Just as two top administrative posts among Oak Park’s taxing bodies have been filled, another has come available. David Seleb, 55, is retiring after almost a decade spent as executive director of the Oak Park Public Library. His last day on the job will be Feb. 25.
“The opportunity to work for the Oak Park Public Library and to finish my 33-year career there has been extraordinary. I thank my board of trustees for that opportunity and for the support and encouragement they have given to me,” Seleb wrote in an email to Wednesday Journal.
“The staff at the library, particularly the members of my Leadership Team, are among the most outstanding people with whom I have ever had the privilege to work. I will miss them all.”
Seleb told Wednesday Journal he does not plan to make further public statements about his retirement. However, Library Board President Matt Fruth spoke at length about the departing executive director and the legacy he will be leaving behind.
“I don’t think there is anyone on the board who doesn’t wish David would stay longer,” said Fruth. “But eight years is a good run.”
During his considerable time on the library board, Fruth has worked with three different executive directors. Fruth compared Seleb’s approach to providing services to that of famed Apple innovator Steve Jobs in that Seleb was able to anticipate future needs and desires of library patrons.
“I think David’s approach to libraries is somewhat similar – we want to make sure we are finding out what people didn’t know they wanted us to do,” said Fruth.
With Seleb’s retirement imminent, the library board has begun its search for a new executive director. The library board has enlisted the executive search services of John Keister & Associates to find a replacement for Seleb in a contract worth $18,500. The firm specializes in recruiting leaders for libraries and non-profit organizations.
Based in Illinois, the firm has worked with numerous public libraries in the Midwest, as well as libraries as far east as Connecticut and as far south as Florida, according to the firm’s website. The library board intends to “cast a wide net” across the country for candidates and community input will play a key role in the process, according to Fruth.
The person who succeeds Seleb will have big shoes to fill. Fruth credits the departing executive director for helping to impart significant change and improvement to the library. Fruth called Seleb “a big advocate” for intentional community engagement, bringing services beyond the confines of library walls and proactively confronting societal issues through productive programming and conversation.
The library has curated a transgender resource collection to provide information to allies, family, employers and medical providers. Its multicultural collection is filled with books, artifacts, games, films and music from around the world to encourage the Oak Park community to explore different cultures and build empathy.
Seleb put the Oak Park Public Library on a path toward inclusivity and equity long before other libraries embarked on similar journeys, said Fruth.
“A lot of libraries weren’t doing that kind of equity examination, but David had started us with that work before a lot of others were catalyzed into doing so,” said Fruth.
Shortly after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the summer of 2020, Seleb penned an open letter to the Oak Park community denouncing systemic inequities and proclaiming the library’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We are frightened for the Black and Brown members of our staff and our community who daily must endure the racism of our society. We are furious at the inequities that cause so much injustice and poverty and suffering,” Seleb’s letter reads. “We are committed as an organization and as individuals to dismantle the systems of oppression that have created these conditions and that fuel them.”
During Seleb’s time as executive director, the library developed an anti-racism strategic plan, curated an anti-racism collection and launched an anti-racist book club. A timeline of the library’s anti-racist journey is available on its website. Last year, Stephen Jackson, a library employee, was promoted to be the library’s director of equity and anti-racism, an entirely new position.
A number of other staffing changes were made over the years to make the library a more actively inclusive and equitable organization. Former Oak Park Township youth interventionist Robert Simmons joined the library in 2016 as community resources manager to help the library address the needs of at-risk patrons and people experiencing homelessness. Now the director of social services and public safety, Simmons replaced contracted security guards with library employees, who are trained to take a trauma-informed care approach.
Juanta Griffin began educating the community as the library’s multicultural coordinator in 2020 and Tatiana Swancy was promoted last year to become the library’s first restorative practices coordinator. Swancy, Griffin, Jackson and Simmons are all members of the library’s anti-racism advisory team. The team also includes diversity, equity and inclusion consultant Reesheda Graham Washington and Oak Park Village Trustee Chibuike Enyia.
Fruth praised Seleb’s leadership as he worked to navigate the library through the many and evolving challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, empowering staff to rethink its traditional service model.
“During the pandemic, David has been decisive, empathetic, and committed to putting people and safety first. Since coming to Oak Park in 2013, his vision, ability to listen, to be strategic, and to act intentionally have made a lasting difference here,” said Jodi Kolo, OPPL communications director.
The virus prompted the library to close all of its branches in March 2020. To keep people engaged, the library’s virtual services grew. While the main branch reopened at a very limited capacity that July, the Maze branch remained closed for just over a year and the Dole branch almost a year and a half. The library has retained all of its staff throughout the pandemic.
“He has left us in such a good place,” said Fruth. “I couldn’t be more grateful for what he’s done.”
Seleb departs just as the District 97 public elementary schools hired Dr. Ushma Shah as its next superintendent and the Village of Oak Park is expected to hire Kevin Jackson as its village manager.