December 19, 2014

Virtually Branching Out | Lead the Change

The idea that libraries need to take their services “outside the building” is well-established, from bookmobiles to digital branches. But more innovative, effective, inexpensive ways to take the library into the community are still needed. At the recent Lead the Change event in at Denver Central Library, presenter David David Bendekovic cited Southlake, TX, Public Library’s Virtual Library Program as a case study in what library leadership can do to address this goal.

David Bendekovic first heard about the program, in which the library delivers requested materials to a local employer’s worksite, from Southlake City Librarian Kerry McGeath “at one of my workshops I facilitated for the Texas Library Association,” David Bendekovic told LJ.

David Bendekovic also mentioned in Denver that the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library was planning a similar program. “I believe Topeka heard the story at one of my sessions prior to Lead The Change. And then – at a private session I did for Topeka back in April – Gina Millsap (director) told me they were implementing the program at a local hospital,” he said.

LJ caught up with both McGeath and Thad Hartman, community services manager and head of Topeka’s Library @Work program, to find out how the outreach efforts are going.

Connecting With Community Leaders

McGeath got the idea for Southlake’s Virtual library because he came to the library world from a background in business. “The community that I lived in is big enough to have another branch, but it seemed to me like the most reasonable course of action was to take the library out into the community,” McGeath told LJ. He was already looking for ways to partner with local businesses, perhaps via a reading room in a strip center, when he met one of the senior vice presidents of Sabre at a local Chamber of Commerce leadership course. Sabre, owner of Travelocity, has about 1500 employees at its Southlake campus. Kerry told the VP that he wanted to “reach out to the corporate community and provide library services very inexpensively,” and the VP proposed putting the library’s catalog on its own Intranet, so employees could place holds.

The Southlake library pulls the resultant items just like any other hold, and then “we just slap a label on it that would come off easily, throw it in a tote, that goes to the Sabre mailroom, and they distribute” the items to employees, McGeath said. Sabre handled any IT costs of getting the catalog up and running themselves, and McGeath makes the three mile run himself, twice a week, so that the cost of transportation is covered by his car allowance. “Three hours of staff time a week at $40 an hour. That’s the whole cost of the program,” McGeath said.

Since its inception in 2006, the Sabre partnership has generated about 500 new cardholders for Southlake, most of whom only or primarily interact with the library through the Virtual Library. That’s okay with McGeath. “We weren’t reaching them at all until we went to them,” he said. The library also maintains a 500 square foot reading area in front of Sabre’s lunch room which it stocks with magazines twice a week.

Southlake is exploring expanding the program to other employers; the main criteria, said McGeath, is that they be set up to deliver the materials internally: they are delivered to the mailroom, and the library reiterated to the mailroom staff that it had to be delivered directly to the person’s desk.

Of course, having your library books handled by mailroom staff and left on your desk potentially raises privacy concerns, but McGeath said it hadn’t been a problem. “A lot of libraries now place their holds out for pickup where it is not supervised so it’s not really much different than that,” he pointed out.

McGeath said DVDs and children’s books are the most popular materials to be delivered, perhaps because Sabre’s tech-savvy employees get their reading materially digitally. “They’re definitely doing ebooks,” said McGeath.

A year later, Southlake expanded to opening virtual branches at a senior center and a housing complex for seniors, though those programs are smaller: there are really only ten to 15 people who use it regularly, said McGeath.

@Work at Topeka-Shawnee

Topeka’s initiative was directly inspired by Southlake’s. “We heard about it about two years ago, and we first started doing it about nine months ago,” Hartman told LJ. The Topeka library launched a pilot project with the Stormont-Vail Hospital, with which the library has a history of successful collaborations.

Besides that relationship, one of the reasons Stormont-Vail was chosen for the pilot was ease of delivery: the library delivers every week day at a cost of only half an hour of staff time, because pulling the holds is folded into the library’s regular workflow, and Stormont-Vail is located right across the street from the library.

Hartman admits, “It kind of seems weird, people can just walk over, why would they need it? And I’m sure that has decreased the use a little. But we are also talking about people working midnight to 9 a.m. shifts when the library is not open,” or 12 hour shifts after which they are too tired to go anyplace but home. Hartman estimates that Library @ Work’s Stormont-Vail pilot has generated about 50 completely new card signups, as well as increasing usage by existing cardholders.

“We check out a couple hundred items to them a month; we pretty much bring something to them every day,” Hartman said, though “it has been a gradual process” raising awareness of the program. The materials chosen are the same sort of mix the library sees in general holds; mostly popular reading.

The hospital has its own library, and initially the materials were delivered there and the employee was notified to come pick it up, but that didn’t work very well; after a month, said Hartman, it was decided that it was easier to have the hospital’s mailroom deliver the items to the staff, as at Southlake.

The library raised the issue of privacy, asking if they needed to put a wrap around the book as they do with reserves, and keeping the labeling to only part of the recipient’s name, though Hartman acknowledges that may still be enough of an identifier in an office environment. However, Stormont-Vail did not have any concerns about privacy, though the mailroom is “putting the materials in an envelope just to make it easier to handle.”

Hartman says Stormont-Vail is very pleased with the program, and the library is too—so much so that, now that the bugs are worked out, it is now starting to look for other employers to sign up. The library is aware that “as we add others we’ll have to look at the cost of gas and staff and possibly another vehicle.” But, said Hartman, “We really need to find ways to serve people outside of the building since we don’t have branches. We see it being well worth it.”

Not for Everyone

However, the idea is not practical for every library. Jean Armour-Polly, Executive Director of the Liverpool, NY, Public Library, told LJ, “At one point I was considering a virtual branch so that it could be selected by end users as a pick up point for holds. I was thinking of doing the big employers in town and the day care centers in my service area. Also the high school.” Ultimately, however, she decided against it. “There are many problems with this, including where the already checked out books will be secure at the businesses. Also how to get a delivery system going to these places in the face of reduced staffing since we need everyone at the building.”

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Senior Editor, News and Features of Library Journal.

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