I have loved everything about this job,” says Audrey Betcher, director of Rochester Public Library (RPL), who is set to retire in March, 2022. After more than two decades, Betcher moves toward retirement with gratitude and humility, looking back upon her successes and to the future of RPL and Rochester with hope.
Betcher grew up and lives now in nearby Stewartville. She acquired her bachelor’s degree in Library Science and English from St. Catherine University in St. Paul. During her studies, Betcher discovered a love for systems and automation, which inspired her to move to Missouri to work as a library automation trainer. She soon acquired her master’s degree in Library and Information Science and made her way back to Southeastern Minnesota to work with Southeastern Libraries Cooperating (SELCO). Betcher started at RPL as the assistant director in 1996 and advanced to director in 2000. She’s received numerous accolades and awards throughout her career, is loved by her staff and the RPL Board of Directors and is lauded for her continuing support of equity in the Rochester community.
All about the team (and the systems)
As a single mother for much of the upbringing of two amazing children, Betcher credits her success both personally and professionally to those around her. “I’ve always had great people around me,” says Betcher, both at home and at work. Betcher also credits teamwork and shared purpose. “I believe in bringing people together to accomplish shared goals and dreams. Leadership is about caring about people and building shared purpose,” she says.
Betcher gives high praise to the many teams she has had the privilege of working with throughout her career—at the library, with the City of Rochester and in the broader community. “Everyone is so willing to listen to the community and try to do what’s best,” says Betcher. “The library has a really unique role in the community. We exist for the community. That gives us some leeway to take some risks that in the long run have paid off beautifully. But really, it’s the teams that drive success—in the library, in the city, in the community. Everyone comes together.”
Systems and strategic planning have also played an important role in Betcher’s success. “To be really good you have to be really good all the time, and the only way to be good all the time is to build really great systems. Systems give you consistency,” she says. “Success lies in consistency in onboarding and making sure everyone knows what is important.
That’s how we have been successful. Over time, with everyone pulling in the same direction, you can move mountains.”
Equity doesn’t just happen
The City of Rochester highlights equity and inclusion as central frameworks to build a vibrant community where diversity is celebrated and community members from all backgrounds feel safe, welcomed and valued. Betcher and RPL have been critical in moving this work forward. “Equity, to me, means that every single person has the same opportunities for success no matter any of their demographics. It doesn’t matter if you are in poverty, your race, ability—none of that matters. Equity gives everyone the opportunity to be successful,” says Betcher.
In the earlier years of her career, Betcher recalls that barriers and reducing those barriers was not discussed or perhaps even recognized. She cites the arrival of The Race Exhibit to RPL in 2010 as a turning point for her, personally. “In some ways, it’s taken me a long time to understand my privilege, but of course I have a lot.” The Race Exhibit prompted Betcher and the broader library to start questioning its policies and procedures. “We knew we could do better,” says Betcher.
Over the next several years, Betcher and her team worked within the community to launch several efforts to help move Rochester closer to true equity. The Ready to Lead program supports and engages historically under-represented people in pursuing leadership roles in the community. The program, of which Betcher is still a leader, continues today. Community focus groups pointed to a need for broadening basic literacy efforts. Rochester Reading Champions, a literacy intervention program helping underserved struggling readers in the community, was born. As a program advocate and a tutor in the program, Betcher partners one-on-one with a learner. Betcher also highlights her involvement in the Cradle 2 Career program as very rewarding. The local effort seeks to eliminate education disparities and racial inequities while advocating for system-level change. Betcher also takes great pride in the library’s progress in making sure all people, especially LGBTQ+, feel welcome and safe visiting and participating in programs at the library.
Betcher prioritizes using her voice and position of leadership in the community to raise up issues and advocate for those whose voices might not be heard otherwise. “I take my role as an advocate to question and to bring up things that we all need to think about more broadly. I ask, ‘Who does this help? Who does this harm? Whose voice is missing?’ I know I can’t speak for people, but I can highlight the opportunities and the gaps and do my best to get people heard,” she says.
Over her entire career, Betcher takes the most pride in her work toward equity. “We still have a gap in Rochester. Much has been done, a lot of progress made, but again and again, we are reminded we aren’t as far along as it sometimes seems we are.”
Looking to the future of Rochester
Betcher has high hopes for the Rochester community with regard to equity and inclusion. “This community has an amazing tradition of coming together to solve big problems. We’ve seen it again and again,” she says. Betcher calls out community response to the tornado in 1883 and flood control efforts after the massive flood in 1978. “We have a track record of successfully tackling big things.”
“The current pandemic has shown we can do things differently than we ever would have dreamed,” says Betcher. “We’ve increased awareness of the digital divide. We’ve recognized that people without digital access are getting left behind. And we have to solve it.” Homelessness is another social issue needing urgent effort. Betcher is proud of the city’s progress but recognizes more work is needed as organizations and individuals come together to make sure our most vulnerable are safe during the pandemic and beyond. “It takes momentum. We are making progress,” she says.
Looking to her own future
As she steps away from her beloved career, Betcher plans to spend more time traveling and more time with family. She will continue the volunteer activities she is most passionate about, including her work with the Ready To Lead Program, Rochester Reading Champions, Cradle 2 Career and the Rotary Club of Rochester. She will stay involved with the Friends of the Rochester Public Library as a seller of online books.
As she works through her final weeks on the job and nostalgia inevitably sets in, Betcher feels confident in the future for RPL. “I just know the library will be in good hands. It’s been an honor to serve you.” ::
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