The Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL), KS, is engaged in every discussion in its community. In fact, it is usually leading them. The library is central to local deliberations and changes; creates leaders; and uplifts the community it serves. The way the library has become a major force for its constituents in the city of Topeka and throughout Shawnee County sets a bar for all libraries and has earned TSCPL the 2016 Gale/LJ Library of the Year Award.
TSCPL’s efforts to go beyond the traditional library role to become a convener for community conversation emanate from the very top and permeate through every level of the library. Gina Millsap, TSCPL CEO, is the immediate past chair of Heartland Visioning, a nonprofit organization working to improve the quality of life in Topeka and Shawnee County. The group’s process involves surveys, community input, strategizing, and the implementation of real change. Last year, the library worked with Heartland Visioning to hold community workshops to hear the aspirations of citizens. What they heard is being incorporated into the library’s strategic plan for the next decade.
TSCPL’s relationship with Heartland Visioning has deep roots. As far back as the late 1990s, TSCPL worked with the group to train library leadership and librarians to be effective facilitators. The aim was to establish a higher standard for how all community groups, including elected and appointed bodies, work together and make decisions. Library staff needed additional skills to be conveners. But, according to Millsap, it wasn’t a stretch: the core values and skills intrinsic to the information professions make those individuals naturals at listening without judging, maintaining confidentiality, finding and synthesizing information, and valuing diverse perspectives.
The extra effort paid off: TSCPL was a key leader in facilitating community meetings, according to John Hunter, executive director of Heartland Visioning. “The library involved over 5,000 individuals representing our city and county. Today, library leadership continues the training of their staff, members of nonprofit groups, and general community volunteers in the facilitation process,” says Hunter. “Library staff are recognized and praised for their expertise both in this facilitation training as well as [by] providing top- quality facilitators for various activities throughout Topeka and Shawnee County.”
The library’s 42 trained facilitators run meetings both in and outside of the library. Conversations focus on topics such as increasing collective health, battling poverty and homelessness, creating work-readiness programs, growing broadband access, feeding children, and supporting young professionals. At these talks, the library offers resources and identifies needs it can fulfill. The library “always has a representative at the table, usually standing in front, marker poised at the flip chart,” Millsap says.
“All of the good work done in our communities is [accomplished] by bringing people together who want to make Topeka and Shawnee County a better place to live, work, and play. You can have all the smart people you want at the table, but to do that effectively, you need facilitators who know what questions to ask to get at the best thinking,” says Millsap.
“Facilitation training is a big investment and, honestly, a lot of work. Every hour of meeting requires an hour of planning. But the return on investment is invaluable. The library is now asked to weigh in…when important decisions about our city are being discussed. People and organizations want to partner with us, and they value the facilitation skills we bring to get things decided and done,” says Millsap.
For the area’s Community Conversation on Poverty in 2014 and 2015, TSCPL provided facilitators to lead sessions and assess ways the library could take a role in action to improve the situation. For 2016, the library has been asked to provide all the facilitators needed.
“We were there to facilitate and listen to what the community had to say about poverty. The library has a role in being aware of poverty in our community and helping to resolve it,” says Scarlett Fisher-Herreman, technical services supervisor and facilitator. At Kansas Research Nexus in 2013, TSCPL expedited a strategic planning process for the local chamber of commerce and two others in neighboring counties to develop a regional economic development partnership.
For Heartland Healthy Neighborhoods, TSCPL furthered the launch of a coalition to improve Shawnee County through government, nonprofit, education, and business partnerships. For the Community Health Improvement Plan, TSCPL helped community members and service providers create goals, strategies, and opportunities for community action based on areas of focus identified in a citywide needs assessment.
At the Topeka Downtown Rotary, Millsap led a first-ever planning process for the club back in 2012. The goal was to establish a model for excellence and a blueprint for action for the next three years. Results were that the group cultivated more focused leadership and developed new projects relevant to current community issues. It now sponsors a $20,000 grant dedicated to community betterment.
Stephanie Hall, TSCPL public services manager, served as the chair of Fast Forward, the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce’s 20s and 30s subgroup, to provide opportunities for people to establish and retain leaders in the Topeka community. Hall helped various committees focus on business development, volunteerism, networking, continuing education, and community retention. She also chaired the Young Professional Summit committee, which put on a conference aimed to bring together young professionals from across the state to learn, network, and build a statewide coalition.
By making this training a priority, and by putting it to use in the community, the library has increased its own leadership capacity. Organizations continue to invite the library to lead sessions about the future of the community, and TSCPL continues enthusiastically to accept, also doing environmental scans to discover opportunities in which to get involved.
Taking the lead
Leadership Greater Topeka is another local initiative that the library has wholeheartedly embraced. The annual community leadership training course merges a cross section of veteran and aspiring community leaders to develop skills and vital relationships. TSCPL participates to make sure the role of library leaders is acknowledged and strengthened. TSCPL graduates of the course include COO Rob Banks, CFO Sheryl Weller, public services director Marie Pyko, community services manager Thad Hartman, digital services supervisor Michael Perkins, bookmobile supervisor Sandy Hestand, Hall, and Fisher-Herreman.
Every two years, the library partners with the chamber of commerce and other local organizations to organize and run a Candidate School for prospective city councilors, city commissioners, and school board members. There, they interact with current city and county officials and past officeholders to learn about running a campaign, election filings and deadlines, campaign fundraising, how to synthesize constituent points of view into a coherent platform, how to work with other leaders to develop strong public policy, and what to expect if they win.
“Our partners at the [TSCPL] are invaluable teammates in helping develop, organize, and execute this important program, which helps develop solid, well-informed leaders in our community,” says Curtis Sneden, VP of governmental affairs at the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce.
Millsap also participates in the development and implementation of the city and county Local Community Technology Plan, which seeks to extend high-speed and gigabit speed broadband access to all of Shawnee County. The goals are to close the digital divide, expand digital literacy, and promote 21st-century work skills and digital entrepreneurship.
TSCPL and Millsap’s participation in broader capacity-building projects aren’t limited to the local, either. Millsap was a formal advisor and “dialog expert” for the Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Public Libraries, based around the institute’s “Rising to the Challenge” report. TSCPL incorporated elements from the Rising to the Challenge vision report in the community conversations it coconvened with Heartland Visioning. (For more on TSCPL and the Aspen Dialogue, see “Aspen in Action,” LJ /6/15/16 p. 36ff.)
Going to the people
TSCPL has no branches. Its Michael Graves–designed building, with its iconic rotunda, occupies its place in the Topeka skyline. That a single building can effectively serve a population of 178,831 spread over more than 550 square miles is surprising. TSCPL uses multiple strategies to ensure service equity and access. Bookmobiles stop at 20 locations throughout Shawnee County. Two new bookmobiles with original, community-based imagery featured on vehicle wraps were added in 2014 and 2015. They work because serving people where they are and removing barriers to learning experiences are two principles at the heart of TSCPL’s service philosophy and model. “It’s a natural progression to take our skills and passion for customer service out into the community, meeting needs right where they arise,” Millsap says.
The library’s Red Carpet Senior Service visits 40 retirement and congregate living communities to deliver to 130 homebound customers. The Library @ Work service gets materials to workers at six major employers in the county.
With Shawnee County Parks and Recreation, TSCPL initiated and expedited development of a partnership with community centers to foster shared computer labs, collaborative programs, and the installation of a Smartlocker to reserve and pick up library items. The library has added 36 new touch-screen computers to those programs and employs an IT technician dedicated part-time to servicing machines at community centers. Librarians hold book discussions, story times, and genealogy programming at the centers as well.
This partnership, says Millsap, “has resulted in an ongoing collegial relationship where the two organizations can progress together and address problems honestly and efficiently.”
At 712 Innovations, a membership-based industrial Maker space in downtown Topeka, embedded librarians work shifts helping local entrepreneurs and inventors do research, apply for small business loans, and learn to use equipment. TSCPL will add 712 day passes for library customers to access the space so that member fees aren’t a barrier, as it does with passports to visit the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center at the Dream Center. In Hi-Crest, Topeka’s most impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhood, TSCPL’s embedded librarians help job seekers navigate complicated document requirements, transportation and child-care needs, writing cover letters, and filling out applications.
Feeding mind and body
On pace with the movement to support early learning, TSCPL is planning to launch a Mobile Early Childhood Learning Center to provide a fun, interactive, play-based environment to teach essen-tial skills for school readiness. It will bring resources to families where they live, with an emphasis on parent engagement.
A collaboration between the library and Parents as Teachers groups from local public schools, Sheldon Head Start, Shawnee County Health Agency, TARC (programs for the developmentally challenged), Washburn Institute of Technology, Child Care Aware of Northeast Kansas, and the Topeka Rescue Mission has enriched the services and programs to be offered by the mobile center.
As part of TSCPL’s commitment to children, the library employs five Outreach Storytellers who visit 75 day-care centers and preschools and interact with 3,700 children ages three to five every month. TSCPL’s annual Summerfest engages thousands of kids. In summer 2015, Shawnee County youngsters logged a whopping 72,527 hours of reading. Every summer, the TSCPL Adventuremobile, specifically for school-aged children, brings animals and activities as well as books and media to children within their neighborhoods. In 2015, the Adventuremobile also handed out lunches to youth in need.
When it was announced that an elementary school would close owing to budget cuts, TSCPL stepped in to keep it staffed so that children in central Topeka would still have a site for free lunches. Library staff handed out meals and literacy activities, thanks to partnerships with Harvesters, the local public schools, the Kansas Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In one of TSCPL’s two teen spaces, library staff hand out snacks daily to kids who arrive hungry after school. Two homework coaches staff the Homework Center six days a week. Bookmobile librarians visit classrooms throughout the school year armed with 25 Kansas Connections programs that fulfill Common Core requirements in science, language, fine art, history, and social studies.
With the United Way of Greater Topeka, TSCPL works on an initiative to raise funds for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program in Topeka. As a part of the community impact goal of “every child will be ready for kindergarten,” TSCPL is striving to mail to children enrolled in the free program one age-appropriate book per month from birth to age five. The Library Foundation and United Way are fundraising together to acquire the funds necessary to launch the program this fall.
In 2014, the library sent surveys to local households asking what roles and services TSCPL should emphasize. The answers drive the development of community impact goals. Community meetings throughout Shawnee County performed SOAR (strengths, opportunities, aspirations, results) analyses to identify the most important aspirations. All TSCPL staff met in small groups for the SOAR exercise and ranked the aspirations. These answers were then compiled, and similar responses were grouped together and revealed agreement that the library should focus on literacy, lifelong learning, and serving readers.
With input from the community survey, three board retreats, and staff and community meetings, not to mention the Heartland Visioning input, TSCPL’s management council is engaged in a process to ensure that TSCPL literacy and learning efforts are based on research and current educational theory. New community impact goals will go to the Board of Trustees for approval, and the full strategic plan will be out in the fourth quarter of 2016.
Impact is informed by demographic research. As one of ten public libraries to participate in a study of market segmentation funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) as part of the 2014 Leadership Grant Program in partnership with Civic Technologies, TSCPL discovered a large population that was underserved. Called “Green Acres” because most were located on the outskirts of the county, these residents represented 13.7 percent of the population but only 10.7 percent of library cardholders. (For more on the study, see “Core Customer Study Analyzes Library Demographics,” ow.ly/bWBE300xSjw.) TSCPL reached out to introduce those in the underserved population to library resources tailored to their interests and revised the bookmobile schedule. Bookmobile usage and checkouts increased by 7.9 percent.
Library of the Year 2016 Judges
LJ thanks the following individuals who volunteered their valuable time to help select
the 2016 Library of the Year:
Scott Bonner, Director, Ferguson Municipal Public Library, MO, 2015 Gale/LJ Library
of the Year
Rosemary Cooper, Director, Albert Wisner Public Library, Warwick, NY, LJ’s 2016
Best Small Library in America
Nicolle Ingui Davies, Executive Director, Arapahoe Library District, Centennial, CO,
LJ’s 2016 Librarian of the Year
Brian Risse, VP–National Sales Manager, Public Libraries, Gale Cengage Learning
Courtney Young, Head Librarian and Professor of Women’s Studies, J. Clarence Kelly Library, Penn State Greater Allegheny Campus, McKeesport, and Immediate Past President, American Library Association
The panel also includes LJ’s Matt Enis, Rebecca T. Miller, Lisa Peet, and Meredith Schwartz
LJ editor panelists select up to six finalists from among the total pool of entries and invite external judges to participate, including one representative from Gale Cengage Learning, the sponsor; the judges each choose their first, second, and third place candidates from that field, and convey their vote to the coordinating LJ editor. Each vote is assigned a corresponding point value, and each vote is given equal weight. The cumulative totals determine each year’s award winner and honorable mentions; any ties are broken
by LJ editors.
Telling the library’s stories
The library isn’t just inventive in how it delivers library services; it’s also groundbreaking in how it conveys the message of the resulting impact to its community and stakeholders. In the TSCPL Creative Group, where Digital Services and Communications and Marketing intersect, some of the library’s most imaginative thinkers meet weekly to focus on telling the unique stories of Topeka and Shawnee County.
In addition to offering books, media, and periodicals, the library emphasizes both patrons and staff becoming creators of content. Because of TSCPL involvement in the community and data-based research, along with the library’s collaborations and community-focused planning, librarians know customers intimately. Making their own content supports and strengthens the librarians’ reputation as storytellers.
Staff members from all areas of TSCPL form the website writing and social media teams. While the Communications and Marketing department develops the main messages, staff write and share their knowledge of collections and services.
TSCPL produces Hush, a monthly podcast that delves into books, writing, and literature. Guests include local leaders, readers, and library employees. The program has more than 100 subscribers on iTunes and many more who download it from tscpl.org.
The library also creates fun, engaging, and very popular videos. The 2015 National Library Week video, “#CheckItOut,” went viral internationally, making headlines at Yahoo News, Book Riot, and the front page of Ellen Tube. Made possible by enthusiastic library patrons, the video has had 168,606 views on YouTube.
The TSCPL monthly Library News features library users. A copy is mailed to every household in Shawnee County. Every other week, TSCPL sends e-news blasts to more than 40,000 customers. Called Library News Update, the e-news won a Topeka Advertising Federation Addy Award this year.
More ambitiously, TSCPL offers a unique opportunity annually for 20 to 30 local writers to develop and write a novel set in Topeka. Writers mentor and coach one another and gain experience in self-publishing. (See “It Takes a City To Create a Novel,” LJ 7/15, p. 23.) The Community Novel Project has been recognized by Arts Connect Topeka with an Arty Award in the Literary Arts category.
The human touch at work
Information professionals and librarians from TSCPL go everywhere and do everything necessary to dovetail their skills and resources with the needs of the community. They constantly seek opportunities to extend the library’s reach and make a difference. TSCPL has become a convener for community conversations and a champion for community leadership.
“The library knows it can make an impact, from leveraging the celebration of diversity to creating more community pride. The library meets people where they are and brings them along in transforming themselves, their families, and the whole community,” says Kristin Brunkow, communications and community engagement coordinator for Heartland Visioning.
“What set TSCPL above the other entries [for Library of the Year] was not only its impressive presentation but the creativity and breadth of its programs,” writes Rosemary Cooper, one of the judges for this award, summing up the reasons for TSCPL’s victory. “It was right to focus on retooling professional library staff as community leaders and facilitators—this program responds to a growing need for all our libraries to maximize the effectiveness of our staff.”
Says Millsap, “Although big ideas, big goals, and ambitious projects are part of who we are and how we work, at the end of the day we’re aware that community relationships begin with the human touch.” With this impressive library, that begins with the humans who work for the library and extends to all those they serve.
Library of the Year 2016 Special Mentions
Many of the nominees in this competition demonstrate the innovation and excellence practiced every day by U.S. and Canadian libraries. Two other libraries in particular deserve special mention for featuring the service philosophy and dedication to community that signify a Library of the Year.
MADISON PUBLIC LIBRARY
Greg Mickells, Director
Wisconsin’s Madison Public Library (MPL) has doubled down on its focus on civic engagement in the past few years, “to go beyond outreach to include community members and groups in the planning and delivery of library services, programs, and collections,” according to Tana Elias, digital services and marketing manager for MPL. This determination drove the “Tell Us: Communities Inspiring Libraries” grassroots planning process, the heart of which was a series of 52 conversations with partners ranging from schools to assisted living facilities.
The result: a concentration on equitable rather than equal service that takes summer reading to day-care and summer school sites; provides early literacy training to nurses who work with low-income expectant mothers; partnerships with a broad range of social service providers, including an on-site permanent home for caseworkers, to help Madison’s homeless; and adjusted hiring practices to increase the percentage of staff members of color. Summed up judge Scott Bonner, director of Ferguson Municipal Public Library, MO, the 2015 Gale/LJ Library of the Year, “Madison Public Library targets its wealth of creative energy in practical, immediate work with needy populations.”
The library’s innovative Bubbler programming model (see “Meet Your Maker,” LJ 7/15, p. 27) targets new adults with programs convened by the library but relying on community expertise and stressing the art component of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics), which is often an afterthought. The library’s bone-deep emphasis on community partnerships is even shaping its physical presentation, with new spaces such as the Central Library’s third floor (see “A Catalyst for Creativity,” Library by Design [LBD] Fall 2015, p. 11) and the Meadowridge Library’s shared community kitchen (see “…And the Kitchen Sink,” LBD Spring 2014, p. 1ff.) inviting new partner participation. Photo by Lara Swimmer
SACRAMENTO PUBLIC LIBRARY
Rivkah K. Sass, Director
Sacramento Public Library (SPL) in California is setting the pace for libraries. This wasn’t always the case, as it was once a blight on the civic landscape, owing to embezzlement by a couple of former employees. The turnaround, under the guidance of Director Rivkah Sass, the 2006 LJ Librarian of the Year, has not only redeemed the library’s image but surpassed expectations to make SPL a driver of community improvement. From bringing superfast Internet connections to even its tiniest branches to helping explain to voters California’s complicated ballot initiative process to, now, offering on-demand voting—voters show up, ask for a ballot, and vote on the spot—SPL is deeply embedded in meeting demands for more than traditional library service—though that, too, is flourishing, with 7.3 million circulations to a population served of 1.3 million in FY14/15.
SPL is expanding the meaning of literacy at the library with everything from helping high school dropouts get their diplomas through participation in Career Online High School (offered through Gale Cengage Learning) and assisting local authors in publishing though SPL’s I Street Press (the library is one of the few nationwide to own an Espresso Book Machine, allowing print-on-demand) to hiring two new librarians specifically targeting K–12 and early literacy.
Taking that direction outside the library, SPL partners with ABC 10 and the University of California–Davis Children’s Hospital and reaches out to affordable housing residents through a program funded by Sacramento First 5. The library also hosts an annual Play Summit for parents, caregivers, educators, and service providers.
Beyond books, SPL lends seeds and showcases the results in two library gardens; has partnered with the local Food Literacy Center to host films, book discussions, and food and wine tasting events; and combats food insecurity by serving as a summer lunch site.
But seeds aren’t the only atypical item SPL lends: the library has garnered national media and social media attention for its “Library of Things,” which debuted in 2015 and circulates everything from ukuleles to go-pro cameras to sewing machines, all of which are selected by the patrons themselves via an online polling tool. Photo courtesy of Sacramento PL. —Meredith Schwartz