August 17, 2017

Engaging Everyone In Town | 2014 LibraryAware Community Award

ljx140401webAware1bThe Wichita Public Library (WPL), KS, has become a coalition builder for larger community goals. WPL signed on as an early “vision partner” with Visioneering Wichita, whose goal is to develop a strategic plan, through extensive community engagement, for the whole Wichita metropolitan area. Visioneering Wichita’s process identified six “foundations” that became the top priorities of the city, its leaders, its people, and its institutions and agencies. WPL committed its resources and staff to work to achieve these goals. The Friends of WPL were enlisted as well.

Over the decades, WPL had established a growing engagement with the city’s residents. The careful, constant watch of WPL director Cynthia Berner Harris—who has worked at WPL for 30 years, the last 14 in her current post—as well as the WPL board, Friends, leadership, and staff, had developed the libraries, services, and programs to meet newly surfacing opportunities and needs. The Visioneering Wichita process gave that long-standing community engagement specific goals and direction.

This reenergized engagement won for Wichita and its ­library the 2014 LibraryAware Community Award. The award is presented by Library Journal and funded by LibraryAware, a product of EBSCO Information Services’ NoveList Division. It carries a prize of $10,000.

Activating patron participation

With funding from the Knight Foundation, WPL led the development of the “Activate Wichita” website, which works on MindMixer’s virtual town hall and survey software to seek input from citizens on critical issues, problems, and programs.

MindMixer was created in 2010 by two urban planners who had been frustrated in their efforts to set up community meetings owing to low attendance. The company now serves more than 600 cities and community agencies and institutions, including the San Francisco Public Library, where the software was used to ask middle school kids to help redesign the library card. It got thousands of responses.

The MindMixer Customer Development team helped WPL get the Activate Wichita website started and was on hand with support through all the phases and the process of loading content onto the site. Harris said they were great to work with and were paid with only part of a $100,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. For others looking to follow WPL’s example, MindMixer’s director of communications Amanda Ansell said that contracts with cities or with individual agencies, institutions, and community organizations are possible. MindMixer pricing is “a standard range of fees based on the length of the engagement [with the city or organization] and the size of the community.”

WPL’s leadership collaborated with numerous municipal departments as well as the Tallgrass Film Association, Wichita Community Foundation, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation (WDDC), Wichita Chamber of Commerce, and, of course, Visioneering Wichita. Since its inception in 2013, the website has generated more than 7,800 visits and 57,000 page views. There are 920 active participants on the site, reflecting every Wichita zip code and an equitable distribution of participation across age groups from 25 to 65-plus. WPL uses the site to gather feedback about its own programs and services, to validate planning for a proposed new Central Library, and to bring the community into the title selection process for an upcoming Big Read grant application.

Activate Wichita is also closely aligned with city government initiatives to expand action opportunities for citizens. City leaders were deeply impressed with WPL’s work on the website. The site has been used to help obtain guidance from citizens on the most acceptable strategies for aggressive water conversation and air quality control, to prioritize services for inclusion in the city budget, to gather ideas for changes to city aquatics and park services, and for feedback on how best to use federal funds to support affordable housing and efforts to reduce homelessness.

“The site has gained the respect of local media outlets,” says Wichita city manager Robert Layton. “We appreciate the foresight of the Wichita Public Library staff in creating the site and in modeling how a library can play a leading role in engaging residents in conversations about the important issues facing their communities.”

WPL’s efforts in building the website gave a big boost to the Visioneering Wichita priority of “becoming a national model for effective, efficient, inclusive, and accountable governments representative of the community’s needs and desires.” will soon feature the library’s contribution to the site as a best practices model in helping to create change within a community.

A TRULY CENTRAL LIBRARY  WPL’s role in capturing citizen’s creativity places it at the center of a coalition of civic agencies. Top row, l.-r.: WPL’s main branch may soon be upgraded; in the meantime, the spacious interior helps handle more than  a million visits and two million circulating items. Second row: Discussing the Activate Wichita website, an “electronic town hall” built and maintained by the Central Library, are (l.–r.) City of Wichita fire marshall Bradley Crisp, Activate Wichita intern Ellen Crispin,  Fire Chief Ronald D. Blackwell, and Deputy Fire Chief Elizabeth Snow. Bottom row, l.–r.)In keeping with the town’s priority on lifelong learning, ESL instructor Claude Puntel-Sessions (l.) speaks with Abdelaziz Mohamed from DR Congo during an “English, a cultural orientation” class. At WPL, patrons are never too young to participate; Erin Downey Howerton, Central Library children’s section manager (c.), speaks to the Mayor’s Youth Council, created by Mayor Brewer in 2007 to give voice to Wichita’s youth on community issues. Photos by Brett Deering/AP Images for Library Journal

A TRULY CENTRAL LIBRARY WPL’s role in capturing citizen’s creativity places it at the center of a coalition of civic agencies. Top row, l.-r.: WPL’s main branch may soon be upgraded; in the meantime, the spacious interior helps handle more than a million visits and two million circulating items. Second row: Discussing the Activate Wichita website, an “electronic town hall” built and maintained by the Central Library, are (l.–r.) City of Wichita fire marshall Bradley Crisp, Activate Wichita intern Ellen Crispin,Fire Chief Ronald D. Blackwell, and Deputy Fire Chief Elizabeth Snow. Bottom row, l.–r.)In keeping with the town’s priority on lifelong learning, ESL instructor Claude Puntel-Sessions (l.) speaks with Abdelaziz Mohamed from DR Congo during an “English, a cultural orientation” class. At WPL, patrons are never too young to participate; Erin Downey Howerton, Central Library children’s section manager (c.), speaks to the Mayor’s Youth Council, created by Mayor Brewer in 2007 to give voice to Wichita’s youth on community issues. Photos by Brett Deering/AP Images for Library Journal

SCOREing a strong business presence

One priority set by the Visioneering Wichita process was to retain and expand current businesses while creating and recruiting new ones to Wichita. “Historically, Wichita has been a community of entrepreneurs, the city prides itself on that,” says Harris.

WPL partnered with the local chapter of SCORE, a national organization of retired executives who use their expertise and mentoring skills to help small businesses. WPL added its staff and resources to SCORE’s. WPL’s business services always paid particular attention to serving small business owners, people wanting to start a business, and businesses “that started small and are now ready to take that next step,” as Harris puts it. For 18 months, WPL sponsored monthly seminars with experts on business topics, integrated with specific content from WPL resources.

Partners and programs

Two other Visioneering Wichita priorities were “developing a globally competitive education system that encourages and supports lifelong learning and contributes to the vitality of the community” and “having a healthy, safe community with a vibrant recreation, entertainment, arts, and cultural focus.”

Addressing these and other priorities, WPL works with the League of Women Voters to provide monthly current events programs. A coalition of the library and local cultural organizations supports “Senior Wednesday” activities for older adults. Since 2008, the library has received Big Read grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Big Read Wichita partnerships included more than 60 organizations in 2013. WPL’s Big Read initiataive, designed with significant community input, has been identified as a best practices model for other cities.

WPL works closely with other libraries throughout Sedgwick County, sharing programming and resources. In 2013, nearly 200 entities were part of these alliances or received programs or special services from the library. WPL meeting rooms are sites for hundreds of neighborhood gatherings.

Readiness, reading, teens

WPL’s teen volunteer program, operating for nearly three decades, enlists youths as young as 12, who start in the summer to help with the summer reading program, doing book talks and other things to encourage younger readers. If they return for a few summers, they are integrated into other WPL activities. At first, they perform entry-level clerical work. Ultimately, some are offered permanent jobs at WPL.

“They come with digital literacy, and we rely on them for that now,” says Harris.

WPL’s “6 by 6” is an early literacy program to help parents and caregivers ensure that children enter kindergarten with reading-readiness skills. The program came out of work with WPL partner the Johnson County Library, coordinated through the State Library of Kansas. Based on six skills a child must have to be ready to learn and ready to read in school, WPL modified earlier reading-readiness work to help children and caregivers learn and teach the six skills, respectively, and incorporate them into WPL preschool programming. The program is taken to day-care centers and schools by one staffer.

The budget “opportunity”

WPL serves the more than 385,000 people in Wichita on an annual budget of just over $8 million, or about $21 per capita. On that very tight budget, WPL runs nearly 1,500 programs annually, handles more than 1.1 million physical visits, 900,000 virtual visits, and a circulation of nearly 2.1 million a year. WPL is open seven days and 423 hours a week from September through May and six days and 403 hours per week from June through August. The budget also supports a staff of 148, 29 percent of whom hold library degrees. WPL provides 89 public access computers, and nearly 11 percent of the budget goes to library materials.

WPL has a Central Library and eight branches, four of which are district branches with full service, while three are neighborhood outlets. One unique branch is in the entrance to a Dillons supermarket. Only about 750 square feet, the branch is a bargain, as the store doesn’t charge the library for rent or utilities. The branch does a “fabulous business,” according to Harris. “It demonstrates our long-standing commitment to outreach. It has been there for 25 years,” she adds.

A city department, WPL is governed by an appointed, 14-member Board of Trustees. “I am proud that our board talks about the relatively low support our library gets compared with other Kansas and U.S. libraries. We are not as well funded. The average for larger Kansas public libraries is over $45 per capita. There is quite a gap,” Harris admits.

“In a way, I’m proud that most people in the community are unaware of that because we work so hard to be creative in how we stretch resources and find partners. We don’t let the funding issue become a barrier,” Harris says.

“You can let low funding be discouraging, or you can look at it as a challenge and an opportunity.” Apparently Harris’s approach to library funding and WPL engagement are beginning to work. The city’s General Fund budget increased only 1.6 percent for 2014, but the library’s budget rose by 3.6 percent. Friends of the Library membership has grown to more than 1,200 this year.

A new Central Library

WPL’s effectiveness in meeting the needs of citizens and its efforts to increase awareness and support have been demonstrated in other ways as well. In July 2013, the city council approved release of a request for qualifications for schematic and design development for a new Central Library. This vote came after strong demonstrations of support. Jeff Fluhr, president of WDDC, spoke in favor of the project, stating, “The library project is an important part to Wichita’s downtown future and also for the region.” Mayor Carl Brewer recognized the impact of WPL on economic development and a skilled workforce. Other speakers referred to the library as “a gathering place and resource for learning, enjoyment, access to information, and fostering human interaction and cultural literacy” and as “the heartbeat to [the] city.”

In recent years, WPL has made very effective interactions with local media a top priority. KCTU TV5 includes a weekly WPL segment on its Your Hour daily talk show. KWCH, the local CBS affiliate, offers a similar segment once a month on its Saturday morning news program. The Wichita Eagle regularly reports on WPL programming and has published many supportive editorials about WPL. Media outlets are especially supportive of Activate Wichita and regularly link the site to stories on community issues.

“This project is about reminding people of all the things that a library can do to benefit a community. People are always surprised when they discover all the library can provide and do,” says Harris.

“Even some of our very loyal customers are surprised when we tell them all we have…. This project is aimed at getting that stuff on their radar,” Harris laughs.

The WPL plan

All WPL efforts are deeply rooted in its strategic plan, whose four community-based service responses specify WPL priorities. The first, “eliminating the digital divide by developing citizen technology skills and ensuring equitable access to the Internet,” is followed by “developing children’s early literacy skills; creating opportunities for lifelong learning; and providing services that support reading, listening and viewing for pleasure.” These priorities were developed through ongoing community engagement. Library advocacy efforts and the promotion of services like Activate Wichita have reinforced the role of WPL as a community hub, and, as the heavy use of WPL demonstrates, the story spreads. The 1.1 million visits to WPL facilities in 2013 make it one of the most heavily used public venues in town.

Programs and services don’t exist only within the library’s walls. A youth outreach specialist works to deliver early literacy services to preschools, day-care centers, and in-home child-care providers and through community programs like Read to Rover, which is offered in partnership with the Kansas Humane Society. The library’s annual Academy Award Shorts film program is held in two of the city’s most popular theaters. The 2013 Big Read kickoff event was held at the Wichita Art Museum, while the final event was at the Old Cowtown Historical Museum. WPL promotions occurred at several major community events including Riverfest, the Old Town Chili Cookoff, and Woofstock.

WPL on engagement

WPL’s Harris explains the award-winning WPL approach to community engagement: “Last year we had serious challenges with our water supply. Rather than getting public works staff to come up with scenarios and solutions and take them to the community, they said, ‘Here is the issue,’ [they] provided material about it, and asked what people were willing to do to contribute to a solution and what the citizens would not consider to be a viable option. Always we get high-level, almost visionary responses along with some very simple solutions. We approach engagement differently than most city agencies or organizations,” Harris concludes.

“We are not just talking about being out and giving services beyond the walls of the physical library. We are talking about being willing to go to a citizen and say, ‘Here’s an issue we are struggling with’ or ‘Here’s an idea that just crossed our minds. Please talk to us about it. Solve this problem with us.’ ”

That WPL approach not only wins awards, it meets community needs. It solves problems. And it makes the community aware of the huge contribution their public library makes to city life.

LibraryAware Community Award 2014 Honorees

LJ would like to thank judges John Chrastka, (and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker); Eva Davis, Canton Public Library, MI (2013 LibraryAware Community Award winner); Sandra Fried, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries Initiative; Kira Hasbargen, International City/County Managers Association; and George Martinez, Knight Foundation, for their help in selecting this year’s honorees.

ljx140401webAware3bAtlantic County Library System, Mays Landing, NJ
Karen L. George, Library Director

Atlantic County Library System’s (ACLS) Brigantine branch was one of many libraries in communities damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In response, the library created the Sandy Stories Project (SSP), a feature film documenting the impact.
Other branches may replicate this pilot program in the future, but the project’s footprint goes well beyond the library. ACLS partnered with local businesses and community agencies such as BrigStrong (the town’s long-term recovery group); city officials; New Jersey Hope and Healing (NJ Hope), a FEMA-funded peer counseling effort; Richard Stockton College of New Jersey (Stockton); and local schools. Those relationships continue beyond the documentary. The library now cosponsors with NJ Hope and BrigStrong a support group for Sandy survivors. NJ Hope established a table in the library’s lobby that is staffed several days each week (pictured). A Stockton professor who also works with the American Red Cross is using interview footage in research to inform future disaster response and preparedness efforts, inspiring the library to plan a follow-up project. And ACLS was invited to pilot a series of “mental health first aid” workshops for library employees; the results will be presented at the New Jersey Library Association’s convention in June.

The library “inspired other entities in the region to think of story-gathering as a means of chronicling and healing,” Beth Bliss, Brigantine branch manager, told LJ. NJ Hope incorporated “Tell us your story” into events throughout the state, and Stockton began collecting its own stories. For using the library’s role as aggregator and sharer of stories to heal its community, among other initiatives, ACLS is the 2014 LibraryAware Community Award second-place winner and will receive a $7,500 prize.

ljx140401webAware4bKitsap Regional Library, Bremerton, WA
Jill Jean, Library Director

Kitsap Regional Library is “passionately, actively embedded in everything Kitsap County,” with more than 200 partnerships. Community engagement is a core pillar of the library’s 2010–15 strategic plan, which is 75 percent completed, and of the next plan, currently in development. In addition to seeking feedback from ongoing discussions with influential members of the community, patrons, staff, and nonusers, the library commissioned a study by OrangeBoy Consulting to gather concrete data on users, the resources they most value, and preferred communication methods.

Among Kitsap’s many initiatives, some of the most notable are BibloTEC, in which homeless and at-risk youth are given access to cutting-edge technology training, equipment, and mentorship through a partnership with Coffee Oasis, and The Agency, a staff-led advocacy team that uses guerrilla marketing tactics to spark interest in the library in new ways (pictured). Kitsap also collaborated with digital vendor OverDrive to develop and launch the first Kids eReading Room and with WebJunction to conduct a study of staff needs that WebJunction will use to develop comprehensive training for public libraries.

If financial support is one metric of community engagement, Kitsap must be doing something right: two of its buildings are owned and supported completely by community groups, and a recently awarded million-dollar grant from the Kitsap Community Foundation will help support a new library.

For making community engagement an integral part of its planning and assessment process, among other initiatives, Kitsap Regional Library is the third-place winner of the 2014 LibraryAware Community Award and will receive a $5,000 prize.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III ( 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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