Public libraries remain hallmarks of a democratic and open society. They ensure free and equal access to information and offer knowledge and learning to the public without restriction or charge.
MEA member, Maureen Singleton, who serves as the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL)
understands these challenges and demonstrates a virtuosity to library operations because, as she explains, the public library is many things to many people and a university for all.
With free and open access to over 7.5 million printed and multi-media items, 80 online databases, and seven million items circulating annually, Operations for the public library system involves thousands of seamlessly executed transactions every day.
“I think it’s a little bit of an art and a little bit of service that helps determine the outcomes you want,” explains Maureen.
Maureen has served as the COO for three years (she was appointed in 2019 after serving as Acting COO in 2018) and has seen SFPL through several milestones from receiving the National Library of the Year Award
in 2018 to eliminating overdue library fines
in partnership with the Treasurer’s office in 2019, to adapting the library’s services to meet the needs of schoolchildren during the pandemic in 2020.
Moving into the role of COO was a natural transition for Maureen. She credits her parents for her business acumen and core values that she brings to her work and shares with her staff.
“It was my dad, a general contractor, who taught me the importance of understanding that there are many aspects to getting a job done well,” explains Maureen. “My mother, who was a hospice nurse, is the person who instilled in me the desire to be of service to others.”
Maureen’s perspective played an important role in the Branch Library Improvement Program (BLIP)
that was completed in 2014 and encompassed every aspect of library Operations.
“BLIP was a partnership between SFPL, San Francisco Public Works
, and the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library,” shares Maureen.
BLIP was a $106 million bond measure passed in 2000 to build and refurbish 24 neighborhood branch libraries. By 2014, the campaign grew to $200 million and successfully revitalized and preserved the City’s Branch Library system.
“What might have taken 30 years through regular capital funding to achieve, was accomplished in an energetic 14-year period. We were able to deliver accessible, high-performing branches for San Francisco and we now own all of our library facilities,” remarks Maureen.
Without Operations, the exchange of ideas that take place in the libraries would be severely restricted from a practical standpoint.
Maureen oversees Facilities, Finance, Human Resources, Information Technology, and the Research, Strategy, and Analytics units. This is in addition to overseeing the maintenance and operations of 28 buildings, including the Main Branch
, which is 376,000 square feet and has seven floors.
Each branch building has its own needs, design challenges, and capacity for improvements. The duty is considerable because each branch serves as an important neighborhood resource that provides a safe place people can rely on to gather, exchange ideas, and obtain free learning and educational resources.
“To do my job, I examine and consider the data that we collect, my personal core values, and the library’s core values. I am always asking the question, how can we make the library even better?”
Maureen helped create the Research, Strategy, and Analytics unit to assist the library in making better informed business decisions.
“To be good stewards, we need to understand the public’s needs. That starts with collecting holistic data. Good data helps us adapt and grow.”
Maureen’s background in economics and public administration helps her analyze the analytics collected.
“We get to see how resources are being used and the impact of the services we provide,” says Maureen. “We can see gaps in service and use analytics to build out better outcomes, not just outputs.”
According to Maureen, data goes beyond demographics. Her team follows up with individuals, such as people who took courses at the library.
“We ask them how they are using the skills they learned and how they are benefitting from them so we can make classes better,” reports Maureen. “Data is not just about how many people took a class.”
Maureen’s convictions around good data analysis harken back to her days as a student at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.
“One summer, when I was in college, new leadership came into the Economics Department,” she recalls. “They started dropping core classes with low enrollment that were still required for graduation without involving the students,” remembers Maureen. “They were only thinking about outputs in the narrowest terms and not the students. I decided I had to speak up.”
Maureen saw that decisions were being made by out of touch executives who were not thinking about the consequences of their decisions on the lives of the students they were supposed to be serving.
“I realized I needed to provide my input to instigate change, so I met with one of the executives. He said ‘students are transitory’ which made me mad. That’s when I started speaking up on behalf of the students.”
There is a thoughtful, considered approach that Maureen credits for becoming an effective and empathetic COO.
“The key is to be a good listener and a good steward of public resources.”
Case in point. Maureen and her teams worked with the San Francisco Office of the Treasurer & Tax Collector’s Financial Justice Project
team to eliminate overdue library fines. Maureen and her team looked at the data and the impact fines were having on patrons and determined that fines act as barrier for many people to access important resources.
Another approach that Maureen explains helps her to be a good COO is making a point of getting to know the people who work for her and in other units and departments.
“It’s about really trusting and following your managers and supervisors in each of their specialties. Allow them to educate you and really listen to their expertise,” she advises.
“It is so much about building a rapport with your peers and staff because you are expressing a genuine interest in the services they provide. Giving people a voice and letting people speak up and ask questions is essential for a healthy team and allows you to hear what your staff needs to do their jobs well.”
Maureen accomplishes this by taking her staff to visit different units to learn about what they do and why they do it.
“When I was the CFO, I took my team to visit our Collections Development unit to learn firsthand about how they ordered and processed books. This helped the Finance team get more creative to get contracts done and to find more efficient processes to support the Collections unit.”
Maureen’s efforts to keep units from being siloed helped SFPL adapt quickly during the pandemic. COVID-19 quickly revealed digital divides among certain communities, particularly among schoolchildren without computers or access to reliable Wi-Fi.
On September 14, 2020, the Library joined the Community Hub Initiative
and established nine Community Hub branches that provided 200 San Francisco Unified School District students a safe and supervised place to participate in online learning.
Additionally, the library issued nearly 58,000 students access to the library’s virtual learning materials and continued to provide training for teachers on library resources and how to conduct research.
In May 2021, the Main Library launched Browse & Bounce, an express in-person service allowing cardholders into the library for 60-minute sessions. By August, all but one library location was open for full in-person service.
Currently, Maureen is working on three branch library renovations: Chinatown
(1888), and Ocean View
(2000). The projects are part of the Branch Capital Projects Feasibility Study (2018)
that Public Works authored to adapt and enhance the City’s library branches into libraries for the 21st Century.
Public Works’ detailed study and design analysis is helping SFPL navigate the daunting process of renovating and expanding three branch libraries. To add complexity to the projects, two of three branches, Chinatown, and Mission, require a historic preservation process.
Designed by architect G. Albert Lansburgh, the Chinatown and Mission branches share the esteem of being among 1,681 Carnegie Libraries built in the United States between 1883 and 1929 by steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
“The Mission branch has been serving the community for 120 years and will go through the historic preservation process at the cost of $24-25 million,” reports Maureen.
“We want to build a 20,000 square foot building at Ocean View to serve as a hub for the Oceanview, Merced, and Ingleside neighborhoods, which will cost approximately $47 million. We want to grow to meet the changing needs of the community that each branch serves.”
Operations are an essential part of a well-run department. Done well, staff are empowered and heard, the public is welcome and served, and the greater good is accessible and maintained.
“There are so many opportunities at our libraries for everyone,” offers Maureen. “We want people to freely pursue all the information they are interested in so they can enrich their lives.”
Maureen Singleton is the Chief Operating Office for the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), a position she has held since 2019. Prior to that, Ms. Singleton served as the Acting COO in 2018 and as the library’s Chief Financial Officer. Before joining SFPL, Ms. Singleton began her career with the City and County of San Francisco in 2002 as a Budget Analyst in the Board of Supervisor’s Budget Analysts Office. She went onto to work for the Department of Public Health and Public Works before becoming the CFO of the SFPL in 2011. Ms. Singleton holds a Master of Public Administration from the University of Washington and a Bachelor of Science in Economics from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. She lives in the East Bay with her husband and daughter.