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New Milwaukee Public Library Leader Aims To Create More Equity Through Libraries

Milwaukee's Central Library is one of several locations where hot spots and laptops can be checked out if you need access to the internet.

In September, Joan Johnson was confirmed as Milwaukee Public Library (MPL) director and city librarian by Mayor Tom Barrett and the Milwaukee Common Council. Johnson served as the deputy director of the MPL since March of 2009 and has been with the system since 2006.

Johnson is the 12th director in MPL’s 142-year-history, the fourth woman to serve in this position and the first Black person to lead MPL. She's taken on her new role during the coronavirus pandemic, which has presented many new challenges to the library system.

One need that MPL is looking to help serve is internet access, in a time where a majority of people’s lives now take place over the internet. To help, the system has made wireless hot spots and laptops available for check out.

According to the U.S. Census, 27% of people in Milwaukee live in a household without a computer. Despite Gov. Tony Evers' desire to expand programs like the Broadband Expansion Grant Program, the Republican Legislature has pushed back.

“What libraries are doing right now, in my opinion, are a temporary stop-gap measure. But whatever we can do in libraries to help facilitate getting to the point where broadband access is provided to residents as if a utility, we will be there,” says Johnson.  

Spending the last 12 years working as MPL deputy director, Johnson is used to working on the operational side of the libraries. Now, she says her job is more focused on working with community leaders, politicians and other stakeholders to improve the work the library is doing.

Credit Scott Palus / Milwaukee Public Library
Milwaukee Public Library
After 12 years as deputy director, Joan Johnson is now the director of the Milwaukee Public Library System.

As the first Black director and fourth woman, she understands that she could be a role model for some.

“I’m really happy that I can possibly be a role model for other women of color, young ladies, little girls of color in this city, in the community who might become aware of who I am,” says Johnson.

One of her top priorities is to make libraries even more of an inclusive space.

“Looking at all aspects of our operations through an equity lens, looking at not just racial equity but everything from differing abilities, cultural, gender and then ethnicity,” she says.  

Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.