The Public Library Association (PLA) conference comes around every other year, but that long wait may make it all the more special to attendees, many of whom described the biennial gathering as their favorite library conference. Held in Indianapolis, this year’s conference brought together librarians, publishers, authors, and vendors for three days of programming with a focus on issues like collection development, finding partners to help increase the impact of programs, and reaching out to patrons, especially those in underserved communities.
Those lessons were on display even before the conference officially kicked off. On Wednesday, March 12, the half-day preconference “Maximizing Patron Outcomes: Gather and Use Community Data To Deliver High Value Technology Services,” was presented by Samantha Becker and Mike Crandall of the University of Washington Information School. They stressed the relationship-building benefits of coordinating with local government, community organizations, schools, and more, and recommended the suite of tools offered by the Urban Libraries Council’s Edge Initiative and the University of Washington Information School’s Impact Survey as two resources that can be used together for maximum benefit and minimum cost.
Maximizing benefits and making the most of resources was also on the minds of speakers at ABC: Always Be Circulating, a collection development panel that proved to be one of Thursday’s most popular. Panelists spoke out for a largely back to basics approach to putting books on shelves—and more importantly, into the hands of readers. One of the most important ingredients, panelists pointed out, is having a staff made up of avid readers, or failing that, people who know how to sound like avid readers.
“All of your staff need to be able to talk books,” said Bibliocommons’ Stephanie Chase, a sentiment with which fellow panelists Columbus Metro Libraries’ Robin Nesbitt, King County Library System’s Alene Moroni, and Wendy Bartlett from Cuyahoga County Public Libraries agreed. Since not even a staff of voracious readers can stay up to date with everything, the panel unanimously recommended keeping up with the LibraryReads! initiative’s monthly top ten list of library staff-recommended titles as a way to improve service and ensure that librarians and assistants can talk with patrons about a wide variety of reading interests, even ones they may not share. Nesbitt and Chase have served on the group’s steering committee since its inception at 2013’s ALA Annual conference.
The panel also stressed the importance of taking merchandising lessons from retailers, from ensuring that endcaps and displays are always full of books to placing materials near checkout areas, encouraging impulse checkouts from “smash and grab” customers, like those who may just be in to pick up a book on hold. Bartlett, a former Borders employee who brings retail sensibilities to her work as Cuyahoga’s collection development manager, pointed out that these small steps can add items to patron transactions, boosting circulation numbers even if fewer people are coming through library doors.
Of course, getting patrons in the library is just half the battle—users also need to be able to navigate the space intuitively. For librarians looking to make their space easier for everyone to use, there was “Crafting Excellence: Using Research to Build the Best User Experience,” a user-experience (UX) panel moderated by LJ’s Rebecca Miller. The session kicked off with an analysis of data gathered through national research conducted for Patron Profiles that pointed to gaps in user satisfaction with aspects of the library ranging from programming for adults to the size and accessibility of ebook collections and mobile services. Aaron Schmidt, author of LJ’s “The User Experience” column, framed those gaps as both missed opportunities and untapped potential. Pointing to ways to gain insight into UX improvements, he emphasized the ability for libraries with any budget to address UX by understanding how the library is used and where even small changes could make a difference.
Jill Porter, assistant director for public services at Traverse Area District Library, MI, and Denise Davis, deputy library director at the Sacramento Public Library, discussed how they each had used data analysis to inform service changes and future strategy. The need to learn through live observation was a theme, as Porter noted the importance of understanding how patrons move through the library to understand, while Davis pointed out how interacting with staff on the floor could improve managers’ understanding of how their crews are interacting with patrons. All noted the need for flexibility and the willingness to test simple changes—like moving chairs around—and, if they don’t take, being willing to test again.
Reaching Diverse Audiences
Getting patrons in the door was the focus of a number of other panels at PLA, with a focus on bringing underserved communities, including immigrant and refugee populations, into the fold. At Friday’s “Serving Immigrants and Linguistically Diverse Communities” program, presenters spoke about the importance of reaching out to these communities, which Pima County Public Library, AZ,’s (PCPL) Mary Givins said began with researching the communities in your area. Local school districts, Givins pointed out, can be hugely helpful in this respect, as they have a good understanding of what languages their students are speaking at home, which can give library staff a better picture of the makeup of immigrant communities they serve. Tara Foxx-Lupo, also from PCPL, expanded on the idea of partnering with outside organizations to identify and serve immigrant communities. She’s spearheading PCPL’s work with the University of Arizona’s Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, which sends students in the program to assist with the library’s outreach to these groups. “We’re asking the community, ‘What are your barriers to using the library?’” Foxx-Lupo said, adding that the results are being translated into a series of videos in five languages—Spanish, Nepalese, Arabic, Somali, and MaiMai—that help not only reach out to new immigrants and promote library services, but can also offer library staffers a primer on communities they may not understand.
Marcela of Hennepin County Public Libraries in Minnesota spoke on the need to make programming relevant to the communities the library is targeting. World language Story time, for example, wasn’t resonating with Somali immigrants in her community, while programs billed as getting children ready for kindergarten had more of a draw to those families.
Libraries looking to more effectively serve minority and immigrant communities could take a cue from King County Library System, WA, (KCLS), which presented on its long standing page fellowship program in the “Diversifying Your Workforce” panel. The page fellowship program focused on recruiting individuals with diverse backgrounds who want to work in libraries, but face barriers to employment such as a lack of English language skills or a lack of work experience in the U.S. The program, said KCLS Diversity Program Coordinator Jo Anderson Cavinta, helps libraries in the system better serve their communities by more accurately reflecting the people who live in them, putting new patrons at ease and providing them with library employees who are more familiar with the challenges they face. While there are challenges In recruiting and training these new pages, Page Fellowship program director Nu’u Fuavai admitted, they pale in comparison to the upside of bringing new blood and fresh perspectives into the stacks. “Within uncomfortable zones,” Fuavai told attendees, “is where you find opportunities.”
Making A Statement
PLA also saw a host of announcements timed to coincide with the conference. On March 13, the first day of the official conference, the Pew Research Center released “From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers,” a study of different types of library users that marked the culmination of its work with the Gates Foundation to study libraries and library use in the 21st century. And the weekend following the conference saw the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) announce its condemnation of ALA’s decision to hold the organization’s 2016 annual conference in Orlando, FL, as concerns over the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws continue to ripple throughout the African American community following the shooting deaths of black teenagers, including Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Jordan Davis last year. “BCALA believes that ALA, which claims various commitments to diversity and tolerance, should have begun plans to find a new venue for ALA 2016 following the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman,” the organization said in a statement.
The exhibition floor bustled during built-in breaks, as librarians perused new galleys and viewed demonstrations of the latest hardware and software offerings. Of interest to reference librarians is the return of Rosetta Stone to service in libraries. After taking a break from the market, the language learning service will once again be offered to libraries as a database from EBSCO. Other new database offerings coming soon include Core Concepts: Biology and Core Concepts: Periodic Table, a pair of science databases geared toward young learners. Adult researchers, meanwhile, will be treated to a pair of new data offerings from SAGE in U.S. Political Stats and Local Stats, both of which will riff of State Stats, which the publisher launched last year.
Each morning opened with a series of author talks, including Friday’s Big Ideas presentation, which saw journalist Megan McArdle discuss the upside of failure, psychology writer David McRaney ask attendees to confront their biases to make smarter decisions, and tech writer Clive Thompson speak on how new technologies create new forms of literacy that librarians and patrons alike will be able to use to communicate more effectively.
And after the panels were closed and the exhibit floor shut down, the networking opportunities stayed up late. On Thursday night, librarians from around the country gathered at the Indianapolis Central Library to celebrate the achievements of Library Journal’s Best Small Library in America award winners of the past two years: Southern Area Public Library in Lost Creek, WV, the 2013 winner, and 2014 Best Small recipients Pine River Library in Pine River, CO. Over drinks and dinner, representatives from Library Journal and the Gates Foundation presented commemorative plaques to both winners, acknowledging runners up both years as well, during an emotional ceremony.