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Magazine Feature

What Makes an Award-Winning Public Library Successful?

by Tom Sloan on April 26, 2013

The Naperville (Ill.) Public Library (NPL) has been ranked number one in its population category in all ten editions of the Hennen’s American Public Library Ratings (HAPLR).1 NPL has also received a five-star rating by Library Journal and has been named one of “Chicago’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For 2009.”2 Donna Dziedzic served as NPL’s executive director from 1996 to 2011 and is currently the interim director of the Evanston (Ill.) Public Library. Dziedzic discussed library success and challenges via email in June 2011. (Editor’s note: This interview took place while Dziedzic was still director at NPL.)

Public Libraries: You have stated there are many ways to define and measure success in public library services. What measurements do you think are most important in determining a library’s success?

Dziedzic: I think the ultimate measure is the community’s opinion of the library. At NPL, we conduct both customer satisfaction surveys and community surveys—so we know that both library users and non-users have highly positive opinions of the library, its services, its value for the tax dollar, and its value to the life of the community. NPL achieved an overall approval rating above 90 percent in customer surveys.

PL: NPL is known for seeking a 360-degree view of how the library is doing. What are the key components of getting a 360-degree view of a library?

Dziedzic: To say that NPL is “data rich” is an understatement! Internally, a great deal of thought and analysis is put into data and anecdotal measures. The numerical data is broken down into two gross categories: (1) data that need to be kept for various formal reports and (2) data kept for elements the library has deliberately determined it wants to track. For example, NPL periodically measures the length of time it takes to answer reference questions. It proved very helpful to be able to tell elected officials that although the number of reference questions is stable or down, the length of time it takes to respond to a patron question has increased considerably.

In addition to the formal data gathering methods mentioned, customers are able to comment in person, on specific forms in the facilities, and online. This information is used to make services and operations more customer friendly and, often, more effective. If the user leaves contact information on the  comment, we respond to that person. In addition, there’s a spot on the library’s website called “You spoke, we listened” where we report changes made
because of the public’s input.

It’s important to remember that management has internal customers called staff. In addition to public opinion of the library, staff’s opinion is tremendously important to helping to maintain morale and to improve the corporate culture. The library conducts employee surveys regularly and then works to resolve issues of concern—or dissolve myths that have popped up—and lets staff know what can be done, what has been done, and what’s just not within our control.

External measures, such as the HAPLR ranking, are also valuable in having a 360-degree view of how the library is doing. Because each ranking views the library’s statistics from perspectives different from each other and from the library’s, analyzing them in tandem broadens our understanding of where we excel and where we may improve. And yes, they do have useful public-relations value as well.

I also think it’s important to seek measures outside of the library world where possible. For example, going through the “101 Best Places to Work in the Chicago Area” review process was truly valuable in identifying positive and negative aspects of the library workplace and gave us great feedback on which to work. Winning the award proved very beneficial in gaining the attention and respect of the local business community.

PL: How has NPL developed the community’s understanding of getting the best possible library service return for the tax dollar?

Dziedzic: Being a valuable service that’s also a great value for the tax dollar was part of nearly every community presentation given by key staff for close to fifteen years. The NPL board and staff are committed to being good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars. The library has also been able to buttress that concept with hard numbers that demonstrate clearly its dedication to a positive cost to service/operation ratio. For example, NPL has a low cost per item checked out, high number of visits per capita, and high number of checkouts per staff member. I think people who work in libraries are often very cost conscious. NPL took it one step further by bringing continuous quality-improvement training to all staff and by encouraging a highly collaborative approach. Teams now form spontaneously and continuous review is embedded in the corporate culture. These pay off tremendously in terms of improvements, efficiencies, and job satisfaction.

PL: How has the recession challenged the ability of libraries to provided quality library services?

Dziedzic: There’s no question decreased funding has had a negative effect. NPL was actually in the process of bringing its tax rate down for several years prior to the effects of the financial crisis, so it is often possible to do more with less. But, once the effects of the economy were felt, our budgets were hit hard, reductions of more than a million dollars over several years. For NPL, it has meant reductions in staff benefits, staffing hours, public services, and IT. We have a more limited materials inventory, so patrons are not seeing as many new titles or copies. We’ve also eliminated paid-for public programming, which seriously affected our senior population. For several years, we have not had staff benefits such as merit or market increases. At the same time, staff is paying more for healthcare. So, the public is not seeing services to which they are accustomed and there is an understandable negative effect on staff morale.

However, funding shortages do not necessarily mean innovation shortages. As one example, thanks to thoughtful and creative staff, we now have more public programming than before the budget reductions began. In addition, we have maintained many local partnerships that have supported public programming through sponsorships. Soon, NPL will have a new website and will dive deeper into interactive service and social media. With solid training, with a feeling of freedom despite financial restraints, and with the selection and retention of great staff, it is just plain awesome how creatively staff members have responded to what have been some pretty crummy circumstances.

PL: NPL has been recognized as one of the best organizations to work for in the Chicago area. What policies and best practices in human resources management contribute to a library being an excellent place to work?

Dziedzic: In truth, I think it’s not so much the policies or practices. I think it’s what I call the philosophy or the corporate culture from which those policies arise. A negative environment isn’t likely to produce positive policies. While we aren’t always perfect, we try very hard to be as honest, open, and congruous as possible. I’m sure no organization ever communicates enough, but we do work hard to communicate with staff, even if it is to say “We don’t know anything more about this issue than we did last month.”

We hold staff meetings on difficult issues, such as the hefty budget cuts we’ve survived, taking any and all questions from staff and responding to the best of our ability. We explained upfront that while there were no guarantees, we would do our best to not cut staff or reduce open hours. Congruity counts. When we did have to reduce or eliminate staff, it wasn’t random. We cut where we had decided to reduce services—fewer materials purchased meant fewer technical-services hours; fewer paid programs meant fewer community-service hours. In these situations, the good news was that, although staff may not have liked our responses to their questions, they did appreciate that we explained the situation and provided them the opportunity to ask anything—with no negative repercussions.

PL: What advice do you have for librarians who wish to pursue careers in library management based on your successful work with many types of library organizations?

Dziedzic: Know yourself, surround yourself with people who are not like you, be comfortable with not being universally loved, have professional courage, and don’t hire schmucks.

Also, if you are offered a mentoring program, take advantage of it. Find or create an opportunity to shadow a library director. Once, I was a guest speaker for a class in library administration. At the beginning of that class, I asked the students to call out what they thought a library administrator did in the course of his or her day. Then, I handed out a diary I had kept for the two weeks prior, tracking each activity I performed during that time. Needless to say, the assembled were a little surprised at the difference between the two lists.

PL: Given that you are active in the World Future Society, what do you think is the future of libraries?

Dziedzic: Building future scenarios tends to depend on information you have at the time and how you interpret and put together that information. What it can’t really account for is what I call the “fluke factor” — that big unknown that whacks you upside the head and takes you by surprise. OCLC Online Computer Library Center did a study which shows that “books” are now more than ever the library brand.3 My personal interpretation of that is that people
really mean “reading” when they say “books.” People are reading in all types of formats—paper, electronic, multimedia. I have a feeling that will be around for a while.

At the same time, you need to have good information—hard data and anecdotal evidence about the communities that libraries serve. This information provides big clues to the directions we should be looking. Libraries are more and more a gathering place—sometimes I think we have more coffee klatches in the library than at Starbucks. Now and in the future, successful libraries must provide an environment, a touch-and-feel experience, that people like and want to support.

REFERENCES

  1. Thomas J. Hennen Jr., “2010 HAPLR Index Released,” American Libraries, Apr. 20, 2010, accessed May 16, 2012.
  2. Keith C. Lance and Ray Lyons, “Star Data by Peer Group,” Library Journal, Nov. 1, 2011, accessed May 16, 2012; 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For, “Chicago 2009 Winners,” accessed May 9, 2012.
  3. Cathy De Rosa, Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources: A Report to the OCLC Membership (Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Online Computer Library Center, 2005).


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