Executive Director, Arapahoe Library District, Centennial, Colorado
There is more than enough evidence to confirm the choice of Nicolle Ingui Davies as the 2016 LJ Librarian of the Year, our award sponsored by Baker & Taylor. Take her special skills at communicating with community members in and outside of the library. Then there is her leadership in building and developing a committed and passionate staff dedicated to patron service. That is complemented by her unequivocal belief that libraries are essential services, not just “nice” assets, and the best medium to achieve an informed citizenry. The results of Davies’s leadership convinced voters in 2015 that they ought to tax themselves to the tune of $30 million a year, increasing the Arapahoe Library District (ALD) budget by $6 million.
ALD runs eight libraries, in addition to outreach and mobile services, in the exurbs and suburbs of Denver. ALD officially serves the 250,000 people who live within the district boundaries, but many more use its services and facilities. “We serve anybody who comes in, whether they live in our service area or not,” says Davies.
Davies reports to a board of seven members appointed by the Arapahoe County Commissioners and Deer Trail School Board. There are five school districts in ALD’s service area.
ALD is a library district, one of 55 in Colorado, about half of the state’s 114 library jurisdictions. Such a district levies its own dedicated tax based on property values, which is paid directly to systems such as ALD. Davies points out that this means ALD does not have to compete annually with the police and fire departments or other public services for funding.
Still, each district must pass its levies. The recent tax referendum was a vote of confidence, Davies tells LJ. “It was meaningful because our operating budget had been about $24 million to $25 million, and now we’ll be operating with $30 million. It was a mil levy increase, and it doesn’t go away. It should last us for ten to 12 years if the economy holds.”
Most ALD revenue comes from that tax, plus a sliver from vehicle registration. An increase in state money has helped ALD pay for its Family Literacy program and its centers to encourage early childhood preliteracy skills, sometimes in multiple languages.
The essential library
Soon after she became executive director (ED) at ALD, Davies and her team established four pillars in the system’s rebranding platform:
- Deliver very important patron experiences
- Surprise and delight
- Make every experience matter
- Strive for simplicity.
Together, they form the foundation for the ALD Strategic Plan and “the way we do business.”
“It is all focused on the patron and making sure that ALD delivers a memorable experience when [users] come through the doors or interact with ALD out in the community. We want them to remember the experience, indeed be bowled over by it because it is more than they expected from the public library,” says Davies.
Davies and the ALD board decided they needed to “shake up” ALD and move it from “nice to essential” in terms of the way members of the community use the library.
“I think all of us are aware of the kind of antiquated perception of libraries that we have to battle. Over the past five to seven years this has become ever more challenging. As e-content became so pervasive, we had to carve out our niche, our relevance…. It was also about reworking the way that we tell our story to turn the perception of libraries people have on its head,” Davies says.
“I am most impressed with Nicolle’s ability to develop and articulate an inspiring vision of the library and to use that focus, relentlessly, to ensure that the organization meets its strategic objectives,” wrote Dorothy Hargrove, director of library services at the neighboring Englewood Public Library, in her letter of nomination. “Few library leaders are able to meet both of these challenges with equal skill. When [Davies] stepped into the role as executive director, she quickly put together a top-notch leadership team, and together they created an exciting, forward-thinking strategic plan.”
Davies is clear that taking this strong lead doesn’t preclude being open to others’ input. “I’d love to say that all our success comes from our strategic planning, but in fact sometimes the ideas come organically, from the staff, and then we incorporate them…. Sometimes we come across things, in interactions in the library or out in the community, that are so good that we need to get them into the plan. We have to make sure we are mirroring what is of interest to our community,” says Davies, revealing an exceptional manager’s approach to supporting innovation.
A great communicator
Davies was first hired by then-ED Eloise May, who had been ALD’s chief for 20 of her 40 years there and to whom Davies says she is indebted as a mentor and role model, along with her parents, Len and Eileen Ingui.
Davies was previously a television news producer, which fed into her communications career. She believed journalism was a public service and chose broadcast news because she thought people would be more apt to turn on a TV than open a newspaper. After three years, she was devastated to discover that her view was wrong.
“Now I see the library as a more effective medium. What inspires me is that the public library is one of the few places of equality left in our country. When you enter a public library, in theory at least, everybody is treated equally…. I don’t think you can find that in many places in 2015,” says Davies.
Davies began as director of communications, managing that department and serving as a liaison to community organizations, patrons, and the media and editing and directing the design of external and internal information such as the annual report, promotional materials, publicity campaigns, the staff intranet, and the employee newsletter.
After several promotions, in 2012 Davies was named ED. Her background in broadcast news and public relations meant building effective communications came naturally for Davies in her role as director. “Nicolle has transformed ALD by bringing staff together for one-on-one and all-facility meetings…. She appreciates and carefully considers her staff’s valuable feedback about her vision and direction,” writes Jessica Sidener, the current ALD director of communications, programming, and partnerships, who nominated Davies for this award.
Not only do staff members meet frequently with one another on Davies’s watch, they also attend conferences to interact with the wider world—and not just other librarians: the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music, film, and emerging technology event is a particular favorite. About six ALD staff are sent to SXSW every year. Davies feels that it is important for them to get a fix on communication and social trends that may not show up as soon in other places. Davies feels that it is important for staff to be alert to trends outside of libraries that could change the way libraries should do business.
Leading the tech way
In her previous role as ALD’s deputy director, Davies began the evolution of ALD libraries into community centers with a focus on easy access to resources and technology. ALD is the local leader in providing access to cutting-edge technology. The libraries feature products in their early development, the beta phase out of reach to a typical household. ALD takes on the costs and risks of early adoption, providing such new technologies as 3-D printers, Go Pro cameras, Oculus Rift Virtual Reality headsets, and many more. ALD was one of the first libraries in the country to get Google Glass. Staff members had to fly out to California to pick it up at Google headquarters. “The whole thing was very cloak and dagger,” Davies says.
To acquaint constituents with these services, ALD introduced Tech Road Shows throughout the Denver area. Staff specialists bring the newest technology to local businesses, professional and social associations, museums, and business groups.
Davies gives ALD’s IT staff credit for making it possible to provide access to the newest developments.
“They look at everything coming out and started the Beta Tech Initiative a few years ago. It was a staff member who said, ‘Why don’t we start getting things in the beta phase that the average patron won’t buy but about which they are very curious? Let’s buy that and let the public play with it.’ We took the idea to the board, and they thought it was great, so we ran with it. It has been incredibly popular,” says Davies with pride.
The IT department includes people who with their skills could be making a lot more money working in other places, according to Davies, but they choose to work at ALD because they believe in the library’s mission. The same thing is true of the communications department. Davies calls them “agency-worthy” staff, but, again, they believe in the mission.
Davies depends heavily on honest feedback from the whole staff she has built and admits she is inspired by them every day.
“They are some of the smartest, most passionate people I know. When you are surrounded by so much talent, of course you leverage that. It is everywhere in this organization. For example, when you talk to buildings and grounds staff, you realize their deep commitment. They do a great job making sure patrons are safe and comfortable. The staff working the library floor with the public are [just] as committed. There are days when that work is very challenging…. You often have to deal with very demanding people…. The ALD staff are professional and are the greatest asset of our brand,” Davies says.
We compete with everyone
According to Davies, ALD is “competing with bookstores, with Starbucks, with the grocery store, with the recreation center, the soccer game, the theater,” she says. “We’re competing for people’s time so we have to provide an exceptional customer experience. The number one thing we focus on is customer service—we train on that, we talk about it ad nauseam…. I’m beating that drum all the time…. We are public servants, and my staff are really, really good at it!”
Davies admits that there have been a few trying moments with staff. She has realigned the group a few times, with the patron in mind, even though that is nearly always difficult. “If the end goal is to provide better service for the patron, staff changes can be helpful,” Davies says.
“We used to have two positions, one called ‘material handler,’ like a page or shelver, and the other was called a ‘patron specialist.’ The material handlers would only handle materials, so when a material handler was on the floor and a patron asked for help finding something, the material handler would say, ‘I can’t, but let me help you find someone who can.’ Then they would go to find a patron specialist, with the patron following along,” recalls Davies. “Ultimately, I blended those two jobs, which meant each had to learn how to do what the other had been doing. Many had to learn how to love the public, but now the patron can ask anyone for help and anyone can help them at that very moment. It meant a better patron experience, but it did create some pain. Some people were so uncomfortable working with the public that they left [the library]. Most rose to the [occasion], and now they are doing both jobs beautifully,” says Davies. “It hasn’t always been perfect, but it has worked.”
In addition to Davies’s work on the legislation committees of the American Library Association and Colorado Association of Libraries, one of the most ambitious programs she is part of is Outside the Lines (OTL), a coalition of Colorado library directors and marketers. An initiative of R-Squared (for “Risk & Reward,” from the Colorado conference of the same name), OTL lives up to its motto “Libraries Reintroduced,” convening a weeklong celebration to reconnect people with the library mission (creativity, tech, discovery, etc.). Each participating library holds its own events, such as ALD’s free outdoor concert with more than 2,500 attendees. OTL began in 2014 with over 175 libraries—in 2015, there were more than 270 from 42 states and territories, six Canadian provinces, and Australia.
The MLIS and the MPA
Davies completed her Master in Public Administration (MPA) degree while working at a public relations consulting firm. When the ALD director of communications position opened, she decided that she had found her place.
She soon went on to earn a Master in Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Davies says the degrees complement each other, especially in leadership roles. “The MPA served me more on a daily operational basis” in navigating budgets, policy, and governance, “while the MLIS gives me the core values in which I believe so strongly,” she says. “I think the MLIS programs could probably benefit from some elements of the MPA programs,” says Davies, adding, “the MPA/MLIS is the best possible combination for this work.”
Of course, degrees are far from the only support Davies taps into in pursuit of that goal. “My awesome family allows me to do my work and excel at it,” says Davies of husband Josh and kids Ryder, Izzy, and Ainsley.
That excellence is paying off for her community and all of librarianship.
“The Arapahoe Library District under Nicolle’s leadership has become a model for innovation, responsible stewardship, and community engagement…. With leaders of this caliber, the future of libraries is bright indeed,” says Hargrove.