Parkie Peck, branch manager of the Natural Bridge Branch of St. Louis County (Mo.) Library (SLCL), stood behind the circulation desk, watching the reading tables fill with customers. It was a typical afternoon in January 2009, all too typical, and she was trying to anticipate whether and how trouble might start.
At Natural Bridge, the wait time for the fifteen public PCs meant customers could spend an hour or more just sitting at tables. These conditions bred trouble and even the presence of a security guard didn’t prevent harsh encounters.
One might wonder why, at a 15,900 square foot library housing more than 95,000 items people would sit idly at tables. The truth was that the Natural Bridge Branch’s collection development philosophy had been devised decades earlier, and was in dire need of reconsideration. Changing that and responding to the users’ current needs would bring new life to an important community resource.
The Natural Bridge Branch had opened in 1993 as a replacement for one of the oldest SLCL branches. Since the new building was located a mere mile west of the original, it retained the name. It also retained the identifying characteristics of all the other SLCL branches.
The service model in place at SLCL from its opening in 1947 was based on an egalitarian philosophy that resulted in branches that resembled one another as nearly as possible. This one-size-fits-all approach presupposed that users throughout the library district had similar needs, means, interests, and abilities. There were no specialized collections, no attempts to acknowledge differences, and few formal efforts to track circulation trends. Branch managers communicated with the collection development staff, and members of the public could freely request titles for purchase, but efforts at individualization were rare.
The community served by the old Natural Bridge Branch changed by the time its replacement opened. No longer solidly middle class, the area was in decline. It reflected all of the social problems that come with diminished opportunity. For example, from 1990 to 2009, the area served by Natural Bridge (chiefly the 63121 ZIP code) experienced several changes, among which were:
- The unemployment rate increased from 10 to 16.5 percent.1
- Population decreased by 6 percent.2
The area served by Natural Bridge is among the most challenged in St. Louis County. The library, an institution with a long history and a stable funding source, was in a unique position to address the community’s needs. The will to re-imagine a library branch’s role needed administration and board support, however.
New Director/New Direction
Charles Pace became SLCL’s fourth director when he was hired in fall 2006, the same year he was named one of Library Journal’s Movers and Shakers. Pace left Fargo (N.Dak.) Public Library to take on a twenty-branch library system in need of new leadership and new ideas.
Among the early tasks Pace undertook was to adopt a master facilities plan as part of the strategic planning process. The master facilities plan examined each branch and made long- and short-term suggestions for each location. The plan took into account not only the physical condition of each building, but also population and demographic trends within the neighboring communities and within St. Louis County as a whole.
In some respects the master facilities plan is a wish list. The sum of the projects, $79-100 million, is well beyond the library district’s means. Like nearly every other tax-supported institution, SLCL has seen a decrease in revenues since the economic crisis of 2008. Costs have not decreased, however, and usage has increased. Thus, making the recommended changes has become difficult.3
The master facilities plan did not suggest major structural changes for the Natural Bridge Branch. The plan recommended a change in service delivery models, and that the collection should be overhauled.4 The changes could not have come soon enough. Statistics show that the branch was underperforming in nearly every measured category. According to an internal ranking method, Natural Bridge had been number 19 of 20 branches in circulation since 2001; in circulation per capita, the branch was also number 19 of 20.
In light of the poor statistics and the frequent unsettling incidents involving customers, the library’s administration needed to re-envision the Natural Bridge Branch.
One statistic gathered at Natural Bridge was quite encouraging. The number of visits to the branch was in the middle of the pack of twenty branches. The administration realized that the branch had a clientele; the question was how to give the clientele a building and a collection they would use.
One of the first decisions the administration made was to assign Peck as the branch manager. Peck had been the St. Louis Public Library deputy director. Although her most recent position there had been as a part-time librarian, taking on the Natural Bridge project intrigued her. She saw the possibilities and wanted to be a part of the branch’s transformation. Having worked nearby, she was very familiar with the area and its challenges.5
The next decision was enacted at all twenty SLCL branches. A strict weeding policy was adopted, divesting the library of thousands of outdated, unused, unattractive items. The shelves now had room for face-out presentation, which attracted attention to the collection. Visitors were presented not with an overwhelming phalanx of spines, but rather with an array of attractive covers featuring familiar and current authors. Another systemwide change placed emphasis on bestsellers and popular formats such as DVDs and electronic media. The new emphasis meant more copies were available and holds were filled faster. Non-holdable copies were also designated for each branch thereby further encouraging browsing.
These changes were relatively simple and not cost prohibitive. They did not create the full success envisioned by the administration. More dramatic steps were needed.
Seizing the Opportunity
The weeding project removed 47,344 books from Natural Bridge’s collection, so fewer shelf feet were needed. The continuing shift to electronic reference materials meant that the reference room was larger than it needed to be. In considering what to do with the space, the administration decided that it was time to re-envision the branch and its services. They started by identifying three problems:
- Customers came to the branch to use the PCs and very little else.
- While waiting to use a PC, many customers became frustrated and that frustration was evident by the disproportionate number of incident reports logged at Natural Bridge.
- An influx of teens in the afternoon created noise and commotion each school day.
During the systemwide weeding project, it became obvious that the collection development policy needed updating. In addition to buying more bestsellers, DVDs, and electronic material, the collection was further adapted at Natural Bridge to include copies of urban fiction. This genre is particularly popular among reluctant readers and African Americans in their teens to twenties. Many of these titles are printed as paperbacks, so implementation was not expensive. The addition of titles by authors such as Tracy Brown, Shannon Holmes, Marcus Spears, and Wahida Clark was a major departure from the old standards.
The urban fiction titles became popular immediately. In accordance with the library’s efforts to market the collection, this section is visible upon entering the branch. A special section has been created for African American fiction, putting even more emphasis on the titles. In 2010, adult fiction titles at Natural Bridge checked out an average of three times per year. That same year, urban fiction titles circulated an average of five times per year. Urban fiction titles fly off of the shelves in the arms of those who have told staff that they hadn’t read a book in years.
Same Space/New Uses
After the nonfiction collection was weeded, most of the large study tables and chairs were removed from the main room. In their place, the library installed twenty-four PCs and workstations. With this addition, the Natural Bridge Branch had a total of fifty-one computers for the public’s
use, the most in the St. Louis metropolitan area at the time. The additional PCs cut the wait time and virtually eliminated the problems caused by numerous customers sitting around the branch. There was an immediate and dramatic decrease in the number of incidents. The additional PCs also made it possible for family members to use computers side-by-side. Parents could work and interact with their children simultaneously. This arrangement also shifted the responsibility to enforce good behavior from the staff to the parents.
By far the most vibrant change at Natural Bridge came when a new children’s area was opened. Named the Jean Weinstock Children’s Room (in memory of a library board president), the area is fun and educational. The design appeals to the regional affection for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, and was made possible by a $50,000 grant from the team’s charitable arm, Cardinals Care.
The Weinstock room has colored carpet tiles that form a small baseball diamond on the floor. “Fredbird’s Nest” is a free-standing structure with a puppet theatre for storytime or impromptu performances by children. When not in use for puppet shows, kids and parents can sit inside and read together. A green cloud-like structure covers the ceiling above the nest, suggesting the tree wherein the Cardinals’ mascot, Fredbird, lives. Four computers are in the room in addition to colorful, child-sized furniture, toys, and décor.
Adding the additional computers and changing the children’s area helped make the Natural Bridge Branch a place to visit quickly, to do things such as look something up on the Internet, or for an extended period, to read books in the children’s room or to play a computer game together.
Use of the children’s area has increased. Children from the St. Ann School, which is located next to the library, visit weekly. The school has no library of its own, so all the students, grades K-8, rely on Natural Bridge. Ten daycare centers, on average, bring children to the weekly storytime sessions, after which they visit the new children’s room for interactive play.
Teens without Angst
The administration realized that some of the teens coming to the library had no interest in studying or reading. After a long day in class, the teens wanted to hang out with friends and those interactions were more rambunctious than is usually tolerated in a library. Normandy Middle School is less than a quarter of a mile west of the Natural Bridge, so it was very convenient to stop there on the way home from school.
The administration decided to create a section dedicated to teens and tweens with part of the freed-up space. Furniture, equipment, and new items for the teen collection were purchased with grant funds. The teen space became inviting and comfortable, and a good place for teens to gather. The teen space is visible from the circulation desk, but it is separate enough that teens and tweens can socialize with one another without undue interference from library staff or the security guard. Doing so moved some of the livelier interactions away from those who need an atmosphere conducive to concentration.
The emphasis on addressing community needs created an atmosphere that inspired staff members to reexamine their roles. The computer lab at Natural Bridge had offered free classes since opening in 2003. The curriculum had been identical at all SLCL’s labs: intro to computers and a variety of Microsoft programs as well as tips on how to use the library’s electronic resources. The Natural Bridge lab trainer, Theresa Masters, noticed that many of the students came not for the class itself, but because they had specific questions. Masters created a service called Book-A-Trainer which gives a customer up to sixty minutes of the lab trainer’s undivided attention. The customer schedules an appointment and Masters teaches the necessary skill. Not only does the service help individual customers, but it allows the classes to stay on topic rather than being sidetracked with one person’s project.
Another need-based program has been introduced. The high school dropout rate within Natural Bridge’s service area is one of the highest in St. Louis at 11.6 percent.6 Peck arranged for GED classes to be offered at the branch through the St. Louis Public Schools’ Adult Education and Literacy Program. In addition to the curriculum used by the teacher, students are directed to the resources of the LearningExpress Library, an electronic database which offers prep exams for civil service and military jobs; math and language skills; workplace and career tools; and many others. The database helps those who have been referred to the branch by the Missouri Career Center, which is one half mile from Natural Bridge. The Missouri Career Center has PCs, but their usage policy is strict and limited to those who use the full services of the center. Career Center staff members refer most job hunters to the library. A growing number of adults and teens come to Natural Bridge to submit job applications, complete a résumé, conduct research on employers, or find job openings.
The Community Responds
The public’s response has reinvigorated Natural Bridge. Every effort the library’s administration and staff have taken to increase the usefulness of the branch has been embraced by the public.
“The new children’s room has made a huge difference. There is a pride in the branch we didn’t see before,” Library Board President Lynn Beckwith Jr. noted.7
The GED program has been very successful. In the first half of 2011, 558 students attended three class sessions each week.8 This program has been expanded to include an evening session.
The Natural Bridge Branch has a teen advisory group that consists of five regular members and many other occasional members, all of whom are between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. The group meets every two weeks and helps plan the teen section and programs. Members of the teen group also volunteer at library programs for younger children. This group has grown steadily and anticipates making improvements in the teen center as a result of a donation for that purpose.
According to internal rankings, Natural Bridge showed an increase in the number of visits. In 2006, Natural Bridge was ranked 13 of 20 branches in number of visits. In 2010, the branch had moved up to number 11. Visits to Natural Bridge increased 39 percent between 2006 and 2010. The systemwide increase in those years was 28 percent.
Circulation at Natural Bridge has increased 65 percent since 2006. It should be noted that circulation usually increases when the economy is weak, as it has been since 2008. The other SLCL branches showed an average increase in the years 2006-11 of 42 percent.
Traditional, one-size-fits-all libraries ignore the needs of those who rely on the institution for personal growth and assistance. Tailoring a library branch’s offerings to the needs of its users not only benefits those who live within the community, it also helps the library.
SLCL’s Natural Bridge Branch was transformed by careful examination of what its users needed, and a commitment by the board and administration to find a way to get it. The administration responded to the leadership of Library Director Pace and used the skills, insights, and strengths of the staff to support his vision.
The result is that Branch Manager Peck surveys a new Natural Bridge. A bank of computer workstations is nearly full. One customer is getting the latest news from her social network while another gets one-on-one help establishing his first email account. A group of teens chat and laugh with each other in their own space. A young family in the puppet theatre reenacts a story they just read.
As Beckwith has said, “If you pay attention to the needs of the population you serve, you will attract new users. And the community will be appreciative of the branch.”9
REFERENCES AND NOTES
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, July 2009, revised, accessed Mar. 27, 2013.
- Missouri Census Data Center, “MCDC Demographic Profile 3, 2000 Census,” accessed Mar. 27, 2013.
- St. Louis County voters approved a six-cent tax increase on Nov. 6, 2012.
- The Master Facilities Plan considered the Natural Bridge and Indian Trails branches together because they are close to one another, serve some of the same areas, and have see similar challenges among their users.
- The City of St. Louis has a separate library system not connected or affiliated with St. Louis County Library.
- Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Comprehensive Data System, “District Dropout and Graduation Rates, 2007-2011,” accessed Mar. 27, 2013.
- Lynn Beckwith Jr., personal interview with the author, July 6, 2011.
- The school district does not share statistics regarding the number of students earning the GED through this program.
- Beckwith Jr., personal interview with the author.