Saturday, July 22, 2006

Successful Saturdays: “Will we need libraries in the future?” or How I learned to stop worrying and love the library

Successful Saturdays: “Will we need libraries in the future?” or How I learned to stop worrying and love the library

I remember reading somewhere that when you get a job as a a manager it is very important to win early, even on something small. It means that you must do something noteworthy within the first six months or year, something that makes the papers, shakes things up, gets some attention. Successful Saturdays will document those wins, big and small. It, of course, will be my favorite installment.

“In the future, will we still need libraries?” or How I learned to stop worrying and love the library

During the first six months of my stint as manager a City Councilman asked me, “In the future, will we still need libraries?”. I replied, of course we will libraries serve purposes as centers for information, reading, and a common area for all the public to go and learn. It was a generic response, but it prompted a fear, if members of your governing and budgetary author wonder if you will even exist in the next ten years, it does not bode well for you. It is important to change those perceptions by being a storyteller, demonstrating all the things a library does, and shaping the services to that person's interests. For instance, if the person is a businessman, you need to talk about how the library services businesses, how the library helps create good employees through its services, or how the library stimulates economic development.

A great way to change perceptions is to develop a strategic plan. In that process you gather up major organizations and members of the community to talk about their needs and how the library can meet them. You will get a lot of, “I didn't know the library could do that!” I developed a strategic plan through the help of the Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records using the Planning for Results process sponsored by PLA. Before I began the process, I got buy-in from my boss and had her come to the Arizona State Library conference. One of the programs was to talk about the process of Planning for Results. The department that the library is in was about to conduct a Master Plan as well, so it was very critical to have a strategic plan so that its needs were more pronounced.

I rounded up 19 people from the Chamber of Commerce, to the United Way, from the local newspaper, to library staff, library board, and Friends of the Library members. We developed a strategic plan which ended up focusing on Adult Literacy, Lifelong Learning, and developing the library as a community commons. It received attention in the paper and it began to change the perception of the library in the community. “The library is the hotspot of the future. It's where the action is.” was the headline for our planning committee update in the local paper.

Once the plan was in place, it actually received less attention than I had hoped. Library staff quietly worked to develop the plan and action and get started accomplishing the year 1 goals. It was not until the library's annual report, one year later, that the success was to begin. During the annual report, we stated how we had already started an Adult Literacy Tutoring program, developed programs for teens, and established lifelong learning programs on financial health, and even programs in Spanish that were successful. We rolled the presentation into what is called Performance Based Budgeting. The City was not to develop this style until the following year, but because of our plan, we did it faster. The same councilman, who had wondered if libraries were even to exist in a few years, specifically commented "I just wanted to thank you for the performance-based approach to your planning. It certainly is an excellent approach and the results are very obvious that the approach is working. I commend you for being visionary and getting out in front of that. It's an excellent way to plan for the library."

The article in the paper the next day was a big headline, front page, above the fold “LITERACY CONCERNS LIBRARY”. We could not get better attention than that. We immediately received dozens of calls from patrons wanting to become tutors. Adult Literacy became a major buzz word in the city, getting picked up as an editorial from the local newspaper's editor, further articles on the library and a grant award from the Library Services and Technology Act from the Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records. Another success in the change of perception was from the same councilman when the grant was accepted by the city for a new bookmobile.

"The reason I asked to have this pulled off the consent agenda is I think this is such a very important project for the community to be aware of. In reading the application, it points out that at the time the literacy study was done (in 2003) 19 percent of adults in the city cannot read at level one. About 4,000 residents could not read well enough to fill out a job application, read a food label or read a simple story to a child. And it talks about the economic impact that would have. This project addresses that aggressively. I think that you and the staff are to be commended for that. It's an urgent need. This will address citizens with an opportunity to move through the literacy program, and I just think it's something that we ought to be more aware is being done. And the mobility of the lab, taking it out to people rather than people having to come to it, is certainly another excellent feature."

Again, a front page headline documenting the award from the grant, and the attention was led by the same councilman who pondered if we needed libraries in the future. We went from a where is the library and what does it do perspective, to major moves and shakers in the community getting behind us and speaking out for us. It is a great transformation for the entire community. I will detail a little more about each of these pieces and successes separately, but this is the corner stone of all of our success.

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