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INTERVIEWS WITH COLORADO LIBRARY LEADERS
Aspen Walker, Executive Assistant to the Library Director
Smart leaders understand: you can’t run an effective organization from the confines and
blind spots of an insular bubble. You have to reach out, compare experiences, and share best practices. In 2009, I interviewed 11 Colorado library leaders about the metro area public library environment: Shirley Amore (Executive Director, Denver Public Library), Eugene Hainer (Executive Director, Colorado State Library), Valerie Horton (Executive Director, Colorado Library Consortium), Paula Miller (Executive Director, Pikes Peak Library District), Eloise May (Executive Director, Arapahoe Library District), Sharon Morris (Director of Library Development and Innovation, Colorado State Library), Janine Reid (Executive Director, High Plains Library District), Pam Sandlian Smith (Executive Director, Anythink
Libraries/Rangeview Library District), Mary Stansbury (Program Chair and Associate Professor, University of Denver, Library and Information Science Program), Tony Tallent (Library and Arts Director, Boulder Public Library), and Marcellus Turner (Executive Director, Jefferson County Public Library). Their insights about the economy and rising library use, staffing patterns, performance measures, and the big issues and trends of the next three years follow. The Balancing Act: Cutbacks, Sustainable Service & Surging Public Library Use The interviews revealed a variety of issues thoroughly linked to the economic woes of the time. Library leaders are looking for ways to balance cost‐savings and budget cutbacks, with sustainability and excellent patron service. Meanwhile, library use is swelling across the nation, as patrons look to the public library for affordable options and resources. Public library use has been on the rise. The Institute of Museum and Library Services reports that public library visits increased nationwide by 19% between 1997 and 2007, while circulation increased by 12% (Henderson, 2009). What’s more, as public librarians know from experience, economic downturns herald a big bump in library use. The economic recession of 2008‐09 reiterates this wisdom. In a 2009 Library Research Service survey of library staff 67%
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reported an increase in computer use, 63% noted an increase in library visits, and 54% announced a rise in circulation (Hovendick, 2009). The interviews reflect this upturn in library use. All of the public library directors
reported increases in library visits, circulation, and computer use at their system; similarly, the State Library and CLiC have witnessed increased library use across the state. At some of the systems, the upsurge in use was dramatic: High Plains estimates a 35% increase in activity at their libraries this year. The Anythink Libraries anticipate a 40‐50% increase in use by the end of 2009. Many were also experiencing a dramatic upwelling in the desire for employment resources and computer instruction. Jefferson County has launched a new mobile service that brings training to patrons who need to learn computer skills, or find a job. Pikes Peak has partnered with the local work force center to offer employment programs and workshops. Denver is launching a large‐scale community technology center, which will offer computer training and more computers, in order to meet patron demand. Library use is up, but library directors are anticipating a big hit to budgets in the years to
come. Like Douglas County Libraries, most of the districts are looking at fairly stable revenues in 2010, with less to spend in the following years. Arapahoe has employed a rigorous four‐year spending plan, which includes tightly‐controlled budgets for 2010 and 2011, so that some of the revenue loss in 2012 and beyond can be absorbed. High Plains is currently enjoying a revenue windfall from increased gas and oil pumping, but anticipates a return to 2008‐level revenues for 2011 and beyond. They are planning for a reduction in staffing levels by 2011 to meet this fiscal decrease. The municipal library systems in Denver and Boulder are having a harder time. Denver plans to use a plan that has worked in the past: they will reduce hours at all branches, in the hopes of avoiding branch closures. Boulder has seen a reduction in service hours, and administrative cutbacks. Given this strain between increased use and shriveling budgets, I asked the library
leaders to describe how they find a balance between cost‐savings, sustainability and patron service: Turner said that libraries must focus first and foremost on determining what the public values and finds relevant, and be willing to toss aside some of the things we hold so dear.
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Miller noted that the Pikes Peak community has changed, and that many of the fastest‐ growing neighborhoods lack a nearby library. She is looking at book kiosks and dispensing machines, regional service (as opposed to little neighborhood libraries), and joint‐use facilities (including partnerships with the YMCA, city parks and a children’s museum). Stansbury called herself a heretic in libraryland, as she felt many libraries spend too much time and money on finding and purchasing the perfect authoritative resource, when the answer is often available for free online. She recommended that libraries spend more time and money serving patrons personally, while spending less on expensive resources and exhaustive searches. May said you can find this balance by setting priorities based on what matters most to the people you’re serving. She added that she ascribes to the Shirley Amore version of budget reductions: give 100% your customer service, but with fewer hours, and if necessary, fewer staff. She said other cost‐saving methods tend to water down the value and worth of libraries. Hainer said many library systems are looking to become districts, so they do not have to rely on the caprice of sales tax and municipal funding. He added that others have closed their libraries to non‐residents, and that many library systems are relying more and more on cross‐system collaboration, cooperatives and consortiums. Reid reported that her district has employed the principles of a learning organization found in Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline. High Plains counts on innovation (both technological and creative) to improve services, while seeking to consistently question their plans and undertakings to rid themselves of sacred cows and irrelevant practices. Sandlian Smith said her library is delegating more work to paraprofessional staff, and reallocating duties across the district. She added that WordThink, their Dewey‐less approach to materials classification, is also saving staff time. Patrons are finding what they need without help, and the shelving process is much quicker. Morris called for libraries to give up some of their cherished (but outdated) services and practices, to reexamine their definitions of quality and quantity, and to tap volunteers (especially retired Baby Boomers) for more help. Horton said cutbacks should be visible to patrons, so they understand our funding needs. She reiterated the notion that this is a good time to stop doing some things, but prompted libraries to keep an eye on the future and remember that we are a critical component of our community’s ongoing heritage. Many libraries dismantle their historical and government document collections, in the favor of high‐circulating items. Horton said that in fifty years, people will want these historical artifacts, not Danielle Steele. As noted, Amore will employ reduced hours. Earlier this year, Denver surveyed its patrons; they thoroughly preferred a reduction in hours at all branches over some branch closures. Tallent called for libraries to keep an eye on their strategic plans, while spreading their stories about cutbacks far and wide. He said most patrons don’t comprehend how much it costs to operate a library. He added that all staff should be involved in storytelling and advocacy.
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Staffing Patterns With the advent of RFID, self‐service and automated materials handling; a shift in patron information needs; and an ongoing hiring freeze, Douglas County Libraries has undertaken a new approach to staffing. Today, paraprofessionals are working more closely with patrons and professional staff, and MLS‐degreed employees are taking on higher level assignments. I asked the library leaders if they were finding a need to adjust job descriptions or the ratio of paraprofessional to professional staff, and what surprised them about contemporary staffing patterns. Like DCL, Front Range public libraries are indeed making staffing changes. The following themes emerged: RFID, self‐service and automated handling are dismantling and transforming the traditional circulation department. Nearly all of the library systems included in this study are using, or are considering at least one of these technologies. Many of the libraries are experimenting with a roving or embedded service model, in which staff emerge from behind the desk to engage patrons in the stacks or out in the community. Like DCL, Tallent is looking at ways to merge the traditional circulation department with reader’s advisory, reference and youth services to create a true public services division. Many libraries have employed a hiring freeze. Hainer reported that several Colorado libraries have also had to resort to downsizing. Area libraries are looking for ways to centralize or outsource some duties, in order to save staff time and money. For example, like DCL, Arapahoe has centralized program planning, collection development, and phone service, and outsourced some of the work their technical services department used to conduct. Nearly all of the organizations have ‐or plan to‐ adjust their job descriptions. Miller noted that tight budgets and fewer staff necessitate flexible and open job descriptions. Horton said that smaller libraries have always had to take an all‐encompassing “do it all” approach to job duties, and that larger libraries will need to do the same. Similarly, and like DCL, many libraries are looking at job competencies, including essential skills and attributes, and how much work an employee should be able to do within a given amount of time. The function and importance of an MLS is changing. Jefferson County is considering every job on a case‐by‐case basis to determine if it requires a master’s degree in library and information science. At High Plains, MLS‐degreed librarians are not assigned to the floor most of the time; they are available on an on‐call basis and do not focus on a particular specialty, like reference or youth services. Reid said professional staff are also being called on to manage large‐scale projects and initiatives for the entire district. Arapahoe has undertaken a book‐a‐librarian service, and is asking MLS‐degreed staff to focus more on using their professional skills in deeper, more impactful ways. Amore said
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professional staff at Denver are focusing on one‐on‐one reference appointments, economic gardening, consumer health, and classes out in the community. The leaders did not downplay the importance of the MLS and an education in library and information science. However, nearly all said that an employee’s inclination for customer service is the single most important consideration when it comes to staffing, not formal education. May said Arapahoe understands that library skills can be taught on the job; they primarily hire for emotional intelligence, and look for employees who love working with all kinds of people. Stansbury said that while the biggest difference an MLS makes may be the ability to undertake and understand assessment and evaluation, some employees are just better‐suited to the people‐centered nature of public librarianship. Miller noted that the field is not about stuff, it’s about people. Performance Measures Performance measures and use statistics carry a significant weight at Douglas County Libraries. We measure circulation, program attendance, computer use, the number of times we touch materials in our efforts to get them to patrons, and a host of other data. Of late, DCL has become increasingly interested in two more figures: how much it costs to lend an item (cost per circulation), and the percentage of all materials checked out at a given time. I asked the library leaders if they use these two forms of measurement, and if there was value in tracking these numbers. Stansbury and Hainer noted that these numbers could be used in the effort to increase library funding and support, but that the message must run deeper than mere numbers on a spreadsheet—it must convey a story of transformation and impact. Morris added that while this kind of data is important, libraries must also focus on their mission. Horton said these kinds of statistics can be used to gain perspective. For example, the Orange County Library System in Florida found that the cost of their top‐rated and highly popular home delivery service actually equaled that of their fourth‐largest library. Many had complained that the service was too expensive. In this case, the cost per circulation measurement demonstrated that the service was actually more affordable than originally thought. Miller has been tracking the cost per circulation since she started working in libraries. Pikes Peak has a “floating” collection, so they measure the percentage of all materials checked out system‐wide, rather than branch‐by‐branch. Turner noted that while Jefferson County does not routinely track these specific measurements, they do expect a third of their collection (also floating) to be checked out at all times. Amore pointed out that there are many ways to find cost per circulation, and wished for a standard approach to finding this figure (as did Reid). She said you could take the total budget and divide it by the circulation figure, but noted that different library systems
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have different personnel expenditures, which can skew cross‐system comparison. She also said that large urban libraries, like Denver, carry much deeper collections than suburban or rural libraries (which often focus on popular items), making comparisons of the percentage of items checked out uneven. Reid, Sandlian Smith and Tallent are developing and building up their library systems, and refining their approach to statistical tracking. Trending Topics What trends and issues are likely to impact public libraries in the next three years? The
leaders shared an exciting variety of trends that are of import to DCL. They can be sorted into four categories: 1. Information and technology ‐and our relationship with both‐ are changing rapidly. Stansbury noted that many new librarians ‐as well as many of our patrons‐ have a different approach to information and media; one that merges culture, technology and hands‐on expertise and content creation, with an indifferent attitude toward sacred containers (think encyclopedias, or traditional library buildings and collections). She said this phenomenon is closely related to the “mash‐up” culture flourishing on the Internet, which combines video, text, images and audio, to create new and robust (but often scattered and disaggregated) content. Similarly, Stansbury, Miller, Morris and Amore all indicated that libraries and patrons are becoming more and more involved in content creation, including books, video, podcasts, blogs and more. In other words, we’ve all become experts, publishers, creators, and webliographers. Libraries can make the most of this trend by participating in content creation, offering opportunities for our patrons to create, and hosting/sharing/preserving this content. Hainer reminded us that the Institute of Museum and Library Service’s 2009 publication, A Catalyst for Change (cited below) provides a wealth of examples demonstrating how public libraries are transforming their technological offerings and services. Morris noted that librarians must be both experts and facilitators, who invite the community to create and collaborate with us. Stansbury pointed out that libraries should also keep an eye on the value of this content—how much does it cost to create, and what’s its impact? May, Miller and Reid noted that a new generation of social tech users are enamored with online self‐promotion and less concerned with privacy. The Library Code of Ethics reminds us to protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality, but many of our patrons may not care about, or understand our efforts. Our patrons, like our staff, have diverse needs and perspectives when it comes to both information and technology. Social networking, downloadable content and mobile computing are here to stay, and we need to embrace and master these trends to remain relevant. But conversely, many patrons still look to print or the
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reference librarian’s ability to answer their questions; others require basic technology training. Turner remarked that while reference work is changing, we still have many opportunities to help patrons with their information and technology needs. Morris asserted that technology is a moving target, and that we must be prepared to serve a range of users: from people who want to make movies for YouTube, to those who don’t know what YouTube is. 2. The Economy is Changing Us. Turner stated that like technology, the economy is changing public libraries. We are expected to do more with less, and that’s hard to accomplish. Horton worried that emergency reserves are drying up, and that many libraries will have to water down and dismantle their offerings, which can be hard to bounce back from. Reid pointed that diminished library service in one community will have an impact on neighboring library systems, as patrons look to tap into their services instead. Tallent reflected that the difficult economic climate makes it hard to justify and nourish change and innovation, which spawns a disparity between the greatest ideas and dreams of our profession, and the reality of what we can actually afford to pull off. Amore and May noted that many more public libraries will probably seek to become independent districts. That said, Amendment 60, which will appear on the 2010 Colorado ballot, could impact property tax and ultimately, the desire to form new library districts. It’s not all doom and gloom: the reports of rising library use and new programs focusing on employment and technology around the state show that libraries are responding to the needs of our communities. Librarians love to serve others, and the economy yields new opportunities for small business building and economic gardening, as well as the occasion to help patrons with their job search needs. Though money is tight, we have the ability to make a positive impact in our communities, and demonstrate the transformative power of public libraries. 3. Collaborate and Partner (Even More). The lackluster economy, and the more social and democratic approach to information and technology calls for more collaboration within our local communities and the Colorado library community as a whole. Amore, Miller, and Turner indicated they are working with organizations in their communities to share expenses, promote lifelong learning, and boost the local economy by providing job training. Similarly, Hainer, Morris and Reid remind us of the benefits of library consortiums and collaborations, including continuing education and training, and shared resources. Stansbury said that if our collaborations and consortiums weaken at any node, it will weaken all Colorado public libraries. Reid, Amore and Horton said they are hopeful about a shared, and possibly open source ILS system, and increased possibilities for resource sharing.
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4. We must embrace the messages of OCLC’s “From Awareness to Funding” and change perceptions about libraries. I’ve sorted this section of my report into four categories, in an attempt to organize a lot of ideas in a succinct fashion. But I must remark: all of the trends and issues I discussed with the library leaders are thoroughly related to this final category, the OCLC report, and the national need to change perceptions about public libraries while boosting library support and funding. Our continued excellence and survival depend on our ability to convince voters that libraries and librarians: 1. Transform lives. 2. Build community. 3. Are a vital, relevant and necessary part of community infrastructure and life in the 21st Century.
Hainer, May, Miller, Morris, Sandlian Smith, and Tallent all indicated that the OCLC report was of great concern and import to them; and all of the leaders discussed themes that tie into “From Awareness to Funding.” DCL’s “it” support marketing campaign, as well as LaRue’s work to engage and employ external library advocates around the state are on track with the leader’s urgency to change perceptions and build long‐term support. With this in mind, the leaders revealed a few more trends of worth to DCL and all public libraries: We must continue our efforts to foster and promote early literacy. May and Stansbury said this will have a visible, long‐term impact on children and families, improve lives, and build community. Morris reported that libraries around the state are employing green technology, and then using this technology to show patrons the changes they can make in their own lives and neighborhoods. Tallent lauded DCL’s efforts in merchandising library materials. He noted that these innovations can transform how patrons perceive the library, and assert the idea that the library is relevant and forward‐thinking. The leaders repeatedly expressed that the public library should be a cultural hub of the community, and seek to solve community problems. Denver’s new strategic plan includes a philosophy statement that makes certain to express the library’s desire to “make an extraordinary difference in the community.” Both Amore and May commented on their work to establish community outcomes. Miller said Pikes Peak has partnered with other agencies for the “Dream City” project. The organizations are striving to build the kind of city the community wants. She said the library is the “village green,” where people can share ideas and learn new
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things in a non‐judgmental environment. Sandlian Smith said the new Anythink Libraries are about giving the library back to the community, and rescuing and preserving the public library for generations to come. Their 2010 summer reading program will focus on creating a new cross‐generational library experience that builds community, creates connection, and focuses on the transformational nature of reading. She noted that reading is a vehicle to get someplace else, learn new things and grow as a person, and not just about finishing a book. She hopes Anythink can boost the emotional attachment people in her community have to libraries.
In Conclusion The library leaders I interviewed were generous with their time and insight. While I have
done my best to capture their wisdom, this report provides only a snapshot of more than a dozen hours of conversation. An aspiring library leader myself, I appreciate the opportunity to learn from their experience and thinking. In meeting with these exemplary leaders I observed qualities and leadership styles that are of inspiration to me, and of note to DCL and all public librarians. Successful library leaders combine a penchant for nimble adaptability with a long‐ term focus on strategic planning and sustainability. Moreover, these qualities must rest on a firm commitment to people, including the public library user and the communities we serve. Hainer reminds us we are in the business of serving people, not the business of serving information to people. This focus on people and service is important in so many ways, as public libraries stand on the brink of a new era. Our patrons’ needs are shifting, and our funding is in peril. We must adapt and thrive in the new Age of Information and a currently stunted economy, while augmenting perceptions about our purpose, vitality and essential contribution to community infrastructure. Librarianship is loaded with tradition, and while much of that knowledge and practice remains relevant, we must treat our field as a work in progress. Tallent noted that we need to cultivate more strong voices and leaders in public libraries. By stepping up to the plate and sharing our experiences with one another, we can transform lives and sustain and enhance one of our best traditions and inventions we have: public libraries.
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American Library Association. ʺCode of Ethics.ʺ ALA.org. 2009. American Library Association, 21 Dec 2009.. <http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/statementspols/codeofethics/codeethics.cfm>.
De Rosa, Cathy, and Jenny Johnson. From Awareness to Funding: A Study of Library Support in America : a Report to the OCLC Membership. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC, 2008.
Henderson, Everett. ʺU.S. Service Trends in Public Libraries, 1997‐2007.ʺ imls.gov. 2009. Institute of Museum and Library Services, Web. 21 Dec 2009. <http://www.imls.gov/pdf/Brief2010_01.pdf>. Hovendick, Briana. ʺLibraries and Librarians Feeling Effects of Economic Slowdown.ʺ lrs.org. 2009. Library Research Service, Web. 21 Dec 2009. <http://www.lrs.org/documents/fastfacts/277_Libraries_and_Recession.pdf>. Institute of Museum and Library Services (U.S.). A Catalyst for Change LSTA Grants to States Program Activities and the Transformation of Library Services to the Public. [Washington, D.C.]: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2009. Protect Coloradoʹs Communities. ʺAmendment 60: Local Property Tax Revenue.ʺ ProtectColoradosCommunities.net. 2009. Protect Coloradoʹs Communities, Web. 21 Dec 2009.. <http://protectcoloradoscommunities.net/index.php?id=6>.
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This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?