April 19, 2018

Cate McNeely | Movers & Shakers 2002

Focus on the Customer

“How do we make a library that is so loved that people will support it?”

The Richmond Public Library (RPL) is located in a smallish city (163,000) just outside Vancouver, but its new web address is www.yourlibrary.ca. Maybe that’s hubristic, but it sure reminds users–“customers,” to Cate McNeely, since she likes the connotation of accountability–that the library works for them.

Indeed, RPL, especially its much-lauded Ironwood branch (dubbed the “Library of the Future”), is at the forefront of entrepreneurial service, thanks in great part to McNeely. Self-checkout? Sure, call it Express Checkout and see more than 90 percent of Ironwood patrons use it. Sorted returns? Nearly 100 percent. Save the money and keep the branch open 74 hours a week and offer eight sessions of story time weekly. Provide programming in Cantonese and Mandari
n. Agree to host the web version of a local newspaper in exchange for free advertising. Go to the library web site and book an Internet workstation, pay fines, or apply for a card. Beyond that, why not try the online citizenship test, the provincial driving test, or check your child’s early communication development via an interactive checklist?

“Cate McNeely is a human dynamo,” said Julie Spurrell of the British Columbia Library Association, presenting her with an award last year. Indeed, anyone who has seen McNeely speak–she made a big splash at the Charlotte Public Library Association in 2000 and has since consulted and spoken widely–encounters a true believer in public service.

Before Ironwood, the library had long embraced innovation. “In 1992, we developed a touch-screen information kiosk to guide people around the library,” recalls McNeely, who started in 1990. “Richmond has always been very focused on the customer. That’s part of the culture,” she says, citing Chief Librar
ian Greg Buss. (They later married.) McNeely reads four Canadian newspapers daily, both highbrow and lowbrow, and thinks librarians can’t ignore the papers’ business and technology sections.


Current position: Deputy Chief Librarian, Richmond Public Library, BC, and Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia (UBC) School of Library Archival and Information Studies

Degree: MLS, UBC, 1986

“Are we really providing quality service, compared with service you get elsewhere?”

McNeely was the project manager for Ironwood, which opened in December 1998. “It had been a while since we’d built a library,” she says, so instead of using standard planning documents, she and others brainstormed how the library would remain relevant in 2010. “How do we make a library that’s so loved that people will support it?” She looked at bookstores and retail spaces and considered the burgeoning role of the Internet. So there’s retail-style display of best sellers and display carts for CDs. There’s a comfortable chair near a fireplace to sit and read–and drink some coffee. There’s also a silent study room wired for laptops.

McNeely acknowledges that Ironwood shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter library. “There are certain principles that can work in all libraries, but every library has to figure out what works best in its community.” The important thing, she says, is not to let seeming limits on money or staff block progress. Figure out what’s most important, she says, and find a way to
get there.

RPL was the first public library in Canada and second in North America to purchase and lend e-books. It’s part of a tech-savvy city where you can use an information kiosk (at the library and elsewhere) to pay parking tickets and utility bills. Next up for RPL: a MyLibrary personalization for Richmond “customers.”

McNeely was inspired to go to library school after working in the University of British Columbia library the year after she received her degree in English. “I wanted to do something that made a difference.” When she speaks, McNeely reflects, people say they feel energized and inspired. “That’s coming from within them. I’m just tapping into something.”