March's Leadership on Main featured David Jennings, recently retired Director of the Akron-Summit County Public Library, and was moderated by Laura Ofobike, retired Chief Editorial Writer for the Akron Beacon Journal. Jennings’ journey as a leader began in college where he yearned for a career that would make a difference in his community.
A lifelong resident of Akron, Ohio, Jennings first studied philosophy in college but graduated with a bachelor’s in American Studies from Kent State University. He spent two years as a social worker, which ultimately sparked his tangible passion for helping people. “A lot of what I did was find ways to help people who were struggling. Part of my approach was finding ways for those individuals to get involved.”
As we often hear in the life stories of local leaders, the influence of a mentor lent wisdom and guidance to the life-course of the leader, especially during their formative professional years. In Jennings’ case, one of his mentors, Dr. McCormick, suggested an alternative career path, one he felt would be more impactful and in line with Jennings’ nature – a career in a library. Jennings felt this recommendation would, in fact, put him in a position to directly make a positive impact on the struggling families in his community and went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Library Sciences from Kent State University.
Jennings joined the Akron-Summit County Public Library in 1981 and served in various roles before assuming the role of director in 2004. Jennings focused on collaborating with various organizations around the community to provide compelling personal experiences that encourage a sense of community. “The library is a unique collaborative partner, and we’re viewed as neutral,” Jennings said. “We made a very conscious decision to raise our hand and say, ‘how can we contribute to almost anything good that’s going on?’—whether it’s early childhood education, the arts, or helping small business—the library can make a contribution in some way. In fact, it’s to the point where if something’s going on and the library isn’t represented in the room, people want to know where they are.”
The library has made changes to better serve its Akron residents under Jennings’ leadership. Most of the libraries in the system were built in the 1950s. In the 90’s, leadership at the library realized a need for bigger buildings. During the downtown main library’s reconstruction, Jennings learned a lot about dealing with architects, and what does and doesn’t work. “Architects have a way of thinking, but we have to live with the functionality,” Jennings said. With Jennings at the helm, the library was in a great position to make the necessary decisions to provide the community with the most impactful, civic-minded space.
Down the road in 2011, a group of decision-makers came together to ‘reimagine’ the main library. Some of the collections were moved from the first floor to create room for a Makerspace. The space includes audio recording studios, a digital video area with a green screen, and a variety of machinery and equipment such as a laser engraver, a vinyl print cutter, a t-shirt press, and a digital media transfer station—all free to use aside from the cost of materials. In addition, library customers have the opportunity to check out numerous everyday items such as cake pans and local artwork that can be hung in their home for a period of time.
David Jennings’ passion for making a difference in the lives of individuals and families within our community, his emphasis on compelling interpersonal experiences, his personal interest in early childhood education, and his keen eye for financial details, contributed to his strong and successful directorship of the Akron-Summit County Public Library. As the Akron-Summit County Public Library enters a new era of leadership, the Akron community can rest assured that the checks are in place to make sure the library continues its path of collaboration, growth and positive impact.
For more perspectives from David Jennings, tune in to the Leadership Akron
podcast and hear bonus features from March’s Leadership on Main.