April 15, 2014

What Academic Libraries Can Learn From Howard County Public | From the Bell Tower

There’s a reason that the Howard County Library System (HCLS), MD, is the Gale/LJ 2013 Library of the Year—an incredible focus on user experience and staff development that enables each worker to invest in the success of the library. It’s a case study for academic librarians who want to take things to the next level of service and community engagement.

One of my interests is the study of design thinking and user experience and exploring how these two practices, when merged, can enable us to design the best possible library experiences for our community members. Through a combination of reading, studying the work of experts, and exploring case studies, it is possible to develop a better understanding of, if not expertise in, these disciplines. Academic librarians know well that we also build our knowledge base by studying the successes and failures of other institutions. Call it a study of best practices, if you will. From it, we improve the user experience in our own libraries. When I saw the announcement that HCLS was named the Library of the Year, I was hardly surprised. It’s a library from which I have learned some valuable lessons about better ways to a great library experience.

Making a connection

One of the ways we establish a relationship with a colleague at another library is through work that we come across in a publication or at a conference presentation. That’s how I came to know Lew Belfont, the head of customer service at HCLS. I came across something Lew had written and was intrigued with his ideas about staff development for exceptional customer service. Academic librarians will sometimes be hesitant to connect with a colleague at a public library. There certainly are some differences, but I was impressed with Lew’s work in the area of user experience, and I wanted to learn more about the initiatives at HCLS. Belfont and I started exchanging email, in which we discovered the common ground of our interest in user experience. Even though he probably knew more about the subject than I did, he graciously invited me to visit HCLS to give a talk about user experience at their annual staff development program. It was a great opportunity to learn more about HCLS and its unique approach to customer experience strategy. I also had an opportunity to meet Valerie Gross, the architect behind the emergence of HCLS as a library strongly focused on customer service and user education.

Learning from each other

In a reciprocal gesture, but also because I believed my staff could benefit from Belfont’s expertise, I invited him to be a Skype guest for my library’s 2012 staff retreat. One of the valuable outcomes was that Belfont shared some of the documents that detailed HCLS’s customer service philosophy. In addition to detailed staff development around its service program, each staff member shapes a personalized service philosophy that guides his or her interactions with community members. It is just one piece of a staff development system that emphasizes the importance of each employee’s responsibility for delivering exceptional service. While online presentations can be less compelling than in-person ones, the staff were still able to pick up some useful insights from Belfont. The entire relationship, for me, was a particularly valuable advancement in my effort to become better versed in user experience. Had I written off HCLS and its customer experience emphasis, simply because it was a public library, it would have been a lost learning opportunity. What academic librarians should recognize about HCLS and other public libraries is what we actually have in common—and can learn from each other.

Not so different

For many academics, the core mission is education—working with faculty and integrating the library into the curriculum to support student learning. The HCLS documents that Belfont shared revealed that this public library takes its educational mission just as seriously as we do. The power of the library system, as Gross refers to it, is the “A+ Partnership” HCLS maintains with area schools. It is the Library’s close collaborative partnership with the local educational network, from Pre-K to community college, that serves to firmly integrate the library into the community. Every student automatically gets a library card when registering in the county school system. When I visited there I learned about the library’s educational philosophy. It delivers “education under a curriculum comprised of three pillars: self-directed education, research assistance, and instruction.” Not unlike an academic library, a key component of the HCLS mission is to integrate the library into community learning spaces. Given the wide range of demographic segments and user needs represented in the library’s community, education is about much more than teaching research skills.

More than education

When academic librarians recognize that public libraries are intently focused on the educational mission, we begin to realize that they are about much more than story hour and readers’ advisory. The barriers between the two library segments begin to break down. And it’s not just education that academic and public libraries have in common. In a panel session offered at this year’s ALA annual conference, a group of public librarians discussed how they are shifting reference service to a more mobile service that engages with the community outside the library. Sounds a bit like the type of embedded librarianship we see in academic libraries. I wonder how many academic librarians attended that session—and whether the speakers considered reaching out to academic colleagues to get them engaged. If not, perhaps we all need to work harder at building our cross-library partnerships. Not all academic librarians may find themselves engaging with public library colleagues for some shared learning—though I’m sure many do—but it may be worth exploring. In the past I’ve written about the value of reading LJ’s “Star Libraries” feature to find the qualities that make them the best of the best. The opportunities for learning more about public libraries, and learning from them, are just waiting for academic librarians. It’s up to us to make the connection.

 

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Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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Comments

  1. Great article! The vision we’ve implemented at HCLS has been shaped by thousands in the profession, and a growing number of libraries, including academic, are recognizing its tremendous power. Eradicating — once and for all — all misperceptions, it maximizes respect and funding and makes us an economic imperative. The approach positions libraries as educational institutions, and library professionals as educators. Incorporating self-explanatory language, the philosophy categorizes all that we do under a curriculum that comprises three pillars: Self-Directed Education, Research Assistance & Instruction, and Instructive & Enlightening Experiences. The simple, timeless vision can be applied by all library types, and is explained in the book Transforming Our Image, Building Our Brand: The Education Advantage (ABC-CLIO). For details, visit: TransformingOurImage.com All the best, Valerie Gross, President & CEO, Howard County Library System (MD)

  2. I protest. ” . . . . they are about much more than story hour and reader’s advisory” – hello, both storytime AND readers advisory have very fundamental educational motives and outcomes. I could say that academic libraries are all about showing bored students how to use databases (and not to use Google). Geez.

  3. StevenB says:

    @Sarah – I’m not suggesting those programs are not about education or are not valued. The point I was making is that from the perspective of many academic librarians, that’s primarily what they think of when they think about public libraries and I’m encouraging them to open up their minds and broaden their perspective on what’s happening at public libraries.

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