After attending ALA Annual alongside LeadLocal, we wanted to dive deeper into what the conference’s tagline “Transforming our libraries, ourselves” looked like in practice.

This is the first in a series of library staff and management interviews focused on how library systems respond to emerging needs and encourage internal transformation. Do you have a story of transformation to share? Contact …

Pima County Main Public Library in downtown Tucson.

Pima County Public Library

Full disclosure: I work here; hopefully what I lack in objectivity will be balanced by a somewhat insider’s view.

I work in our Communications and Systems Office, and we regularly get phone calls from people trying to reach Justine Hernandez and her seed library team members. Or they are calling for Karen Greene to talk about our bookbikes and how we were able to fund them. Arguably the most profound new service has been the addition of public health nurses to the everyday staffing of libraries in stressed areas of the County.

All of these programs began 5-6 years ago, so we’re learning that transformation has its own ebb and flow: plan, test, launch, listen, learn, evaluate, revise, adapt to a new location, adjust to staffing changes.

We’re learning that transformation has its own ebb and flow: plan, test, launch, listen, learn, evaluate, revise, adapt to a new location, adjust to staffing changes.

A part of the growing seed library.

We’re learning that what sustains transformation is not just passion, a great idea, buy-in, time, and funding. The unsexy part of “making it happen” are the choices one makes managing day to day, and this is affected by a library’s ability to communicate and work as a team. So, that’s one of the big things we’re working on now. What I see is that we are building a better infrastructure for our library teams so we can work better together, and pull in the same direction. We are gradually changing the stories we tell each other about how the library functions, and what we can do in the future.

Amber Mathewson

Amber Mathewson, Pima County Public Library

I recently sat down with the new Pima County Public Library Director, Amber Mathewson, to talk about this quieter part of the world we work in, and why it is important to how we innovate and transform.

What does transformation look like at Pima County Public Library?

We’ve long had a culture of “yes,” but now we are taking an even deeper look at the processes we use to sort through them, and how we communicate with each other. We are also thinking a lot about how we can be a better learning culture — it’s not just for the customers, it’s also important for staff.

An example of this are the two leadership cohorts we have just finished, working with Fully Engaged Libraries (Cheryl Gould and Sam McBane Mulford). At this point we have 40 staff members who have had extensive training in skills like emotional intelligence, strengths development, and facilitation.

These 40 staff members — program managers, librarians, library assistants, and circulation managers — have a shared vocabulary and set of techniques, and are already having a big impact on the effectiveness of meetings and personal interactions with staff. We are now exploring the continuation of our leadership journey with the help of LeadLocal. 

As a result of this focus on internal communication, I have started a regular vlog (video blog) where I tell the story of what is going on at administration levels. Also, our Deputy Directors are writing thoughtful, detailed blog posts for staff with updates on things like staffing processes and building repairs and renovations.

Basically, we’re breaking down silos and rebuilding our communications and meetings to increase transparency and trust at all levels of the library.

What is your library’s secret sauce in the community? What is your unique value?

I think that what we represent to Pima County is our people, and the relationships we are building; not just within our buildings or the partnerships we’ve always done, but getting out and connecting with community members where they are.

One of the Bookbikes made by Haley Tricycles in Philadelphia.

An example of this is our Bookbike staff who visit youth shelters and retirement homes, and programs like Catalyst Cafe, which have built rapport with local startups and makers by bringing them into speak about what they’re up to. This builds confidence that when these customers come in to our libraries they will find people who care about what they need. It sounds simple, but it requires staff who are passionate about what they are doing.

What do libraries need to do to remain a vital third space, going forward?

I would say to continue finding new ways to connect with the public in real life, and do more testing of long held assumptions.

We need to look at our buildings without focusing on what won’t work, but think about how it can work.

For example, at a recent LeadLocal Do Tank, we looked at the question of “quiet” in libraries, and came away with fresh ideas that we will experiment with as we design new spaces or renovate old ones. We’re not building the way we used to. What was different was that we looked at the need for quiet as a part of the creative process and not with the lens of the complaint phone calls we still get from older residents.

We also need to be flexible about the use of space so that we can adjust to emerging needs. It is so useful to look outside the library field for these trends. Look at Amazon! At a recent Pima County Development Team meeting we discussed how people now look for experiences, and seem to be valuing them over things. I’m thinking about how the library can be more of a place for social experiences, more of a place to connect. Think how going to a movie has changed. We all have video at our fingertips at home, so the movie theater has become a social event. How can a visit to the library be more of an experience?

I like that. A place of treasured experiences. Thank you Amber, for visiting with us, and sharing this candid snapshot of where your library is, in 2017.

Gain some trACTION

Want to get the transformation ball rolling at your library? Gain some traction and spark action with this trACTION card activity. One of the cards I use over and over is the Knowns and Unknowns card. For example, let’s say your team is brainstorming a new storytime focused on the needs of autistic spectrum children.

It’s helpful to make a list about what you know about the children and their families you will be targeting. Then make a list of what you don’t know. Or, at least what you know you don’t know. This “unknowns” list can be useful several ways: are some of your assumptions so risky they should be tested? Are there questions you should be asking community members? Best of all it can help your team figure out next steps.

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