What Makes a Library Great?
Insights from Two Awarding-Winning Libraries
Two demographically different libraries who share the distinction of receiving an award in 2018 answer our questions with wisdom from both a small and large public library perspective.
Meet the Tucker Free Library. Under the direction of Lynn Piotrowicz, the library was honored as the New Hampshire Library of the Year, NHLTA, in 2018; See article. Their collection is 18,000 items, with an annual circulation of 28,000. Henniker has a population of 5000 people.
Also, meet the Georgetown Public Library. Under the leadership of Eric Lashley, the library received the distinction of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, IMLS, in 2018; See article. They have a collection of 110,000 items and circulate 500,000 items annually. Georgetown has a population of 70,000 people.
Biblionix: Congratulations on your awards! Are you going to back off now and rest on your laurels?
Lynn Piotrowicz (Tucker Free Library):
Being named the Library of the Year by the New Hampshire Library Trustees Association reflects a culmination of efforts on the part of the entire library team. We all recognize that there is no “I” in TEAM and the mantle of library ambassador falls upon all. Tucker Free Library trustees, administration, and staff have worked tirelessly to provide the best library service to our community. Achieving this success took perseverance, commitment, and great leadership.
In my fifteen years as the library director at Tucker Free Library, I reflect on all that we have accomplished and what lies ahead. Rest on your laurels? Hardly. We harnessed the community pride garnered at the award ceremony, immediately pivoting to focus our supporters’ attention on a building project for continued library accessibility and safety. I often feel like the magician, always needing to pull a new rabbit out of the hat. Backing off to rest on our laurels would be boring for us as well as our patrons. Exploring new programs and accepting new challenges, keeps life interesting for staff and patrons!
Eric Lashley (Georgetown Public Library):
I don’t think it is in our nature to rest on our laurels. Our team and the entire City celebrated our winning the IMLS National Medal for a few months, but then we were off starting new projects.
We took a break from our TED Talks with White Birch Active Living Seniors. When library staff members are doing programming with a return audience, a strong relationship is established. With that relationship comes a responsibility to listen, adapt, and change. Sometimes that means ending a program because attendance has decreased or dialogue is faltering. Programming has a natural life cycle and end. Accept that ending a program can be positive. It gives you a chance to re-focus institutional energy creatively and try something new.
We are now looking at a brand new program with WBALS – a Tuesday morning group to discuss the written word. We hope that this new program with a proven local partner will be an initiative for fun community dialogue, with the conversation on the written word. We are not going to limit this by calling it a book discussion group, instead, we are going to think outside of the box and include articles, poems, lyrics, or anything that has words (including a cereal box)!
There weren’t many programs or events we stopped in the last year. We did reduce the number of Summer Reading Programs to lessen the impact on staff. However, we made an effort to have quality programs over quantity. That seems to have worked for us this year. And with our bookmobile service, we are constantly adding and dropping stops based on usage.
Biblionix: What’s the most cost-effective thing that your library does?
Everyone, from the director down, works on workplace efficiency. When a library is open 45 hours per week with an annual budget of $220,000.00, all staff members have to work together. We have a small but mighty staff of one full-time director, four twenty-hour employees, four pages for evenings/weekends, and four substitutes. The TFL staff prioritizes and performs all ‘patron services’ tasks, regardless of the shift, to efficiently meet all the library-related needs of the community.
Staff members are trained to process materials and fulfill interlibrary loan duties while covering our two circulation desks and they determine how the work gets done. Suggestions are made and discussed. Together, they have streamlined the acquisitions, cataloging, physical processing, and marketing of materials. The bulk of our cataloging is imported copy-cataloging. Why reinvent the wheel? We have eliminated a lot of property stamping and labeling – this saves time and also makes the material more appealing to others when the collection is weeded. New books can come into our library at 10 AM and circulate by closing time!
Hiring the right staff is the most cost-effective thing our library does. We focus on those things that are difficult to measure: customer satisfaction, building community, levels of trust, and relationships. If you hire individuals that understand the importance of those issues and have a passion for public service, you’ll find gold.
Biblionix: What’s the best thing that your library does?
Our library does ATTITUDE the best! Greeting people with a smile and a friendly hello can make all the difference in a patron’s day. Having a positive and engaging attitude is our motto!
When I started here fifteen years ago, I conveyed that our new service philosophy was to “turn the NO’s into YES’s.” The staff has embraced that philosophy. They are empowered to make decisions at the point of patron contact and both parties walk away feeling good about the exchange. Empowerment begets empowerment! Experiencing the positivity with patrons and policies gave them the confidence to apply that same principle to legacy processes. We no longer say “because that is the way it has always been done,” now we say “anything is possible!”
The Tucker Free Library boasts a quality collection. Our fishbowl is only so big so the collection is constantly weeded and refreshed. Small libraries can’t own all the books. We don’t have the budget to buy every new title nor do we have the space to keep every book ever purchased. Sure, the standards say a community our size should have more books but we believe in a QUALITY COLLECTION, not a QUANTITY COLLECTION. It is critical that we maintain space in our stacks to market materials. We do a lot of face-out displaying in the stacks because we don’t have the real estate for large displays. When we don’t have an item in our collection our staff is ready, willing, and able to request it through interlibrary loan. In 2018 we requested 656 items from other libraries for our patrons while during the same period we loaned 1668 of our items to other libraries.
The Tucker Free Library was an early adopter of innovative marketing of materials: the staff has actively identified and labeled all series within our collection. The staff coordinated the conversion of the collection from strictly Dewey Decimal to a Dewey-Lite System that organizes like materials in common areas. Library staff has talked at length about the benefits of this system with other librarians who traveled to Henniker to see Dewey-Lite in action, and at several regional continuing education opportunities.
We help build community. The staff, volunteers, and Friends are mission-focused. Our mission is the Georgetown Public Library engages, enlightens, and empowers the community. We call this our three Es. We ask our community how the library can improve their lives. We listen and then strive to improve everyone’s quality of life.
Biblionix: What do you see as challenges for other libraries of your size?
Funding the program is always a challenge. In these difficult and often austere economic times, many public libraries are experiencing reduced or stagnate funding but growing public demand. Libraries are often among the first victims of limited tax dollars and increasing competition for discretionary funding. At Tucker Free, we are proud that, based on a history of efficiency, consistent effort and success at seeking external (grant) funds, and judicious management of every penny provided by the Town of Henniker, the community continues to demonstrate its overwhelming support by approving our budget. This allows us to maintain our operation as well as update the TFL and explore expansion options.
Like other small and rural libraries, we struggle at times to make meaningful connections in our community. This requires us to demonstrate our value and get the word out about our resources. Communication is key to libraries of our size.
I think most libraries are staffed with hardworking committed team members who tend to be overworked and underpaid. However, one of the biggest challenges I see in many libraries is a fear of failure and change. I often see libraries that put up barriers to service. I hate meeting librarians and hearing the phrase “we can’t do that”. If the question is asked in your community whether or not libraries are relevant in 2019, then your library has a lot of work to do.
Biblionix: What do you see as opportunities for other libraries of your size?
BECOME THE COMMUNITY LIVING ROOM. Upon the 2013 completion of the Tucker Free Library revitalization, adults looking for a place to work, access the internet, or to sit quietly reading now have the Ann Soderstrom Media Center and Quiet Area at their disposal. The reappropriation of space was integral to the expansion of our hours, the creation of the “Sundays at the Library” brand, and the development of a patron-friendly space. No longer worrying about disrupting patrons working on the Main Floor, circulation desk staff can now fully engage with patrons, meeting their needs for social interaction, information, training on NH Downloadable, and assisting with reference/reader advisory services.
PROGRAMMING. Our children and adult programs seek to entertain and inform our small community. TFL staff has built a solid brand in “Sundays at the Library,” successfully identifying programs of interest to the community, promoting those programs, and moving a lot of furniture to meet the growing audience at those presentations. As part of the “Sundays at the Library” brand, family-oriented and general interest programs have been included. Magicians, musicians, storytellers, and puppeteers have enjoyed rousing audiences of all ages. These “Sundays at the Library” programs have enjoyed enormous success with as many as 90 people in the audience.
BE INDISPENSABLE. Even if your library is small you can still provide important services for your community. Being rural means the library might be the only place with Wi-Fi, a computer, a fax machine or a copier. We offer tech help whenever possible and assist with downloadable eBooks, audiobooks and magazines to broaden our patrons’ world further.
BUILD. BE FORWARD THINKING. Continue to strive for excellence and promote development & teamwork to provide the best service to our patrons and community going forward!
Librarians need to adjust their thinking about their buildings. Libraries are a part of the social infrastructure of a community that fosters interactions within and across generations. Libraries have an opportunity to be the gathering place for the community. But this requires a commitment to allowing the library to be available for use before and after normal business hours. Allowing use of the facility before and after business hours will create more support from groups and individuals who may not typically use the library. We need to remember the library is owned by the community, not the library staff. The more trust you give to your community, the more trust your community will give to the library which equals funding.
Biblionix: Any other words to the wise about how a library can best serve its community?
Be open-minded. Be willing to adapt. Be willing to ask questions. Be flexible. Tell your story over and over again.
We are a vital library in a community of 4,849 people. Our staff is small but mighty! Each member of the team has a responsibility as ambassadors of our institution. As the director, it is my responsibility to frame the library story and make sure it is told over, and over, and over again. From annual reports to one-on-ones with shareholders, from meetings with trustees to working sessions with friends, from budget deliberations with town officials to informational sessions with local civic groups TELL THE STORY OF YOUR LIBRARY.
When you work in a small community where there is no daily record of events (i.e., newspaper), it is imperative that the library director preserves the institutional history of the library. The most fulfilling part of my day is when I wear the hat of the institutional story keeper and storyteller. This is my way of having fun, seriously! When we can speak confidently about our past, present, and future we have a chance to impact the decision-makers in our community. We need to become the archivists of our organizations, especially at this time when so much data is being generated digitally but not necessarily printed, gathered, or physically saved.
As an employee of the town library, we all need to remember that we work for the residents of our community. They are the reason we have our jobs. They may not sign our paychecks but they are the ones who hold the purse strings. We must remember that we serve them; we need to give them what they want when they want it!
“SERVE. YOUR. COMMUNITY. SERVE. YOUR. COMMUNITY. SERVE. YOUR. COMMUNITY.”
One of the most impactful changes I orchestrated was to increase service hours. Trustees looked at community demographics and found that 74% of our residents commuted to work outside of town. With only three hours of weekend service and four hours of evening service, we determined that we were not serving a large portion of our community.
When the trustees asked how we could add hours to include more evening and weekend service, a plan to implement a new staffing paradigm was designed which provided an additional eight hours of operation without increasing the operational budget. This includes year-round Sunday hours.
Trustees worked with the administration to convey the importance of this modification. Staff had to change their thinking from “I don’t want to work evenings and weekends” to “if I want to continue working here these are the hours I need to be available.” This paradigm shift resulted in a change in staff composition and structure. Our staff now represents the demographic range of our town, including young men and women from our high school and local colleges who have proven to be an energetic and colorful addition to our library!
The library should be a focal point for the community by creating a livable, friendly environment where people can find each other. New mothers can connect at story-time, elderly people can commiserate at a book club, teens can feel safe after school. The library is an important democratic institution for everyone!
Listen. Most librarians can easily speak about the importance of our programs and services. Often we’re not good at listening to what our community wants from their library. One of the best things your staff can do is start keeping a “no” log. Document every time your staff says “no” to a request. Review the list and decide if there is a good reason to deny the request or use the list to create new services. Years ago, our library used this list to begin a notary service as well as public faxing and scanning.
Biblionix: Our sincere thanks to Lynn and Eric for the time they devoted to answering our questions! We hope, dear reader, that you have come away with some valuable, actionable ideas from these two amazing libraries.
About Lynn and the Tucker Free Library:
The Tucker Free Library (TFL) has served the Town of Henniker for 115 years as a place of learning, leisure, social and intellectual interaction. Under the leadership of its current Director, Lynn Piotrowicz (M.A., M.L.S.) and a dedicated staff that has served for many years, TFL has consistently served increasing segments of the population and is constantly exploring opportunities and challenges to meet the ever-changing needs of the community. The staff has kept pace with and promoted emerging technologies; built the capacity of individuals and institutions in Henniker, and served as a beacon of collaboration and cooperation both within our community and across the State of New Hampshire. Lynn provided our answers with input from staff members Denise Getts and Lynne Lawrence.
Lynn has been in or near libraries for her whole career. After a Master in Art, she tacked on a Masters in Library Science and never looked back. She has been the director at Tucker Free Library for over 14 years, with positions at Meadville library in Pennsylvania and Mercyhurst Adult College in Erie. Her stint at the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners reviewing grants gave her a leg up in writing them for her library.
About Eric and the Georgetown Public Library:
The Georgetown Public Library began when a group of interested citizens organized as the Friends of the Library and established the Georgetown Area Library in 1967. The library has operated since 1987 as a department of the City of Georgetown. On January 20, 2007, the current Georgetown Public Library opened its doors at 402 W. 8th Street. The present two-story, 49,500 square foot facility was the culmination of ten years of planning. This is the library’s fourth location and third new building since that group of volunteers founded the library in the 1960s.
Along with his MLIS degree, Eric also has a Master’s degree in Political Science and finds that having an interest and knowledge in politics has been very beneficial throughout his career. He has been at the Georgetown Public Library for over 23 years. Before coming to Georgetown, he worked at the San Antonio Public Library and Austin Public Library. He currently wears many hats as his responsibilities as library director include the library, arts and culture, tourism, and the convention and visitor bureau.
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