November 21, 2017

2004 Gale/LJ Library of the Year: San José Public Library & San José State University Library – The San José Model

It took six years to propose, plan, and execute what Jane Light, director of the San José Public Library (SJPL), calls “the marriage.” The idea came from brainstorming at a power breakfast of former mayor Susan Hammer and former San José State University (SJSU) president Robert Caret in 1997. They would collaborate to build what became the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library to serve as the main library for SJPL and the city and the university library for SJSU. The magnificent King Library opened in August 2003.

The building, with its innovations in combined services for an active campus of 27,000 students and 1,153 faculty and a busy city of 924,950 people, might have been enough to earn LJ‘s highest award. What it triggered in cooperative planning between university and city, in risk-taking and vision by local politicians, city officials, university administrators, and library managers and staff was truly unique. It is that incredibly complex and difficult work that won the Gale/Library Journal 2004 Library of the Year Award.

Much of the credit must go to the current directors of each library, Patricia Breivik at SJSU and Light, who, after inheriting the idea, have organized the marriage and continue to make it work so effectively. They have invented a new model for academic/public library cooperation. In fact, we should probably call it “The Libraries of the Year Award” this year, because despite their inseparable collaboration, the two maintain unique and quite different identities.

A marriage of convenience?

“If this had been an idea of two library directors, we would still be trying to sell it, above and below,” Light tells LJ. “It took bold leadership at the very top, where the people who control the resources are. The mayor and the president made the idea of a combined library their intent.” Both Light and Breivik agree it is not a merger. “In merger,” says Light, “one side or both lose their personality, their identity. In a marriage, they remain two different entities, and each brings different strengths and talents.”

As Breivik points out, these two libraries, like so many publicly supported institutions in troubled California, have faced steady erosion of support, almost since the passage of Proposition 13, the infamous antitax measure of 1978. Both university and city needed larger, more technologically up-to-date libraries. Neither one had a ghost of a chance of getting a building anytime soon.

Both San José libraries operate with less money than their counterparts elsewhere. SJSU is one of the least-funded libraries in the California State University System, and SJPL gets less per capita dollars than most other California public libraries in cities of comparable size. The marriage, with its sharing of resources and staff, allows for innovative service combinations.

During the academic year, the libraries are open 81 hours and seven days a week. During summer and winter break, they are open 64 hours during the seven-day period. That is substantially more hours than either SJPL or SJSU was open previously. A crucial result of the marriage has been the need to stretch to meet growing use and demand.

A grand trousseau

Not only is the King Library co-owned and comanaged, it has one online system and one web site (SJLibrary.org), and all library materials are accessible to all users. SJPL and SJSU staff work together in technical services, reference, circulation, and IT. There is one library card for both libraries.

A vitally important asset for San José, the King Library boasts 3600 reader seats, 400 public access computers and 500 laptop ports, four instructional labs, 39 study rooms, a Teen Center, a dynamic children’s services center on the main floor, and much more.

The building features 33 installations by artist Mel Chin that are inventively integrated into the functions of the library. For example, one range of shelving in the mystery section swings completely around to reveal another secret collection of mystery titles.The library features an Education Resource Center, with collections and programs to enhance pre-K–12 learning. There is an Adaptive Technology Center for university students.

The eight-story building rises from the corner of Fourth and San Fernando Streets, with an inviting entrance at the center of the city’s hustle and bustle. Directly across the interior is the entrance from the greenery of the campus. The way from one entrance to the other has become a kind of Main Street for both the city and the university. “We’ve created a building here for lifelong learning,” says Breivik. “We celebrated our millionth visitor in December. We expected to do that much later, in March or April. A good-sized city comes in and out every day, some 12,000 people.”

“Many of the students and children using the library come from the most economically at-risk groups in the city,” Breivik says. “They are forced by their economic situation to move frequently from household to household. Sometimes they want a better place or lower rent. The library becomes one constant in their otherwise disrupted lives.”

Planning the party

SJSU president Caret was on a trip to Idaho when Mayor Hammer announced the collaboration in her 1997 State of the City address. Within two hours Caret’s office called him, saying, “You better get back here fast!”

“The initial response was anything but positive,” recalls Breivik. Former SJSU librarian James Schmidt, now on the university’s School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) faculty, echoes that report. He worked long and hard on planning the building and took much of the flack from faculty who opposed the combined library idea. Proud of the result, he told LJ it is “my baby.” That child has many proud parents.

Both city users and faculty had deep concerns. On campus, faculty were vocal. The academic senate wanted, among other things, two reference desks, under the presumption that questions from students and faculty would require a more expert reference service. After studies by consultant Tom Childers, reference expert from the Drexel Institute faculty, found that reference questions by the public and the academics were similar, Breivik told the senate it would have to live with a combined reference desk. The faculty agreed to let the librarians manage their enterprise.

“The one area that almost did us in was trying to get the IT people on both sides to agree that our systems had to work together and talk to each other,” Breivik says. Both the value and the difficulty of collaboration were shown in the purchase of the Innovative Interfaces ILS. “We’re new and different now, and we have to have room to be flexible,” Breivik says. “We were able to get consensus from all the staff about the new system. Then we confronted the demanding, incompatible purchasing regulations of the city and a university. That was difficult, but we got it done.”

The early criticisms were reasonable. No one had considered the benefits of this untried marriage, only the problems. Many in the library profession were skeptical. The opposition began to die down as Light and Breivik told their constituents about new services and service patterns and how the building would work. Campus resistance to the library is mostly gone now, except for a professor or two media interview when they want a controversial quote.

Don’t ignore the relatives

When the King Library was proposed, many people believed new and renovated branches were more needed than a new main. According to SJPL’s Light, there was one neighborhood that had been promised a replacement branch 20 years earlier. “They felt…that a new main library would take so many resources that the branches would lose out,” says Light, adding, “there is always a creative tension between downtown and the neighborhoods.”

Light went to the Friends groups SJPL has for each branch: “If redevelopment money builds the Main Library, we can leverage the concern about the branches, we can float a bond measure just for the neighborhood branches. It will be easier to sell that to our voters.”

Light was right. In 2000, 76% of San José voters approved a $211 million bond measure to build six new branches and renovate 14 others. The first bond measure on the city’s ballot in 30 years, it was the largest ever passed. SJPL has already opened one new branch and four are currently under construction.

“A lot of people don’t realize that those branches are an integral part of what we’re doing at SJSU and at the King Library. Students and faculty can go to a branch in their neighborhood now and request things from the university collection,” says Breivik. The materials, available to students and the public, are delivered in one day. “In April, 13,650 items were requested from the branches from our combined King collection,” she adds. Most SJSU students live in the San José area both before and after graduation.

SJPL’s transformation

SJPL’s librarians are proud of their entrepreneurial culture. They take advantage of partnerships and are data-driven and responsive to community input. They seek the best practices from librarianship and beyond to improve service. In three years, surveys show that satisfaction with SJPL service has increased by 12 points, more than any other city service. Some 71% of residents rated library service as excellent or good and higher than 24 other city services in the survey.

Light is particularly proud of the SJPL Innovative Library Service Model that fostered the citizen response. “People prefer self-service,” Light asserts. “They want help, but they want sophisticated help. They don’t need us to check things out, and they don’t even want us to ask if we can help them. They want us to be able to recognize when they need help through their body language or other ways. It is amazing that they think we are sophisticated enough to do that.”

SJPL has a pending grant to train people in this kind of intuitive service and to get librarians out from behind desks. Light wants to discover and teach staff newer ways to engage customers in conversation, better ways than the traditional “Can I help you?” She asserts that people really respond more to a bookstore, retail quality and to being able to have food and drink. They like to check things out for themselves and use the Internet to renew items. “We’ve found that even with fewer staff in the branches, circulation keeps going up. Circulation is about double what it used to be,” Light says. “That’s because we buy what [patrons] want to see or read.”

SJPL has collections in 40 languages. The library stocks a huge range of materials, from “Bollywood” movies and other foreign-language films to a host of print language resources. The library does a little language training, but it has centralized acquisitions in languages other than English in the hands of staff who normally use those languages.

The SJPL language collections helped the university, says Breivik. “We only collect in languages we teach. Many of our faculty and students can now take advantage of much more comprehensive collections in other languages and formats. This is particularly good for those whose first language is not English.”

The collections get used by everyone. The public use of the SJSU academic collection is about equal to the academic use of the SJPL collections. Every SJSU master’s student writes a thesis, and the library has them all. They never circulated in the old SJSU library. Now they are shelved near the elevator, and through the end of April, some 1,777 have been checked out since the library opened.

The SJSU mission

Academic librarians concerned about preserving their identity in the combined staff took steps to avoid being derailed from their central responsibility to serve students and faculty. “We created a whole statement about our academic mission,” says Breivik. “We don’t want to lose our personality in the marriage. Our focus on information literacy has been expanded. We get strong support from our senate for that focus, and our senate library committee favors it. We’re integrating it across several curriculum areas.”

All SJSU librarians liaise with academic departments for collection development. A management team is continually involved with strategic planning related to academic responsibilities. In a new document entitled “Affirming Academic Responsibilities,” SJSU librarians demonstrate their commitment to the profession and the campus family, asserting in some 15 statements the full services and values of a model academic library service. They show that much of what they do in areas such as collection management, information literacy, and academic service and scholarship goes outside the King Library in order to fulfill SJSU’s teaching, research, and service missions. The library has become an inducement for both faculty and student recruitment.

Keeping the vows

Negotiating the details of collaboration is frequently difficult and sometimes results in micromanagement. For instance, when someone asked at one high-level meeting who is responsible for getting the windows washed, both the city manager and the SJSU vice president said, “I am.” The city contracts with the university to wash the windows. Both librarians are delighted to have the top people from both sides involved. Both also agree that many rules, regulations, and policies from both city and university must be waived in order to give the library the flexibility it needs to manage the new collaboration.

Staffing patterns are decided with great difficulty. Neither director thinks this is settled yet. The Operating Agreement only says each has to supply enough resources to keep the library open. The academic library employees have a union contract, while the professional librarians are all members of the faculty. SJPL, on the other hand, has one union for all nonmanagerial staff and one for managers. Both have agreed that every staff member must be evaluated by someone from his or her library. Consultant Sheila Creth helped work out the relationships on the staff. Each library hires its own student help, on its own pay scales. They work as two separate staffs as do regular staff. SJPL pages are recognized by the SJPL union. SJSU uses many student interns from its SLIS. They are considered student workers. So far the unions haven’t faulted the setup, although some reservations have been expressed.

Unique to the setup is the existence of two heads for most of the library departments. While this may seem unwieldy, and both Light and Breivik agree that it could change over time, it has added substantial strength to the marriage. It is a fitting reminder of the old bromide, “Two heads are better than one.” Everyone agrees that the whole arrangement is a work in progress. “We didn’t want to be too specific about a lot of things because we want to have the freedom to change it as we continue to work together,” says Light.

A fairy tale ending

More support would help a great deal, but melding the SJPL operating budget of $32,367,636 with the SJSU library budget of $6,798,257 makes for economies of both efficiency and scale. SJPL spent only 12% of its funds on materials while SJSU spent 22%. The 356 FTE staff of SJPL and the 82 at SJSU combine for a far more formidable group, of which nearly 35% are professional librarians.

The evidence abounds—in the faculty, citizenry, and the local media—that the experiment is so successful that it is changing, in a fundamental way, the relationship between the city and the university. A new round of meetings of city and university leaders is exploring what other enterprises the two partners can collaborate on to make stronger public services. As Light says, “Now we have the top educators and the city’s top economic development people talking about long-term economic development of San José and Silicon Valley.”

Breivik says that having the top municipal and university leaders help mold the library created a new spirit of cooperation. A senior leadership team—made up of the head of the redevelopment agency, the city manager, the VP for administration and finance of the university, the two directors, and the provost—”is one reason the nitty-gritty of this marriage has worked as well as it has.”

“Academic libraries at campuses like this one are equalizers for diverse populations,” says Breivik. “When you care about moving people up from have-not status, you must be concerned when both public and academic libraries lose ground year after year. If together these libraries are the equalizer that make a democracy possible then you have to be concerned that we keep up. We need new models for that job, and this model has the potential to keep up the progress of library service for both the public and the university community here in San José.”

Light agrees. “Both of our libraries were stuck for a long period. This marriage and the King Library have given us an opportunity to leap from being taken for granted to being the jewel of San José. Now we have to make good on that opportunity, and it is beginning to look like that risk was worth taking.”

2004 LIBRARY OF THE YEAR SPECIAL MENTION

The many stunning submissions for this year’s honor attest to the innovation and excellence in libraries nationwide. Several of the libraries feature the service philosophy and dedication to community that signify a Library of the Year.

  • Fayetteville Public Library Fayetteville, AR
    Louise Schaper, Executive Director
  • Tampa Hillsborough County Public Library System Tampa, FL
    Joe Stines, Director

2004 LIBRARY OF THE YEAR JUDGES

LJ thanks the following library professionals who volunteered their valuable time to help select this year’s Library of the Year:

  • Maurice (Mitch) Freedman Immediate Past-President, American Library Association
    Toni Garvey Director, Phoenix Public Library, LJ‘s 2004 Librarian of the Year
    Daniel L. Walters Executive Director, Las Vegas–Clark County Library District, LJ‘s 2003 Library of the Year
    Dedria Bryfonski Executive Vice President, Global Market & Customer Services, Gale

The panel also includes LJ staff: John N. Berry III, Francine Fialkoff, Susan DiMattia, Brian Kenney, Rebecca Miller, and Norman Oder

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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