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Magazine Feature

Innovation Revolution at Gwinnett County Library

by Michael E. Casey and Charles Pace on November 8, 2018

Charles Pace is Executive Director and Michael Casey is Director of Customer Experience at Gwinnett County (GA) Public Library. Contact Charles at cpace@gwinnettpl.org. Contact Michael at mcasey@gwinnettpl.org Charles is currently reading Quietus by Tristan Palmgren. Michael is currently reading Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright.


A strong network of partnerships is the lifeblood of the modern library system. The experience of the Gwinnett County (GA) Public Library System (GCPL) certainly supports the truth of this statement. GCPL is a fifteen-branch library system located in the Greater Atlanta area and serves a population of more than 900,000. Gwinnett County is one of the most diverse counties in the United States with no single ethnicity predominating. Our service population includes African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and Caucasians. More than eighty different languages are spoken in the local schools. During the 1990s and early 2000s the library system expanded rapidly along with a growing population. However, the arrival of the Great Recession in 2008 brought this growth in funding to a sudden halt and led to a sharp retrenchment of many local government services. Over the course of three years the library lost almost 25 percent of its budget and funding levels have still not recovered a decade later. Therefore, it was imperative to develop an extensive array of partnerships to expand the library’s footprint in the community and bring our full range of services to the growing and diverse population. In order to achieve this goal, it was necessary to leverage all the benefits of advancing technology to make the most of partnership opportunities.

Getting out into the community, participating and partnering with other organizations and institutions, requires considerable staff time. As you’ll read later in this article, the reward is most definitely worth the effort. But finding that staff time is not easy, and some libraries will need to get inventive in order to allocate scarce staff resources efficiently.

Some libraries will be fortunate. They’ll come up with a plan to reach out into the community, go to their funding agencies, and receive the money to hire new outreach staff. Or, perhaps, they’ll raise their local millage rate and fund the initiative that way. GCPL falls into the former category. We would only be able to implement our outreach plan by finding that staff time internally. We had to create internal efficiencies in order to push outward.

We started this internal review with the understanding that there were no sacred cows—everything would be examined for need and efficiencies. We looked at the technologies we were using, and we looked at the ways in which we deliver service to the customer. Everything was on the table, including the furniture used to deliver services.

The Help Desks

Walk into any library branch and what’s the first thing you typically see? A large desk with several occupied librarians. How much floor space does that desk occupy? How many computers? How many are in use most of the time? How many librarians are seated there? How many are engrossed in their work and how many look up and smile and say hello?

This was the situation at our library. We had very large, round help desks, most over twenty feet wide. Within this 314 square feet of floor space were between three and five computers plus two checkout stations and a cash register. Also present were library staff who sometimes would greet you and sometimes wouldn’t. To say the desks presented a formidable face to the entering customer would be a huge understatement.

Because we would be acquiring free-standing self-checkout kiosks, the checkout area of the old help desks was no longer needed. Getting staff out from behind the desks and onto the floor of the library to serve customers at their point of need was our goal. Technology, as you’ll read, made this goal possible.

But getting staff to give up the help desk—an institution of almost every library since time immemorial—would not be easy. We started planning for the desk’s retirement several months before the event, with branches being instructed to clean out all of the old paperwork and supplies that were no longer needed. A staff team was created to assist in this massive change project.

Over the course of several weeks, branch staff methodically emptied their desks of almost everything. Meanwhile, we brought in several change management consultants to give library leadership some advice on how to manage this change. In addition, these consultants spoke with many library staff, listening to their concerns and helping them to embrace the large project.

Mobile Staff

Simply removing the Help Desks and forcing staff from behind them would not be the sole answer. We needed to find a way to make staff mobile and equipped to answer the same questions that had been addressed from behind the desk. This included circulation and reference questions, along with the many directional questions we always receive.

Technology provided the answer. Only two years earlier it would not have been possible to replace those old large desktop computers with anything but a stout Windows laptop. But our library had recently acquired a browser-based staff catalog tool called Polaris Leap (now called Polaris Web Application). Not only did this new tool provide them with the needed functionality to replace the old Polaris Staff Public Access Catalog, but it was able to do so in any modern web browser, and on any device that could run that browser. This meant we were able to issue MacBook Airs, Google Chromebooks, iPads and Android tablets to staff, enabling them all to deliver the same high-quality customer service as they had previously, but away from the confines of the old help desk.

In order to address the need to serve and greet customers as they entered the building and throughout the library, we purchased two mobile laptop carts per branch—similar to the kind you typically see in a hospital. These carts, made by Ergotron (NeoFlex Laptop Cart, with basket), give staff a place to put the laptop, charging cable, library cards and several papers. Each branch positions one cart and library worker near the entrance of the branch in order to greet customers as they enter and triage customer needs. Many of these carts are equipped with wireless doorbells that can summon backroom assistance when needed. The other cart patrols the branch as needed, often working in the kid’s area when children’s programming is taking place.

These mobile devices also gave us an important and versatile tool to serve the community. When combined with wireless hotspots, staff are now able to take a tablet or small Chromebook and go to schools, club events, organization meetings, etc. and issue cards, place holds, waive fines and fees, and basically do anything that formerly required a staff desktop computer located behind a big desk.

Scheduled Assistance

We had been aware of the need to address deep one-on-one customer-staff interactions for some time. With limited staffing, our ability to spend large amounts of time with customers on technology and reference interactions was restricted. We needed some way to manage these important and meaningful interactions so that the library could get the best person available to serve the customer’s in-depth needs. The answer for us came in the form of an event scheduling and time booking product (LibCal by Springshare) that is entirely web-based.

With this time booking software we are now able to schedule interactions with customers, similar to how Apple manages their Genius Bar appointments. Some appointments are scheduled days in advance, but others are scheduled just minutes out, depending upon need and staff availability. The customer entering the library can speak with the staff person at the forward mobile cart and schedule an interaction with another librarian minutes, hours, or days later.

This same software is used to manage our makerspaces, meeting rooms, and conference rooms. It’s greatly reduced the paperwork and amount of time needed to reserve our meeting spaces and has given us back yet more staff time.

Self Service

The library’s RFID infrastructure was originally installed in 2004 and was long overdue for replacement. As part of this large project, the library decided to install modern self-check kiosks (Bibliotheca’s SmartServe 1000) at all branch locations. Branches would receive either two or three self-checks, all capable of taking credit/debit cards and at least one per branch able to take cash and coins.

Unlike the old RFID self-checks, the new units are able to add value and information to the checkout experience. They can make book recommendations based upon what is being checked out, and customers can place holds from within that recommendation system. In addition, library events are advertised via the calendar function on the kiosks, and customers can print event reminders or have them emailed.

The library also migrated from an old computer reservation system to a newer system (SAM by Comprise Technologies). This new system included one kiosk per branch that would allow customers to reserve PCs, buy merchandise and pay for copies and prints with credit, debit, cash and coin. The new system also allows customers to put money on their account—a popular feature with parents who want to allow their children to print or make copies.

By consolidating all of the credit, debit, cash, and coin to the new kiosks, we were able to retire all of the cash registers at the old help desks. Staff no longer need to handle financial transactions, a significant time savings. Moving to a fully self-service credit card system has also greatly reduced the library’s Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance complexity.

Unstaffed Hours

Our library has the benefit of being located near a major library services vendor (Bibliotheca) and through a partnership with them we installed a new automated service called Open+ at our main branch library, situated next to our administrative headquarters. This system allows us to open the library to the public without being staffed by any library employees. We open every morning at 8am and close at 10pm, seven days a week. Our open and staffed hours vary throughout the week, but Open+ allows us to maximize access to our cardholders. Those who sign up for this service can pick up holds, browse the collection, check out materials, and use library computers. We are also planning on experimenting with remote reference service as we expand Open+ to other branches in our system.

We’re also experimenting with a telepresence robot (by Double Robotics) that will allow our customer service center to provide remote assistance to customers during the Open+ hours. The robot, which uses an iPad, allows library staff to “move” throughout the building, offering video telepresence assistance to anyone.

Open+ also allows us the flexibility to deliver in-branch programming at untraditional hours such as early morning programming for young children and late evening career skills training for working adults. Programming can be offered in the branch without the need to staff other service points. The library also can hold late evening or early morning programming to reach audiences that had been unable to attend such programs during our regular hours.

Service Model and Staff Empowerment

Creating a truly community-oriented library requires a community where librarians are partners and players in a multitude of organizations and efforts. Achieving this level of partnership saturation requires top-to-bottom participation, from administration down to the branch library staff.

At GCPL, we’re taking the outward facing model to extremes by empowering our adult, teen and children’s services staff to go out into the community with frontline branch staff to form partnerships at any and all levels. We’re asking our makerspace staff to form partnerships with schools, musicians, artists, design houses, and other makerspace providers.

One of the ways we have done this is through a service model refresh that’s seen the number of different staffing positions reduced and job responsibilities consolidated from six positions to four. For example, we are in the process of phasing out the assistant branch manager job classification through attrition. The overarching goal is to make the whole organization less hierarchical and reduce levels of middle management.

We also undertook a massive reexam-ination of all of the library’s policies, rewriting many in order to reduce the number and simplify and clarify those that remained. Examples include a complete overhaul of our personnel policies to update and modernize them. A number of items were also moved from requiring board approval to be under the authority of the executive director in order to make us more flexible and responsive. Procedures were also greatly simplified in order to give staff the flexibility to solve most issues without needing to seek higher-level assistance. Examples of procedural changes include meeting room reservations, weather emergencies, and the performance evaluation process. All told, twenty-nine different policies or procedures were eliminated in this review process, often by simplifying and combining. By empowering staff to solve as many problems as they can, on their own, we have reduced the complexity that can often interfere with good customer service.

Our goal is for the library to be viewed as the go-to resource in the community for everything from K-12 educational needs to culinary literacy, technology startups, career development, and lifelong learning. Our strategic plan encompasses a broad range of goals aligned with addressing community needs and facilitated through community relationships. By including staff at all levels, we’ve been able to ensure buy-in and maximize successes.

Enabling Change

GCPL underwent a massive amount of change in order to facilitate this new outward-facing philosophy. The structural and technological changes enabled much of what we did—removal of the help desks; creation of mobile librarians equipped with a full suite of tools; increased access for cardholders through automated systems; Genius Bar–style reservation systems for connecting customers with highly trained library staff; and self-check kiosks that add value to each interaction.

While all of these technology changes may seem large, the biggest change was carried by library staff. Library administration knew early on that we would need to introduce staff to these changes in service philosophy in a manner that did not create fear or anxiety. We could not let the technology changes drown out the larger picture, which was the overall change in the library’s position in the community.

Communication and, especially, listening, was the key. The executive director and the GCPL leadership team held a series of webinars (using Google Hangouts) and in-branch meetings. The weekly webinars were used as an opportunity to discuss the project in depth and to answer questions from staff. The leadership team also visited every branch, sometimes two or three times. They sat in on many branch staff meetings, fielding questions and listening to concerns. To assist in this process, we brought in several outside change consultants to speak with various levels of library staff. Many of these meetings were held off site, in comfortable locations away from the library itself. The consultants walked staff through the coming changes, addressing concerns, and letting everyone know that what was being asked of them was not only possible but would lead to better library services for the entire community with library staff enjoying far greater job satisfaction.

A staff team was also created to go branch to branch to discuss the coming changes and how best to prepare. This team was comprised of branch staff so that frontline employees were hearing from their own peers and learning that the coming changes were going to benefit everyone.

The IT department deployed the new kiosks to the branch workrooms in the weeks leading up to the rollout. This allowed staff to practice on the new equipment prior to its deployment to the public.

By the time the library closed for a week to roll out the new technologies and service model, all staff had been involved in several conversations and meetings with peers, members of leadership, and the outside consultants. The week was used to practice using the new technology and perform inventories at the branches.

When the library reopened to the public we had a new brand and logo, new website, new technologies, and a new service model. Most importantly, we had a revitalized staff that was learning how to organize their time in new ways in order to get out and better serve the community. The results of these changes can be seen at our Grayson Branch which is discussed below.

Local Partnerships at Branch Libraries

Forming community partnerships should take place not only at the system level, but it also has to be a responsibility of employees at all levels of the organization. Ron Gauthier, manager of GCPL’s Grayson Branch, has been particularly active in taking advantage of the new service model and autonomy afforded to branch managers to take an active role in the community and form as many partnerships as possible.

Grayson Branch staff meet customers while mobilizing resources, advertising services with onsite training, and generally providing more availability and an immediate staff presence. Staff members have engaged with entrepreneurs and educators, agency program coordinators, and PTA members, all at vibrant tables teeming with activity and in aisles where customer contact happens in a deliberate manner. These meetings spur conversations about resources and possible programs that can be offered to customers at off-site locations. It has become apparent that structured wandering into the deep recesses of customer space and activity has resulted in associations that, as Gauthier reports, “have often expanded into more in depth and structured partnerships.”1

Another component of GCPL’s new service model is that we more assertively engage the community with a progressive outreach strategy. By selecting resources tailored to the specific needs of the community, we can promote them to selected parts of the populace and use those resources to catalyze surrounding neighborhoods. Some examples of this approach include, bringing STEM apparatus and programs into local schools and teaching how to use specific databases at corresponding businesses, churches, and other organizations. The goal is to empower the public to use library resources in new and enlightening ways.

By earnestly observing the community and keeping up with the evolving demography in our various service locations, we have been able to devise targeted services and programs that fulfill the educational and enrichment needs of diverse populations across Gwinnett County. By offering more services and broadening the scope of outreach, GCPL has become more visible in the community, subsequently developing trust and dependability and an active collaborative relationship with our new partners. Many of our customers have learned, through our new service model, that we are more than just an appealing place with storytime, books, and computers. We are a bustling institution with innovative, cutting-edge technology and a broad, cross-cultural array of programs. GCPL’s branches are vital centers of learning to enhance knowledge in a multitude of disciplines and literacies, and a fun meeting place for all ages.

Partnership with GCPS

One of the most important partnerships GCPL has formed at the system level has been with our local school district. The Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) serve more than 180,000 students and is the largest school district in the state of Georgia. Early on we made a commitment to getting library cards in the hands of every student in Gwinnett County and realized that the only way to achieve this goal was through a close partnership with the schools. After setting up an initial meeting with school officials we proposed this partnership as a way of expanding access to library collections and resources. The school officials we met with were immediately positive about the idea but there was still a lot of work ahead to create the necessary Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to ensure that the responsibilities of both partners were spelled out. There were also a number of legal, bureaucratic, technological, and organizational challenges that would have to be overcome.

Library staff were fortunate to have a couple of school board members and senior members of GCPS administration who were strongly supportive of this endeavor. However, it took months of work to get agreement on all issues. Eventually we decided on a plan that would allow parents to “opt in” when they used the online portal to sign their children up for the school year. Essentially this would mean they would have to tick a box that would indicate they wanted their child to have a library card. Because all of the students at GCPS have to memorize their student ID number for access to school services and programs we decided to use this ID number as their library card. Using student IDs as the library card would make the program seamless and easy to use for parents and students. We also had to reach agreement with the school system’s IT department on the protocols to be used for data transfers of student information. There were legal issues regarding data security and confidentiality that had to be worked out. On the library side we created age appropriate “portal pages” on our website that would direct students to the materials most appropriate for their grade level. Eventually this resulted in the creation of an MOU that was approved by both the library board and Gwinnett County Board of Education which went into effect in the fall of 2016.

The results of this partnership have been quite spectacular, during the first year we had the program more than 100,000 students were signed up for library cards. As a result, this pushed the percentage of the total Gwinnett County population with a library card to more than 50 percent. The partnership has also benefited both institutions in other ways, the library has a higher-level relationship with the schools than it did previously, and we are much more involved in the schools’ teacher in-service and training opportunities. Access to our collections and other resources has been greatly increased for GCPS students and overall usage of electronic resources has risen sharply as a result of the partnership. Gwinnett County Board of Education Member Carole Boyce celebrated this partnership by saying, “We have families whose whole world will be opened up because of what the library makes available to them.”2 Associate Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Patterson added, “It is a win for our students and teachers, as well as for the greater Gwinnett community.”3

Partnership with Goodwill of North Georgia

GCPL has also enjoyed a productive partnership with Goodwill of North Georgia for more than three years. Forged during the economic downturn, this relationship brought expanded job search, training resources, and educational opportunities to residents of the northwest Atlanta regional area. Long known for their excellence in job-coaching and hands-on training, Goodwill brought their expertise in developing these job readiness skills and we used them in combination with library resources such as “Book A Librarian” and for individual assistance with online applications, resumes, and multiple print and online job-related resources. The partnership grew into the Job Boot Camp program which offers recruitment events and workshops with speakers and representatives from Goodwill and GCPL presenting together to provide anyone looking for employment with the tools they need to secure a job. The library also partners with Goodwill on Veteran Success Workshops and Roundtable meetings. Residents quickly learned that they would receive the best information and advice available at no charge to them from these programs.

For example, people working through Goodwill of North Georgia to find a job would have access to Career Connector which is Goodwill’s job resource database. They could take advantage of job coaching, job fairs, and specialized training in welding, operating forklifts, and other skills. The partnership with the library brought availability of Career Online High School, Learn A Test, Ferguson’s Career Guidance Center, and Lynda.com, all library resources, to Goodwill’s clients. Jointly offered programs increased program attendance for both organizations due to cross promotion. Both the library’s and Goodwill’s brands are associated with convenient and quality community assistance. We have introduced Goodwill representatives to other Metro Atlanta library systems so that our success can be replicated.

The partnership still thrives today when jobs are more plentiful because it is based upon a powerful commonality: do everything you can to better serve your community. In 2017 the library was recognized by Goodwill as “Emerging Partner of the Year” as a direct result of this collaboration. From employment literacy and skills to quickly learning how to use new technology through Lynda.com videos for work or personal growth, this partnership supports not only economic but personal enrichment as well. The library refers its many customers who wish to donate used books to Goodwill’s multiple area donation centers. In a similar fashion, Goodwill refers its clients to the library for continued growth in their skills and knowledge.

Other Major Partners

Two other significant partnerships we have established include our local hospital, Gwinnett Medical Center, and the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. In partnership with the medical center we have offered health fairs, books for newborn babies, and we also supported the baseline concussion testing program that the hospital offers. The purpose of the latter program is to help better treat head injuries in children that are caused by accidents or sporting events. The baseline testing will create a record to show “normal” brain activity in a given child so that if they do ever suffer a head injury there will be a more clear path to treatment. The library provides space for the testing to take place and also helps with promotion of this worthy program.

GCPL provides speakers for many Chamber of Commerce programs, and we are recognized as the “go to” experts for business information. In the past, we have also worked with the Chamber to provide a series of programs on how to start a business, and library employees are represented on many chamber committees and work groups. Strong ties with local hospitals and the business community have been key to our growth and success. These are just a few examples of the community partnerships we have formed, but a full recounting of all of them would turn this article into a novel.

GCPL has also created partnerships with many other community groups and institutions. In all, the library has worked with hundreds of different partners over the last few years. For example, we have partnered with the Latino Association to reach out to the Hispanic community with bilingual storytimes, English language proficiency classes, immigration assistance and more. One of our senior administrators has become very involved in the work of the Gwinnett Health Coalition’s Food Committee. As a result, we have developed a much closer relationship with local food pantries and emergency shelters to meet the needs of our food insecure populations. We have also created a strong tie with the county’s Parks and Recreation department to provide senior programming and to assist with the distribution of free lunches to economically disadvantaged children during the summer months. The list of partnerships the library has created are large and ever growing, and we hope it will continue to expand in the future.

True Partnerships Benefit the Library and the Community

The benefits to the library and the community are growing and significant due to these collaborative efforts. Visibility and awareness of library programming and outreach across Gwinnett County has greatly increased. When library employees are working with the public or out in the community, we are finding more and more that citizens are aware of the work we do in conjunction with other organizations. In some cases, this has meant that the library has gained a “seat at the table” when important community issues are discussed (public forums to discuss transit issues are one example of this). In other cases, it has meant that we are the “table” organization that helps convene and bring different groups together to solve community problems. By working closely with others, GCPL can serve as a “force multiplier” accomplishing more through collaboration than we would ever be able to do on our own, while offering the same benefits to our partners. Library staff have also been able to gain a better understanding of community needs by being more active among the general public. In one instance, we formed a partnership with a local extended stay hotel to provide free books to the large numbers of children living there. Every week we restock these materials since the demand for them is so great. GCPL is changing lives with this sort of innovative outreach and our goal is improved health, wellbeing, and education for all of the citizens of Gwinnett County.

GCPL staff and the library as a whole have learned a great deal from these partnership opportunities. We have grown as a library and have learned far more about the issues and problems in our community than we ever thought possible. However, it is also important to choose partners carefully, each party must be able to bring something to the table and to uphold their portion of the arrangement. Once it becomes clear things are not working out, it’s acceptable to cut ties and move on to work with a different partner. The ultimate goal is community service, not just partnership for the sake of partnership. By the same token, one should not discount a smaller partnering organization simply because of size; they may have hidden strengths of community knowledge, donors, or staff that are not readily apparent. A good partnership requires careful deliberation and consideration by both entities. The agreement should not proceed unless both organizations stand to benefit, and it is in keeping with the strategic goals and vision of the library. Finally, there is no need to fear going outside your comfort zone. Growth can only take place when we stretch ourselves and strive for excellence.

References

  1. Ron Gautier, email interview with author, Jan. 19, 2018.
  2. Keith Farner, “Gwinnett Schools, Library Partner to Expand Resources,” Gwinnett Daily Post, May 6, 2016, accessed June 12, 2018.
  3. Dr. Jonathon Patterson, GCPS press release, May 5, 2016.

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