Kim Johnson (BA ’96) was named chief executive officer of the Tulsa City-County Library in November after 18 years of dedicated service in the 24-site system. She is the first African American to become the library’s top administrator. An alumna of The University of Tulsa’s English and secondary education programs, she shares her love of reading and writing with Tulsans. Johnson’s passion for books began while growing up in a community of readers in New York City. She often tagged along with the adults to book swaps and deep discussions about plot and character development.
“I was one of the few kids they allowed to participate,” she said. “We read everything, and I was introduced to authors from V.C. Andrews to Toni Morrison.”
Johnson’s marriage to a Tulsa native brought her from big city high rises to the wide open spaces of Oklahoma. Her husband, Earl (BFA ’89), is TU’s vice president for enrollment management and student services. Studying at TU reminded Johnson of the community reading groups she attended as a child, and she enjoyed the class discussions and presentations.
“My very first class was African American Literature taught by Professor Isabella Matsikidze, and she was phenomenal,” Johnson said. “My life has been enriched by the professors, friends and experiences at TU.”
The degree was preparation for her first role at the Tulsa City-County Library as coordinator of the African-American Resource Center. Johnson facilitated authors’ visits, educational programs, workshops, cultural displays and bus tours through Oklahoma’s historic all-black towns. Other library positions Johnson has held include: South Broken Arrow Library manager, Hardesty Regional Library manager, regional director, deputy director/chief innovation officer, chief operating officer and interim CEO. As CEO, Johnson’s sound leadership will advance Tulsa’s growth as a top library system.
“One of the library’s goals is to promote lifelong learning and literacy in all forms,” Johnson said.
The system’s new bookmobile, made possible through a generous gift from Ruth Nelson, will reach early childhood facilities and residents in underserved communities. The Ruth G. Hardman Literacy program will provide one-on-one tutoring to adult learners. Johnson said the library is implementing a customer-centered service model at all locations while planning expansions at certain sites and promoting services many citizens are unaware they can access, such as free online homework assistance from certified tutors. These objectives complement a $55 million renovation at the downtown Central Library completed in October, which features seven designated spaces for learning and creativity.
With resources running short in many Oklahoma schools, the value of an accessible library has become even more important for children and adults. Johnson said the library is a longtime partner in K-12 education, collaborating with Tulsa Public Schools to provide library cards to all middle and high school students.
“We started with four high schools and the partnership has grown to include all secondary schools in TPS, Union Public Schools freshmen and Broken Arrow Public Schools Freshmen Academy – approximately 18,000 students in all,” she said. “We hope to partner with every school district in Tulsa County.”
The library also provides books to all second-graders in Tulsa County public and private schools. Supported by the Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation, the Books to Treasure program encourages children to read at home with a free book by a renowned illustrator.
Johnson’s family has supported every phase of her stellar library career. Her husband and their daughter, Ashley Oletu (BGS ’09, MS ’11), stuffed envelopes, volunteered at programs and never missed one of her library events in the early days.
Years later, Johnson said she’s delighted to see her childhood love of books come full circle: “It’s a privilege to lead this well-respected organization in a diverse community of readers and learners of all ages.”