Retiring Naperville library leader found voice, oversaw evolution
As she ascended the ranks of the library world in Naperville, Julie Rothenfluh decided she wanted more of a voice.
Carrying a strong belief in a library's role of providing access to information and entertainment -- no matter the form -- Rothenfluh wanted to affect the future of a changing institution in a growing city.
So she became not just a children's librarian but manager of the 95th Street Library, then deputy director of the three-building system. For the last six years, she's served as executive director of the perennial five-star library, as ranked by the Library Journal, and board members say her voice has provided stability, organization, reliability and progress.
"Julie has done a wonderful job in leading the organization as a very collaborative leader, setting the strategic plan, looking at what the needs are of the community," library board President Nina Menis said. "Her strategic leadership and collaborative leadership is really important."
But now Rothenfluh's decision to retire in June has the library hoping to hire someone else with skills a lot like hers to carry forward her work.
During her time as library leader, the system renovated each of its three buildings, set a new strategic direction, adapted to changing technology and offered new types of access to materials that don't require visiting a branch.
"We've come to rely on her a lot," library board member Kay Severinsen said. "She just stepped right up and has a really firm sense of what the library could be."
Rothenfluh, 63, who has Wisconsin roots, came to work in Naperville in 1997, serving as assistant head of the children's department, reflecting her lifelong passion for young people's literature.
"I just loved working with kids and bringing them to books and showing them what a world there is in books," she said. "If you can read books, there's no limits to where you can go and what you can do."
Nichols Library, where she originally worked, was a decade old in the late 1990s but had only two computers. At the time, some library leaders thought the internet would prove a fad, Rothenfluh said. From listening to library users, she learned it would not.
"One of the things they wanted was computers," she said about library patrons at the turn of the millennium. "Now they want access to different kinds of technology, software that people can't afford to have on their own."
The library in recent years has evolved to offer some of that technology, including a green screen room for video recording, 3-D printers to create small plastic objects, Wi-Fi hot spots available for checkout, and hundreds of computers with databases and specialized programs for public and staff use. The library also has offered new ways for cardholders to watch, listen to or read movies, audiobooks, e-books and magazines online.
"Providing access is always what we've been about," Rothenfluh said. "Access to what is what has changed."
As ways to find materials for research, education or entertainment have shifted to more digital formats, the library has updated its physical spaces, spending $5 million total on renovations to the Nichols, 95th Street and Naper Boulevard branches from 2014 to 2017.
Library board members said they appreciated Rothenfluh's well-planned approach to work that added a sound recording studio, a coworking space and business startup center, a teen space, more room for group meetings, and updated furniture, flooring and decor.
"You have to have an organized approach," she said.
Anticipating her retirement, Rothenfluh jokes that she plans to clean the basement of her Bolingbrook home. But she said she truly looks forward to traveling with her husband, a retired retail asset protection manager, and to following the careers of her daughter, who's working as a librarian in St. Charles, and her son in the Army.
She says she'll help the new library leader through a transition period, but it's up to the board to hire her successor.
Menis said the board is working with HR Source to conduct a nationwide search for the next executive director, beginning with a job posting expected to go live in the next few weeks.
"The board is looking for someone that has past experience as a library leader," Menis said. "It's important that we have someone who's a strong leader and also a great community collaborator."