December 14, 2017

Transformed by the People | 2015 LibraryAware Community Award

TRANSFORMED BY THEIR COMMUNITY (l.–r.): Barbara  Alford, Executive Director, Wiregrass Foundation;  Bettye Forbus, Director, Dothan Houston County Library  System; Mark Culver, Chair, Houston County  Commission; and Mike Schmitz, Mayor, City of Dothan.  Photo by Nick Stakelum/Jay Hare

TRANSFORMED BY THEIR COMMUNITY (l.–r.): Barbara Alford, Executive Director, Wiregrass Foundation; Bettye Forbus, Director, Dothan Houston County Library System; Mark Culver, Chair, Houston County Commission; and Mike Schmitz, Mayor, City of Dothan.
Photo by Nick Stakelum/Jay Hare

In 2010, two young fathers, Forrest Register and Vince Edge, decided that a direct appeal to local government from citizens of the city of Dothan and its surrounding Houston County, AL, could help transform their community into one in which their children would grow up educated and happy and perhaps even want to stay as adults. Their first priority was to infuse new energy and relevance into the lethargic Houston County Library System (HCLS): at the time headquartered at a downtown branch that few people visited, although it was open seven days a week.

The citizens, elected officials, and local businesspeople responded with an engaged enthusiasm and disciplined organization that ultimately transformed both the library and the community. Their effort, a model for any American community large or small, was so successful that it won for the people of Houston County and the library the 2015 LibraryAware Community Award. The award is presented by LJ and funded by LibraryAware, a product of EBSCO Information Services’ NoveList Division. It carries a prize of $10,000.

Raising expectations

Register and Edge started by calling together a steering committee in late 2010. They aimed to build a resident-based ­appeal to demonstrate that Houston County, home to more than 100,000 people, lacked the institutions and enterprises necessary to attract young families and new businesses, maintain growth, and ultimately retain its population over time.

HCLS’s Central Library was then housed in an old school building in Dothan, which was physically big (45,000 sq. ft.) but small in appeal. The dark, outdated facility had not changed much in two decades. There was “[a lack of] Wi-Fi, limited computer access, outdated furniture, unfriendly policies, old collections, dreary meeting areas, and minimal programming,” the library’s award nomination admits. It was located in downtown Dothan, a rural, agricultural area in the southeastern corner of Alabama bordering on Florida and Georgia, and residents in the outlying parts of the county were not using the facility.

The problems that plagued HCLS are common to all too many libraries, especially that of a chronic lack of funding. The system limped along on about $5.34 per capita. To that add a stagnant library board and a staff that felt overwhelmed by demands and needs for library service that went unmet.

Register and Edge had their work cut out for them. They gathered a group of residents and business leaders who shared their vision of the library, in the process attracting the attention of the Wiregrass Foundation, which awarded a grant to fund a strategic plan and community needs assessment for the library.

The engaged consultant

The new steering committee hired consultant MaryEllin Santiago to lead the community team, discover what residents wanted from the library, and develop a strategic plan to reengage all the residents of town and county with the library. Santiago had previously served as coordinator for the Gulf Coast Libraries Project, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiative that rebuilt 21 libraries in Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

“That is where I developed a skill set in community engagement, educating government leaders in the value of a library and what it can do in a community that is looking for transformation,” she recalls.

Santiago’s first impression of her task wasn’t promising. “I flew into Dothan late at night that first time. It was dark and I couldn’t see much. The old library building was open so I looked in and was a little put off by its dark unattractiveness. Luckily, the next morning I met with the people on the steering committee, and my confidence was restored. They were excited, energetically earnest, and optimistically hopeful. As they opened up their hearts, gave so much of their time, and ultimately opened up their pocketbooks for the library, I was more and more engaged,” she remembers.

COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP Strong patron involvement demonstrates DHCLS’s successful strategy of meeting community  needs. (Clockwise from top l.): DHCLS’s newly constructed Main Library; Director Bettye Forbus (l.) with the two residents  who started the library’s renaissance: Forrest Register (c.) and Vince Edge; therapy dogs are trained to help children  with reading ­difficulties; the DHCLS bookmobile serves county locations without proximity to the branches.  Photos by Nick Stakelum/Jay Hare

COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP Strong patron involvement demonstrates DHCLS’s successful strategy of meeting community needs. (Clockwise from top l.): DHCLS’s newly constructed Main Library; Director Bettye Forbus (l.) with the two residents who started the library’s renaissance: Forrest Register (c.) and Vince Edge; therapy dogs are trained to help children with reading ­difficulties; the DHCLS bookmobile serves county locations without proximity to the branches.
Photos by Nick Stakelum/Jay Hare

A strong start

In 2010, the community needs component of the project was implemented; a 30-day campaign and media blitz was launched to educate business leaders, hold resident forums, and gather feedback via a survey. The project also provided staff training and time to update government officials about what modern libraries are doing.

The community survey, launched right after the Dothan Eagle ran a feature about the project, garnered over 1,100 responses in a single day. Elected officials were surprised at the pent-up demand for better libraries. They were bombarded with questions from residents about helping the library improve its services. Ultimately, more than 3,400 residents out of the county’s population of 103,000 completed the survey.

Bettye Forbus, who has been the library director for more than three decades, was also surprised by the sudden support.

“There had been many years of neglect, including financial neglect from our city and county. If you know anything about south Alabama you know football is king. We had wonderful recreational facilities, but the library had long been neglected,” Forbus says. “It took people from the community with a vision to develop new priorities. They learned that when you are doing industrial development, people look at more than your ball fields. They want to see your museum, your library, they want a well-rounded community.”

Retiring this spring, Forbus is going out on a high note. She has been fully energized by the transformation, in token of which the LibraryAware Community Award will be presented on April 12, during her retirement celebration.

Initially the library staff doubted that change would come, but they began to feel the momentum when it was decided that the community could be better served with two smaller locations, one downtown, to remain a community anchor, and one in the western part of the city where the population was growing, using a parcel of land in a park and a downtown property owned by the library (in addition to the established branches in nearby Ashford and Columbia). Architects were hired to plan new buildings, and the library board was ­expanded from five to 15 members.

“There had been attempts to build a much larger, monumental kind of library structure that didn’t get the buy-in from the community. These new leaders realized that if they began to engage the community with a strategic plan and got their feedback, it would be easier to generate interest and get people excited about a less monumental building plan,” says Santiago.

Santiago and Forbus worked long hours to educate local leaders about why a public library was important. They met one-on-one with business and community heads. It took strong arguments to convince those on the commercial side that a renewed library would help attract new businesses and spur growth.

“The strategic plan showed them that we had thought everything out, we had engaged all of the stakeholders in the community,” Forbus says.

“During those conversations with business leaders I ­realized that people really had no idea what a modern public library was doing. Their model was antiquated, even though their love for a library was still there,” says Santiago. “It was all the things we know about libraries but that people might not know if they hadn’t been in a library since the fourth grade.”

Dothan mayor Mike Schmitz, trying to bring manufacturing and technology to town, realized that revitalizing library service would be a tremendous help.

“I need to attract businesses to Houston County in order for our community to grow and have a place for residents to work. The former library system was utilitarian and provided materials and limited technology for residents. But it was not something I talked about to prospective businesses or residents. Now it is the first place we show people coming into town!,” says Schmitz in a letter submitted with the award application. “I am amazed at the number of residents using the facilities and how prevalent technology is in the spaces…. We need to have an educated workforce in our community to fill local jobs. I think the library is an ongoing partner in that effort.”

Building on strong foundations

The Wiregrass Foundation’s vision is to support educational opportunities in Houston County and it sees the library as a gateway to a thriving community.

The leadership of the local Wiregrass Foundation was instrumental in every aspect of the project, from gathering resident support and engaging officials to tendering the $3 million challenge grant for the building project.

“Our initial investment in a strategic plan for the library system in 2010 laid the groundwork for what would become an $8 million public-private partnership. That planning process energized the imaginations of all area residents. The resulting plan provided a clear vision of what we could achieve if we all worked together toward a common goal. It is no surprise that the Foundation’s issuance of a $3 million challenge grant in 2012 yielded overwhelming support from the City, County, local businesses and organizations, and residents from throughout the service region,” writes Wiregrass Foundation president Barbara Alford.

Once that grant was received, library board member Mary Alice Veale established a fundraising campaign. Using her expertise from other local efforts and her extensive network of personal connections, she raised nearly $1.5 million in 30 days.

Then the steel was set on the buildings, and residents realized the facilities would really be built. More contributions poured in, eventually enough to cover the entire $8 million project. No debt or bonds were needed. “I am most proud of the fact that with a clear vision, ongoing conversation, and good fiscal responsibility we were able to build two debt-free facilities in key parts of town that will serve us well into the future,” the mayor wrote. The operating budget was crucial to the building project: officials were quick to fund facilities for which the community could sustain operating support.

In 2012, ground was broken for the two new buildings, and the system was reconstituted as the Dothan Houston County Library System (DHCLS), which today has four branch locations and a bookmobile. Meanwhile, the DHCLS operating budget has more than doubled, from $5.40 per capita in 2010 to $12.80 per capita in 2014. Both city and county funding continue, and private support grows.

COMMUNITY SERVICE (Clockwise from top l.): Ashford branch manager Anna Todd (r.) helps a patron with a database; the revamped library has seen a growth in usage from adult patrons to teens (shown here attending a weekly chess club); library assistant Joni Mize (l.) helps another patron with a Mediasurfer iPad dispenser; the Westgate library is one of two new branches. Photos by Nick Stakelum/Jay Hare

COMMUNITY SERVICE (Clockwise from top l.): Ashford branch manager Anna Todd (r.) helps a patron with a database; the revamped library has seen a growth in usage from adult patrons to teens (shown here attending a weekly chess club); library assistant Joni Mize (l.) helps another patron with a Mediasurfer iPad dispenser; the Westgate library is one of two new branches. Photos by Nick Stakelum/Jay Hare

New programs and services

With the new facilities came a new emphasis on technology and new demands on staff. Many staffing changes were triggered by the library’s transformation. Budget increases allowed the hiring of more staff and pay increases to attract a more qualified candidate pool. “The hiring of new employees has become a community event, with library job postings on billboards, radio, and in the local newspaper,” the library’s award application explains. More than 300 people attended the library job fair in February 2014. DHCLS acquired and trained talented new employees who embrace the new libraries “with gusto.” Two new MLS librarians were added to the staff as well as additional technical support for new library technology programs. The library website was rebuilt, new and existing staff were trained, and new technology infrastructure was installed. A very active Friends of the Library group has emerged to energize the library and help residents see the difference that their input has made.

There is still work to be done. Even after the building project and the huge accomplishment of the doubling of its per capita funding, DHCLS support is still below that of most other Alabama libraries. That first effort required a new five-year plan that told citizens and officials where DHCLS wanted to be. Now those players are in place to keep moving forward. “As a private funder of local education, [the Wiregrass Foundation] was especially pleased to see the library embraced by the community as an essential component of educational development and community business growth. The library system’s process of rethinking its mission and re-creating its physical, organizational, and programmatic structure has instilled in all of us a love of reading, a desire to learn, and a faith in what we can do when we come together as a community. Today our library reflects vibrant places of engaged learning,” Alford says. “We have already committed funding to a new Strategic Plan 2015–20 that will help us plan our next steps as a library system focused on this community and a community centered on learning.”

A model for all

The story in Dothan is one that could be duplicated in any town across the United States where library support is stagnant and staff are stuck. It is possible with a clear vision and plan to create a library system that can help propel the community into the next decade and beyond. The unique and amazing reboot for Dothan started with a mission by a very small group of residents. The library staff, unable to generate that excitement on their own, needed the community to make it happen. Dedicated local leaders and a committed, expert consultant activated the populace. Library board chair Steve Roy and his 14 board colleagues have logged hundreds of volunteer hours on the project. They are most excited by the response from the community, as proven by door counts that averaged 800 per day in 2010 but now average 2,500 per day.

“I have never witnessed a community pull together so quickly and completely to support a public library,” says ­Santiago.

DHCLS is now a true model for all libraries. The transformation has helped create a strong business environment, a vibrant educational core, and a cultural center to engage residents for years to come. If you want to learn how to engage a community, Dothan, AL, is a good place to start.

LibraryAware Community Award 2015 Honorees

LJ would like to thank judges Cynthia Berner, Wichita Public Library (2014 LibraryAware Community Award winner); John Chrastka, EveryLibrary.org and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker; Sandra Fried, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries Initiative; Amy Garmer, Aspen Institute; Kira Hasbargen, ICMA; and Lilly Weinberg, Knight Foundation, for their help in selecting this year’s honorees.

Microsoft Word - LibraryAware 2015.docxST. PAUL PUBLIC LIBRARY
Kit Hadley, Library Director

The Saint Paul Public Library (SPPL) serves a large community of new Americans, including a growing number of Hmong, Somali, and Karen immigrants, and inclusivity is a major part of its mission. With 13 branches and four collocated libraries, plus the metro area’s only bookmobile, SPPL is continuously expanding its goal of being “connected, mobile, multilingual, and responsive to community learning opportunities.” Along with some 6,500 programs a year, story time and computer training classes are offered in English, Spanish, and Chinese—as well as Karen, Somali, Hmong, Amharic, and Oromo.

SPPL’s Mobile Workplace, a traveling computer lab, brings digital literacy instruction and early literacy classes in several languages to members of the community who may not be able to access a brick-and-mortar library and offers programs at correctional facilities, shelters, and assisted living residences. In 2015, SPPL will be piloting a project to circulate Wi-Fi hot spots with free 4G Internet service—first on the list will be students in St. Paul public schools who lack Internet service at home.

And this outreach is giving back. A recent public awareness campaign enlisted the hashtag #BecauseOfTheLibrary, asking residents for stories of how the library has touched their lives. The results, shared on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, increased both new library card registrations and program attendance by 13 percent and boosted capital campaign donations to $6.8 million. The 2015 St. Paul city budget added $300,000 for materials and $400,000 to increase hours, helping the library grow along with its ever-expanding community.

As Rebecca Ryan, manager of the Sun Ray branch, said in a 2014 video for SPPL, “We’re not in the book business. We are in the St. Paul business.” SPPL is the 2015 LibraryAware Community Award second place winner and will receive $7,500.

Microsoft Word - LibraryAware Award App for TSCPL (1)[2].docxTOPEKA & SHAWNEE COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY, KS
Gina Millsap, CEO

As a one-building library serving 180,000 people living in a 550 square mile area, Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL) needs to be civic-minded—and with a wide range of programs and local initiatives, TSCPL lives up to its goals, serving members of the community at every level.

Since 2008, the Topeka and Shawnee County citizens have joined forces through the Heartland Visioning planning process, “a collective effort to share ideas and dreams for our community.” The communitywide visioning project, chaired by CEO Millsap, features librarians in many advisory roles. Librarians also serve on the boards of Heartland Healthy Neighborhoods and the Shawnee County Health Agency. Some 40 TSCPL staff members are trained facilitators, enabling community discussions both in and outside of the library on issues such as health care and poverty.

TSCPL is also a founding partner in 712 Innovations, a combined Maker/co–work space in downtown Topeka. There, members are encouraged to pursue creative ideas, products, and business opportunities. Millsap serves on its board as well, with TSCPL’s business and technology librarian providing on-site consultation ten hours a week.

Not only does TSCPL thrive with strong leadership—Kansas state librarian and LJ’s 2013 Librarian of the Year Jo Budler points to Millsap’s ongoing commitment to community partnership as a strong component of the library’s success—it invests in the leaders of tomorrow. In January the library hosted its fourth round of Candidate School for Topekans interested in running for city council. Held every other year prior to municipal elections, the program offers potential candidates an overview of the political process from local lawmakers, free of charge. Topeka’s current mayor and four city council members are alumni; clearly TSCPL knows how to make friends in high places.

TSCPL is the 2015 LibraryAware Community Award third place winner and will receive $5,000.—Lisa Peet

This article was published in Library Journal's April 1, 2015 issue. 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 (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) 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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Comments

  1. Megan Johnson says:

    Thank you to Forrest and Vince for taking the bull by the horns and getting a new library system off the ground and growing. Betty has tried for many, many years to improve the physical situation as well as resources on a very limited budget. I can remember when you were young along with my children and we go to the library for children’s time. The library building was dismal even back in the 70’s and 80’s. I did a lot of my library media graduate work in the Dothan Library also in the 80s. The potential was always there with the staff, just not the financial or full community support. Betty, Congratulations! on your soon to be Retirement. You deserve it, and it is great to see you go out on this high note. I hope to return to Dothan soon, in May, and see the new facilities. Thank you again Betty for your continued efforts, Forrest and Vince for your vision, and getting the full community support for this much needed service. It will help not only the community but will assist in the growth of Dothan. Thank you again.