography of President Garfield. A recent non-fiction read was Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. It explores how people could be using their brain power for creative purposes as opposed to just consuming things like TV. If I do venture into fiction it is usually for some offbeat writer like Tim Dorsey or a revisit to some classic Vonnegut.
Anything you’d be willing to share about your family?
When I introduce my wife, Bev, sometimes people think we have our jobs reversed. My wife’s profession is in forensics. She can always share some interesting crime scene stories. She is also an accomplished photographer.
My wife and I have two children. Our son is married and lives in Colorado. He and his wife are devoted locavores and do a lot of community programs to teach children about nutrition and how to prepare foods. My daughter is a junior at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and is studying sports photography.
We like to ask our interviewees a standard set of questions so that we can get to know the person behind the title, and this is, I admit, a stock question, but I am interested to see who you would pick: What character in any sport, book, movie, or play would you most like to be identified with, and why?
You might think that a literary figure would be an obvious choice for someone in my profession, but an individual I have admired since my childhood is Roberto Clemente. I was impressed by the way he overcame challenges, was dedicated and excelled in his chosen profession, and was a humanitarian.
You’ve well described Clemente. How well can you describe yourself now, in only three words? That’s our final challenge and our last question!
Creative, non-linear, passionate.