Next month, after 35 years at the helm of the Darien Library, CT, Louise Berry (pictured, r.) will retire. Under her guidance, that little library has redefined the relationship between the library and its patrons and has become a model for libraries worldwide. “I like to say that before Louise, the attitude at the library was ‘keep the people out and the books in.’ With Louise, it is ‘keep the books out and the people in,’ ” former longtime library trustee Ann Mandel tells me. “Of course, now there is so much more than books on offer.”
Underpinning much of what has come from Darien under Berry’s leadership is a philosophy referred to as “extreme customer service.” In practice, this means anticipating needs and embedding the response to said needs into every aspect of the library—from the rolling list of just-returned items displayed on a large screen to staying open until 10:50 p.m. during finals week in support of students to building in longevity with a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold facility. The key is the anticipation piece—this model responds to user feedback, yes, but constantly initiates new ideas based on the ongoing exploration of the user experience, or UX. Darien was one of the first to articulate a focus on UX in a job title, when 2006 LJ Mover & Shaker John Blyberg was named the head of a department dedicated to UX in 2008.
Darien was also one of the first libraries to uproot Dewey and, perhaps more important, describe why to do so, in light of UX. This movement was begun in the children’s room by 2010 LJ Mover & Shaker Gretchen Caserotti, then a relatively newly minted librarian. The model set by this initiative, among others, has been explored with avid interest by librarians in many settings in the years since.
Along the way, there has been a steady exchange of ideas between Darien and LJ, in part owing to the long marriage between Louise and LJ’s now editor at large John Berry III but fueled over time by the innovations being explored in both settings.
“As a librarian administrator, Louise always asks just the right questions to allow me to come to the right answer on my own. Her belief in empowering staff is one that I’ve carried with me—will forever,” says Caserotti, who is now director, Meridian Library District, ID. “My favorite Louise story is when I pitched the picture books reorg. I was so nervous. What if I was crazy? She listened attentively, and when I was finished, she said, ‘I think that’s brilliant. Go for it.’ Then I freaked out because that meant I actually had to make it happen! But she knew that it would work. She had confidence in me and let me take that risk, knowing she was right behind me.”
This faith in her staff may just be Berry’s secret sauce. She hired strategically, tapping new graduates from New York City library schools and seeking innovators from across the country, and then created a talent incubator of sorts, an atmosphere where they could test their ideas. One of those talents, Kiera Parrott, recently joined our team as head of the book review for School Library Journal. Berry committed to developing those professionals, with time to work on projects and resources for conference travel. She put those staff members at the table with thinkers from across librarianship at conference dinners designed to foster an exchange of the theories of the day. She also set them up to share back, with events such as the unconference dubbed KidLib Camp, turning the library’s ability to lead into opportunity for all libraries.
“She became a director when she was in her 30s (like me) and came to it with confidence and vision to make things better for the patrons right from the start,” says Caserotti. “Louise tells stories of the fast and easy changes she was able to enact to improve their experience at the library, to change it from a staff-centered philosophy to one that is patron-focused. She had struggles along the way, of course, battling gender stereotypes and the usual stuff, but managed to grow that sleepy little Connecticut library into an internationally recognized one.”
Another secret to Berry’s success is likely her intimacy with the people of Darien—her availability is demonstrated by direct contact information front and center of the Contact Us page at www.darienlibrary.org. “The most impressive part…is actually not that Darien Library is internationally famous but how beloved it is in the community,” concludes Caserotti. “The library really is a community center, a learning place, a place where people go to see and be seen—and also check out books!”
Such a career is enviable, and Berry’s legacy will resonate for a long time to come. Thank you, Louise.