Newsletter of the Association of Library and Information Science Students (ALISS)




 title of the newsletter: The Silverfish


April/May 2004

Vol VIII Issue IV

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Information Professional Spotlight:
A Conversation about Leadership with Cindy Cunningham, MLS ‘87

By Dyan Smith Chandler, MLIS Evening
Spend five minutes with Cindy Cunningham and you will understand why there is so much emphasis on leadership development at the iSchool. Her career history reads like a librarian's dream resume, beginning with work-study library jobs as an undergrad at Stanford, peppered with a four-year term as Vice President and President of WLA, and culminating in her current role as the Director of Media Cataloging at Corbis. On top of a long list of career achievements and recognitions, her combination of charisma and expertise makes her stand out from the crowd as one of the strongest leaders in our professional community today. She was gracious enough to sit down with us recently and share stories, advice, and leadership philosophy.

One of Cindy’s early influential experiences on her path to leadership came about during a management course at the iSchool. Her instructor, Joe Ford, was a past participant in the Library of Congress internship program and suggested she apply. After a competitive application process and a grueling 2-day interview in Washington DC (including a panel-style interview with all the other candidates!), Cindy was accepted to this prestigious management-track program. During her two years as an LOC intern she met a broad spectrum of people, but one who stood out in particular was the budget officer. She soon became an apprentice to the budget officer, and had many great learning experiences in this role, including briefing Dr. James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, on the budget. Working closely with the LOC’s budget gave her insights into how things work. “Seeing where the money goes tells you a lot about an institution,” she says. “Observing each department trying to sell itself served as a valuable lesson in how to market yourself, make a case for what you want to do, and understand your customer base so you can accomplish what you want to do.”

After moving back to the Pacific Northwest in 1989, Cindy was one of two candidates selected out of 340 applicants for a reference position in UW’s Suzzallo Library. Part of her job duties included “special projects for the director.” In this capacity, she gained a wide range of experience and got a global look at library programs and responsibilities. Selected for her leadership potential, in 1990 she was sent to the Snowbird Leadership Institute in Salt Lake City – a leadership training program designed specifically for librarians. Through this experience, she created lots of wonderful contacts and worked with mentors in the field of librarianship.

In a quest for management experience, she moved over to the Gallagher Law Library in 1994 to become the Head of Circulation. She quickly learned that she had tall shoes to fill, as the person she was replacing had recently passed away and was loved and missed by the staff. As their new leader, Cindy realized she had to gain the trust of the group, and she did so by spending a lot of time sitting with people and learning how they did their jobs. A core tenet of her leadership philosophy is the importance of listening to people, and letting them contribute.

Involvement in professional organizations is something Cindy considers essential to developing one's career - the contacts and experiences can be just as beneficial, if not more, than those made on the job. A prime example of this philosophy is the manner in which her next career opportunity came about. Through her involvement with ALA and WLA, she met the Director of the Kitsap Regional Library. Having seen Cindy's leadership skills in action through her committee work in these volunteer organizations, she hired Cindy to be the Associate Director of Reference and Information Services for KRL in November 1995.  

After spending 2 years at Kitsap, Cindy left the traditional library setting in January 1998 and headed bravely into the Internet frontier via a position at At Amazon, she was quickly thrown into some very challenging situations. “I learned that it’s possible to manage any group of people, even people whose expertise is different from your own,” she explains. (In Cindy’s case, she wound up managing a highly technical group of software engineers, without having had specific training in this area herself.) She describes the process this way: “You can manage collaboratively and still be the leader. Trust your employees, give them a lot of responsibility, and let them choose their own paths. Giving people the benefit of the doubt, trusting them, and believing in them is always more successful than managing by fear and suspicion.”

We asked Cindy if there was one particular leader she admired most. Her answer? Margaret Chisholm, former Dean of the iSchool (called the School of Library and Information Science at the time). She admires Chisholm "because she was always upbeat, energetic, had big ideas, and surrounded herself with great people."

“I’m intrigued by the role personality plays in leadership,” she continues. “A great leader has character strength, and they also have integrity and perspective. You can never rest on your laurels, no matter who you are.”


“I’m intrigued by the role personality plays in leadership. A great leader has character strength, and they also have integrity and perspective. You can never rest on your laurels, no matter who you are."








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