We all know the ways in which a public library contributes to personal learning, growth, and fulfillment. As they have for many of us, libraries played an important role in my childhood. My family moved nearly every year of my life until I got to high school. The library was the place I could go where it didn’t matter that I was the new kid in class, where my clothes weren’t judged and, most importantly, where it was perfectly OK to spend time alone with my nose stuck in a book. However, it is as an adult that libraries have had the most profound impact on me, personally and professionally.
From the President › Page 2
I knew just how I was going to begin this column. And that’s the problem. I was going to talk about the critical juncture in the history of public libraries at which we find ourselves today. I knew this venue would offer an opportunity to create urgency around how we in public library service must band together and shift the narrative about public libraries to ensure the lasting relevance of libraries to the communities they serve.
They say that good things come in small packages and I have often found that the advice and wisdom of others that best stick in my brain come in small phrases and sound bites. Over the years I have accumulated many of these and thought I would share a few of my favorites below.
As a polyglot I have always thought of myself as someone who was fairly globally aware. I received an undergraduate degree in Spanish and German, and my original career goal was to work in international business. I enjoy personal travel to explore new lands and cultures. I am the person who, when expecting to meet someone in or from another country, is rushing to learn a few key phrases in the person’s native tongue and social graces to attempt or avoid. I have also thought of myself as curious and eager to learn from colleagues about new ideas on service delivery, building design, planning, programming, and more. Yet I recently found out how limited my professional knowledge was of a whole public library universe that exists beyond the confines of the United States.
Sometimes our library jargon sets us up for negative customer-service experiences. How many of us have a “claims returned” status in our automation systems or even a “claims returned” form that we have customers sign? I challenge anyone to use the verb form “claims” with a positive connotation. Put yourself in the shoes of a customer who can remember plain as day returning five items to the library only to be told that one was not. In the customer’s mind the item has been “lost” or is “missing” from the library. In our minds it has become lodged between the front passenger side door and seat when the customer sped too fast around a corner. Yet in response we invoke the “claims returned” process. I can see the cartoon now, “this customer ‘claims’ to have returned this book and discovered a cure for the common cold.” No wonder we set our staff and customers up for an unpleasant confrontation. Although statistically likely, why have we fallen into a “guilty until proven innocent” approach with our customers? In my rethinking of my library’s policies this is one whose days I believe are numbered. We still need a procedure, of course, but framing it as an unfortunate circumstance and sending out a joint search team comprising staff and customer without pointing fingers seems like a much more positive and productive approach.
Although I have to admit feeling a bit self-conscious about wearing Mickey Mouse ears with a tassel after recently “graduating” from a workshop at the
Disney Institute (DI), the training from that day was nothing to laugh about and really got me thinking about the Aspen Institute’s (AI) “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries” report released in October.1 Disney’s workshop was targeted to a broad range of attendees from the private and public sectors with a focus on leadership, creativity, and innovation. AI’s report is focused on public libraries and offers a call to action for library leaders, policy makers, and the community. The following are some of the interesting parallels I observed between the two institutes.
Thank you for your PLA membership and for being a part of the best association for public library professionals! One of the questions I was most frequently asked during my year as president-elect was what “big theme” or “signature initiative” I was going to bring to PLA in 2014-15. I am pleased to assure you […]
My favorite library conference tchotchke of all time is a button I received from the PLA membership booth several years ago. It reads, “Ask me why I love my job!” Considering the fact that I would have proudly worn that button the first day I started working in a public library thirty-two years ago and would still do so today makes me feel very fortunate. Of course those who dare to ask the question need to be prepared to cut me off at some point (luckily for you, there’s an end to this column).
Recently I received an email message from a fellow library director recommending a librarian for employment. She noted that the librarian was skilled in readers’ advisory and a good team member, but had been let go due to continuing cuts to the public library’s budget by the municipal authorities, despite the fact that the town is sufficiently affluent to afford sustained support for public library services. Unfortunately, the local officials do not see the extent of the public library’s contribution to the well-being of community residents and to the town. We need to show more effectively that libraries are not only busy and efficiently run institutions, but that public libraries have multiple direct and indirect impacts on our communities.
Public libraries in the United States were founded at the community level, largely through the work of volunteer associations actively engaged in community building. As a result of this dependence on local initiative, there are still areas in Illinois that are not served by a public library. Funding for these early libraries was initially through […]
Librarians understand that innovation is important to the future of public libraries. One need only look through the program listings for any library conference, through the titles of recent articles in library journals, or newer position descriptions from public libraries to observe that the words “innovation” and “innovative” have become ubiquitous. Syracuse University has a […]
Recently Skokie (Ill.) Public Library (SPL) engaged in another strategic planning process. The event kicked off at our annual staff day, with all staff members sitting at big round tables in mixed groups of librarians, clerks, shelvers, maintenance,
and security personnel. They talked about the changes they had observed in the community over the past three years and where they saw opportunities for the library to make a difference. While we will continue to circulate materials, answer questions, and conduct storytimes, we have increasingly begun to look for the strategic intersection of gaps in community services or needs of specific groups with the library’s capacity to respond. These areas represent opportunities for the library to truly make a difference. We crafted a vision stating that SPL is “the heart of a vibrant village where people of all ages and cultures engage in lifelong learning and discovery while actively participating in the life of the community.” Meanwhile, our mission portrays the library “as a springboard for personal growth and community development.” Our planning team talked about our shared values, which in brief were articulated as: provide access, foster learning, and build community.
One of my earliest involvements with PLA was with the 1987 book, Output Measures for Public Libraries.1 I recall the sense that we were developing new measures for a new era. Indeed it was a bold step to begin looking at what a public library delivers to its community rather than at the resources (budget, collection size, and building size, for example) that the library has to work with. The measures a public library uses are important because they shape the way we think about libraries, library service, and the community. Also, public libraries use measurement for management of services and resources; for planning and assessment over time; for justifying funding requests; and for reporting to local, state, and national authorities. It is often helpful for a library to be able to compare itself to some comparable libraries, the selection of which may vary depending on the purpose.
My year in office as PLA president has been a privilege and an honor. It occurred during a time in my life that now seems like an absolute whirlwind, both personally and professionally! On June 23, 2012, my term as PLA president officially began.
This past January, I was privileged to be invited by American Library Association (ALA) President Maureen Sullivan and Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels to travel to Chicago and participate with twenty-four other library leaders, in an initiative called “The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities.” With funding to ALA from the Institute of Museum and Library […]