By Norman Oder — Library Journal, 06/15/2001
South Carolina is not the state that springs to mind when one talks about stellar library service. Public expenditures are generally tight, meaning that libraries often aren’t a priority. The state is so conservative that the Attorney General has urged Internet filtering and pledged to defend any library sued for administering such a policy.
The exception to that trend—and an increasingly influential one—is the state’s largest library system, the Richland County Public Library (RCPL), based in the capital city of Columbia. Under the leadership of C. David Warren, the system’s director for 22 years, RCPL has passed bond issues (in 1985 and 1989) to build a new Central Library—a downtown anchor—and an entirely new branch system and has built them in a fiscally sound manner. Its vigorous board lobbies local funders so well that RCPL has escaped local cuts.
With a healthy per capita budget of $47 (FY00), RCPL spends a significant portion of its budget on materials and filters only a fraction of its Internet terminals. It also has been an early adopter of new technology. It is in the midst of a notably successful public relations campaign. And it has served as a model for other libraries in the state seeking to convince voters to replace inadequate, antiquated facilities.
For these reasons, RCPL was named the LJ /Gale Library of the Year 2001. Said LJ Editor Francine Fialkoff, “The library’s outstanding service to the community, exceptional campaign advertising its services, and singular planning and management made it this year’s clear choice and a model for libraries nationwide.”
That’s because the library last year conducted a very visible and successful PR campaign, aiming to attract nontraditional users and those unaware of the library’s variety of materials and services.
In the program, “RCPL Spells…,” the library partnered with a variety of local businesses in billboard and television advertising. Each business took a different word (e.g., “service,” “proactive,” and “variety”) to complete the phrase; for example, a local realtor sponsored the campaign “RCPL Spells…Open Doors.” The library got a package worth $1 million at no cost, and the sponsors got discounted advertising from media outlets willing to donate extra time to the library. As the general manager of a local hotel put it, “It is certainly a win-win partnership.”
In some communities, such a collaboration might raise qualms about commercialization of the library, but in South Carolina—where legislators ask whether libraries can offer fee-based services—the only qualms came from the opposite direction. Some citizens wondered why the library was spending tax dollars to advertise; they were told it was not.
The campaign raised library awareness, as 20 percent of those surveyed said it led them to visit RCPL, and boosted circulation by 12 percent. Also, it led to a new campaign this year, based on the American Library Association’s @yourlibrary concept, valued at $1.5 million. Warren already has an idea for 2002, based on their “Library of the Year” award.
He sees opportunities for RCPL to work not just with traditional partners like museums but also with private enterprise. “That does bring in commercialization,” he acknowledges, “but my board and council are interested in revenue streams, how we can still offer services free to the public without having to raise taxes.”
An active board
The library is not a county department but an outside millage agency whose level is set not by referendum but by the county council. Fortunately, says Warren, “We have fared better than any other county agency or outside millage agency over the last ten years.”
The secret? RCPL’s ten-member Board of Trustees and its active Friends group, which often serves as a farm team for the board. (Warren has been on the Board of Directors of Friends of Libraries USA since 1994.) Board members get sent to many library conferences and reciprocate with a level of dedication unusual in many communities. “At almost every meeting we have 100 percent attendance,” enthuses Noble B. Cooper Jr., the current board chair.
Each board member is assigned a member of the county council to lobby. Also, board members are assigned to local state legislators and attend the annual state Library Legislative Day.
There’s little bickering among the board or the staff; Cooper cites only one or two grievances in the past few years. (There’s a staff association, but no union.) Cooper credits Warren’s veteran leadership, as well as that of Deputy Director Helen Ann Rawlinson, in that post for 15 years. For his part, Warren praises a veteran staff. “We work very hard at retention,” noting that when RCPL initiated a staff development office about six years ago, it was one of the first in the country to do so.
At public hearings, the library always sends in the troops. “We always have the largest delegation,” says Warren. “One of our board members will say, ‘Will the people who support the library please stand?’ and the whole room will stand.”
Launching a library
Of course none of this came easily. Warren spent six years directing the Cumberland County Public Library, Fayetteville, NC, before coming to Columbia in 1979 at age 35. RCPL had few written policies. The old main library was only 32,000 square feet, clearly inadequate for the growing community, home to state government, a large military base, and seven universities. “People would say that ‘maybe we need a new library, but this is not Charlotte,’” Warren recalls.
He got the ball rolling. The library hired a consultant to provide outside documentation of library deficiencies and another to prepare a plan for a new main library and an expanded branch system. Over the first few years, Warren opened a development office, launched a foundation, and even hired a “public relations librarian.” “But the real key has been educating people about the library. I said we have some of the poorest facilities in the country for a community this size. I had to get the public to tell me how badly we needed a library. I’d go to Rotary Clubs, show pictures of [the library in] Charlotte, tell them what’s going on. That’s what turned things around.”
Not that the pro-cess was quick. First the county agreed to issue bonds in 1985 to build a large branch library and a community branch and fund automation of the system. Momentum for a new main library began, but the county council wanted the library to go to the voters in a referendum. Library supporters seized on February 14, 1989—Valentine’s Day—for the referendum date, thinking it would help with promotion.
The library also pitched the $27 million referendum to attract voters in the entire county. The bond issue would build a new main, but it also would support seven branches and an upgrade of the Dynix system. Warren recalls that some in the community were skeptical, but a poll ordered by the Friends of the Library indicated significant support among voters. Indeed, local residents had long been avid library users, despite the outmoded facilities.
The library’s campaign involved contacting all registered library users, with telephone and mailing follow-ups to encourage those on the fence. Those opposed to the referendum were not lobbied any further, under the rationale that they might forget and stay home. The local Chamber of Commerce and the State newspaper signed on. With light turnout, the issue passed with 73 percent approval, and the chair of the “Citizens for Better Libraries” campaign was soon elected to the county council.
Getting it built
That was only the start. From 1989 to 1994, says Warren, his hair turned white from the 14-hour days he spent supervising the project. The library had two years to plan and two years to build: “We were so determined to come in under budget and on time.”
Not only did RCPL come in on time, it saved money doing so. “We hit the market at the right time,” says Warren, noting that “hungry contractors” and other firms helped keep the basic cost of building the main library to $55 per square foot, less than one fifth of some other libraries being built at the time.
Also, library managers knew they couldn’t afford luxuries. The architect first suggested a granite facade for the 242,000 square foot main library, but RCPL chose concrete. Still, the library presents a classy look, with two walls of glass. RCPL used $2 million in gifts for enhancements to the boardroom, auditorium, conference rooms, and children’s room, among other components.
RCPL was fortunate to get a prime downtown location, most of a four-acre block controlled by a developer who sold it to the library at cost. Moreover, the building is designed to allow the two concrete walls on the back side to be knocked out for expansion. Right now the library still has three acres of land, mostly used for parking. Mayor Bob Coble praises RCPL for its “leading role…in bringing citizens back to downtown Columbia.”
The branches, Warren says, were placed not at the cheapest location but where they could attract the most traffic. They were built so each could be tripled in size. Only one small branch, he says, could have been better situated, and the library is now talking about a possible “megaregional” branch to replace it.
Technology and materials
RCPL has always been an early adopter of new technology. “We were the first urban library to automate with Dynix, in 1985,” which increased efficiency, notes Warren. “We’ve added new formats as soon as they were available,” he adds, including DVDs. RCPL has bought smart card readers but hasn’t yet distributed the cards, waiting for a partnership. And RCPL has also purchased a new self-checkout system from a company called Tech Logic that should be installed by July, supplementing the seven checkout stations.
Warren describes RCPL’s collection as “a very strong current collection of what people ask for, the latest books on any subject matter,” noting that local branches select for their neighborhoods. The library can devote an even greater proportion of its resources to popular materials because there are six other government depositories in the city, and the South Caroliniana Library at the nearby University of South Carolina (USC) serves state history and genealogy needs.
As for filtering the Internet, RCPL maintained an unfiltered policy until last year, when there was significant legislative support for mandated filtering. Now, after holding several public meetings, the library offers one filtered terminal in the children’s room, as well as one on each floor and in each branch. Children’s terminals default to a kids-oriented page.
The library, which does not use privacy screens, has received a handful of complaints. Its policy states: “Users must not display on screens and/or printers materials that may be objectionable.” Says Warren, “We don’t monitor what people do, but if someone—staff or security—sees something questionable, they are to approach the person.”
RCPL has a notably active area of children’s programming, thanks in part to Augusta Baker (1911–98), who, after she retired as coordinator of children’s services at the New York Public Library, moved to Columbia in 1980. There she became Storyteller-in-Residence at USC.
In 1987, RCPL, in conjunction with the university’s College of Library and Information Science, established the annual A(ugusta) Baker’s Dozen Storytelling Festival in her honor. Baker initially thought it would be self-serving to use her name, recalls Warren, but “she finally agreed after we took her lunching and gave her three martinis.”
The festival, which brings in noted authors, proved crucial to the new main library. In 1987, before the bond issue, Baker brought famed illustrator Maurice Sendak to the library, where he spoke to a capacity crowd. A few years later, after the library had received a $100,000 foundation grant to support creation of artwork based on Sendak’s oeuvre for the children’s room, Warren flew to Houston to ask Sendak to let his art grace the library. Sendak agreed to make an exception to his policy of prohibiting his work from being public art.
The library used the money to hire scenic painter Michael Hagen—who does Sendak’s stage and set designs—to reproduce a 46′ mural and two freestanding scenes from Sendak’s classic “Where the Wild Things Are.” The work, says Warren, has been appraised at $1 million.
Twelve palmetto and ficus trees inside the library at the garden level help define the 20,000 square foot children’s room as space apart. Indeed, the presence of the trees makes the mural seem almost three-dimensional, says Warren.
A community asset
South Carolina State Librarian Jim Johnson points out that there was no push for local libraries to begin bond issues until “RCPL broke the mold.” Since then, there have been multibuilding construction programs in Charleston, Greenville, Anderson, and Spartanburg. Warren even appeared in a video helping the latter library promote its plan.
Adds Fred Roper, dean and professor at USC’s College of Library and Information Science, “The college and the library have enjoyed a very good relationship over the years—and that’s not always the case between libraries and education programs.”
Johnson says that even people who don’t use RCPL realize “it’s there as a resource.” A 2000 survey by the Knight Foundation of 26 communities in which its newspapers published showed that Richland County residents gave higher ratings to their library than did residents in any of the other areas polled. Indeed, says board chair Cooper, RCPL serves as a community asset. When people in Columbia bring visitors into town from the airport, “they pass by the library to show it off.” Now they have more to crow about.
Norman Oder is Associate Editor, LJ