Michele Coleman Mayes, Vice President and General Counsel at the NY Public Library

Michele Coleman Mayes

Michele Coleman Mayes

Michele Mayes, a natural-born leader, has served a wide variety of institutions during her professional journey. Mayes was born in California and attended both college and law school at the University of Michigan. Her legal work experience included stints in the public sector, private sector, and today, at a non-profit. Mayes served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney both in Detroit, Michigan and Brooklyn, New York. Later in her career Mayes served as the executive vice president and general counsel at Allstate Corporation. She joined the New York Public Library in August 2012.

The New York Public Library is enormous. It holds in its collection 51 million items, serves more than 17 million patrons a year, and oversees 88 neighborhood branches and four scholarly research centers.

Mayes says of her legal career that “a lot of things that happened were serendipity.” When Mayes was presented with the opportunity to join the New York Public Library, she had been working in the private sector for 30 years and was ready to do something different. The position, according to Mayes, presented her with the opportunity to experience something that she had never done before, tackle new challenges, and give back to society by helping many people from very diverse backgrounds.

The Role of the Library in the 21st Century

Libraries were originally publicly accessible warehouses of books. Today, many people have constant access to the Internet and no longer visit the library as frequently to search for information—we turn to Google or download e-books, instead. The role of the library in today’s technology-driven society is continuously changing at a rapid pace. “You either figure out how you’re going to, in some way, make the transition to what society demands and wants,” said Mayes, “or you become obsolete.”

Today, the Library is far from obsolete and remains a critical resource in assuring those with less access to the latest technology are not left behind. All patrons benefit from the Library’s free computer and Internet access, even to complete tasks as important as filling out job applications. The Library has remained current in the marketplace, as well, by offering e-books for its users to download to their devices for a limited amount of time, which is the equivalent of having to “return” the e-book to the library.

Library patrons demand high-quality services. Among the various improvements the library is pursuing is a concierge-style “enhanced service” that stores a user’s reading history to offer online, customer-specific book recommendations, such as those provided by Google and Amazon. Patrons using the Library’s online services will need to “opt-in” to allow the library to keep track of the books they read for use in making additional book recommendations. Such opt-in clauses are difficult to draft in a way that is understandable to everyone, including, for example, patrons who speak English as a second language.

“We have to do a lot of things without breaking the bank and that will give people the level of service they expect, all in a way that keeps them engaged with the library,” said Mayes. She works with a core leadership team to ensure the Library delivers its mission. These include President and CEO Tony Marx, Chief Library Officer Mary Lee Kennedy, Chief External Relations Officer Carrie Welch, Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Research Libraries Bill Kelly, and COO Iris Weinshall. During weekly meetings, they decide who will take the lead on new matters. Generally, Mayes is in charge of the privacy-related issues. The Library did not have a position devoted to handling privacy matters until William Marden joined in November of 2015 as the Director of Data Privacy and Compliance. Marden holds a masters degree in library sciences and brings to the table a wealth of privacy-related expertise, which he gained from years of experience in financial services.

Michele Mayes finds her work at the Public Library rewarding because she has the opportunity both to grow professionally and serve the community. Her advice to aspiring leaders: “Take stock of what you can do, take credit for what you have done, give credit to others, take reasonable risks by accepting that growth and comfort are not compatible, take and give a helping hand, take a stand on your values, and take care of yourself,” said Mayes. “P.S. Keep a sense of humor.”

Jessica Soultanian-Braunstein ’15 is a Center for New York City Law Fellow at New York Law School

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