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New Middle Georgia library director able to hit the ground running

When Jennifer Lautzenheiser was promoted to interim director of the Middle Georgia Public Library System in March, the circumstances were far from ideal.

After a difficult split between the system’s board of trustees and former director Kelly Lenz, who was forced to resign, Lautzenheiser had all of three days to finish the library system’s $4.1 million annual budget -- a budget that had to be cut by 5 percent from the previous year.

“I really didn’t have time to think,” said Lautzenheiser, who was thrust into the interim job after just two months working for the library system. She was hired in January as head of public resources. “I just fight the fires that are closest to me.”

Fortunately for everyone involved, the transition has been a smooth one, so much so that recently the board officially removed the interim status from Lautzenheiser’s title to give her the full-time job.

“She just hit the ground running,” said Hetty Jardine, chairwoman of the board of trustees. “She was very knowledgeable about libraries and had a lot of experience from her background in nonprofits. She was able to pull it together. We didn’t miss the (budget) deadline and lose any funding.”

It probably helps that Lautzenheiser is pretty organized. Before moving to Georgia with her husband, Brian, daughter Payton, 12, and son Heath, 9, Lautzenheiser served in the Ohio National Guard for six years, working on such projects as managing the unit’s helicopters.

When her husband retired from the Army and got a job in the Air Force, the family moved to Georgia, and Lautzenheiser earned a master’s degree in library science from Valdosta State University.

“(Valdosta State has) a great library program,” said Lautzenheiser, who won a Laura Bush Fellowship to attend. “They steered me toward working in public libraries, which fits in well with my background of business and accounting.”

Lautzenheiser got a job with the Perry Public Library as the head of circulation before becoming assistant director of public services for the Henry County Library System.

Even though taking the job with the Middle Georgia Regional Library System was, at the time, a lateral move career-wise, Lautzenheiser no longer faced an hourlong commute to work each day, so she jumped at the chance to work in Macon.

Though she was successful during her two months as interim director, getting the job full-time wasn’t a sure thing. Jardine said nine people applied for the position but none had Lautzenheiser’s level of experience. One of the most impressive things, Jardine said, was how Lautzenheiser interacted with the staff. Every Monday, Lautzenheiser would send an email listing the staff’s successes for the past week and a list of challenges for the week ahead.

“I continue to be impressed with her ability to be methodical and logical, but also someone who was really good at team-building,” Jardine said. “She can make a plan and get the team on board.”

Lautzenheiser said the decision to accept the position was made with her family’s consent.

“You spend a lot of time traveling to all of the affiliate libraries,” she said. “You have to go to their board meetings. But (my family) absolutely supported me. ... I’m grateful to the board, having not been here very long, that they have that trust in me. I’m grateful, for sure.”

THE COMMUNICATOR

Muriel Jackson, the longtime director of the Genealogical and Historical Room/Middle Georgia Archives at the Washington Memorial Library, said one of Lautzenheiser’s strengths is how well she communicates with staff.

“She spent the time learning who did what, so it’s been a very smooth transition,” Jackson said. “You feel like you can approach her.”

Jackson said before Lautzenheiser took over, the staff didn’t know what changes would be made or what was expected of them.

“We didn’t get feedback,” she said. “With Jennifer, we know what things need to be addressed. She didn’t want to make any changes just to change things. She seems to be very receptive to different ideas. She’s encouraging us to get out in front of the public to meet the needs of the community.”

THREE MAJOR GOALS

Lautzenheiser said she has three major goals she wants to accomplish as director. The first is that she wants to improve literacy at all levels, in Macon-Bibb County and in Middle Georgia.

“I want to work with other agencies so that we have the right impact on graduation rates,” she said. “When a child reaches third grade, he or she goes from learning to read to reading to learn. That can determine things like eighth-grade math success, graduation rates to knowing how many jail cells we need.”

Lautzenheiser plans to launch a program called 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten to improve the vocabulary of young children to give them a head start in better understanding their teachers.

A second goal is to continue to expand the library’s virtual services. The library already offers courses to people who may not have much access to or experience with technology.

“We need to teach folks to not just be mass consumers of technology but to become manipulators of it,” she said. “We’re a key link in that. ... We’re working toward being a 24/7 organization.”

Finally, Lautzenheiser wants to make use of the library’s physical space to be a resource for the community not only for books and information, but also to gather and exchange ideas. The library is one of the few places left where people can meet and aren’t separated by socioeconomic status or religious beliefs.

“It’s where a community can be built,” she said.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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