April 19, 2018

2003 Library of the Year: Las Vegas–Clark County Library District

They listened to the people, but the key to their success was in what they did about what they heard. It started back in 2000, when the Las Vegas – Clark County Library District (LVCCLD), NV, began the planning process and the massive improvements that have led to its being chosen the Gale/LJ
Library of the Year 2003. The services and collections of every branch library in the district were scrutinized. The district’s technology infrastructure, organizational effectiveness, budget allocations, and demographics were studied to assess revisions since LVCCLD’s last changes in service and physical plant. Throughout the branches – the system has no central library – the best and brightest were given educational opportunity and the power and responsibility to tackle current library problems.

The Las Vegas edge

It is easier for a “new” city like Las Vegas to redefine its library. Having no central library is both good and bad, says LVCCLD Director Dan Walters. The library doesn’t have a deep historical collection, incredible depth and expertise in subject reference services, or that monumental symbol. Walters’s experience includes directing the very traditional library system in Buffalo, NY, which boasts a grand central library. He now sees central libraries as “exceedingly difficult to operate because they are so expensive.”

He proudly points out that the system serves 1.5 million people with only 24 branch libraries. Only 12 of those libraries are in what Walters calls the urban area, where 95 percent of the populace live. The reason LVCCLD can spend 20 percent on materials and invest heavily in technology is that it is a newer system with fewer libraries, which means less expense and fewer service points per circulation.

“Every city in the nation is fighting the lack of permanent activity in its central core, and that is where the central library is located,” Walters asserts. Without a downtown central library, “we are no longer forced to invest in a place where people don’t congregate.” This allows the library to shift resources to have more open hours. The branches are bigger, spread throughout the county and city; all but one are greater than 25,000 square feet. They can contain good-sized young peoples’, adult, circulating, and reference collections. They can provide good technology and sizable meeting rooms. Several LVCCLD facilities have a theater or lecture hall. All in all, that gives LVCCLD a bit of an edge in dealing with the challenges of the place it serves.

To develop the plan, public meetings were held in every branch. Focus groups and written customer surveys elicited deeper evaluative information on the services, hours, locations, and programs of the libraries. The process, which was managed by a team of consultants put together by Ron Dubberly, resulted in a five-year Strategic Service Plan. Experienced library hands like Jeanne Goodrich, Yolanda Cuesta, George D’Elia, Sandra Nelson, Julie Hunter, and Diane Mayo were on the consulting team.

The LVCCLD board and staff immediately began to implement changes. Dramatic results continue to roll in. Library service to the citizenry of the district has been radically improved.

Building collections for use

The library system “is busier than ever before in its 17-year history,” acknowledges Ricki Barlow, chair of the LVCCLD trustees. Citizens had asked for more timely access to current materials and more copies of the most popular items. The library provided additional popular books, movies, and CDs, including best sellers; they were on the shelves faster than ever. The result has been a 65 percent increase in circulation in three years.

“We took a serious look at collection turnover in every branch,” says Walters. “We found we had great collections, but nobody in town liked them as much as we did. It is the oldest problem in the business. We have these wonderful buildings, but we had to confront the fact that we were using them to warehouse materials that were not really circulating.”

Barlow reported that citizens asked for more material by ethnic writers and in languages that reflect what he calls “the changing diversity of the community.” In response, the library added more than 21,000 new items in Spanish to the collections; 203,000 items in languages other than English circulated in the last year.

“There was a tremendous reorientation toward the popular, and toward outreach and the Spanish language collections and services,” Walters says, about the library’s unique attempt to combine its diversity efforts with attention to in-demand reading.

“The bulk of our Spanish-language collections had been oriented toward citizenship and ESL. We didn’t have many popular materials in Spanish. At the end of a long day, someone who principally reads and speaks Spanish wants to watch a movie without subtitles, wants to read a potboiler or a Western in Spanish, a romance,” Walters says.

“We hired consultants who conducted both English- and Spanish-language telephone surveys in order to get at nonusers. The Latino community indicated that they would use the library much more if our collections were more diverse,” Walters adds. “This year we will circulate more that 200,000 items in Spanish.” The system strives for diversity in language and format (video, DVD, audiobooks, etc.).

Technology & learning

Because of their expressed demand in the planning process, citizens can now apply and get a library card, browse the catalog, request to borrow and renew items from the collections, search licensed databases and sources, access their own individual accounts, and ask reference questions online from any computer with Internet access.

One result has been some 60,000 Internet sessions provided in each branch of the system. Use of the computer facilities has increased some 41 percent over the previous year. Every branch has high-speed computer connections, hardware, and access to online resources. Seven urban branches have 15- to 30-seat computer labs.

The library also provides computer classes for seniors and to introduce students to electronic resources. Two mobile computer labs created by a $186,000 federal grant are sites for the Computer Assisted Literacy in Libraries (CALL) program and its free classes year-round. Adult basic education, English, computer use, citizenship, and GED preparation courses are offered to adults 17 years old and up. Priority is given to those whose skills fall below the eighth grade level. More than 1000 adults a year complete six or eight weeks of intense classroom instruction, “graduating” to a higher reading level or other goals.

The library’s Web on Wheels program reached more than 100,000 school children in the county, showing them how to use the library web site and other electronic resources and register for library cards. Through more than 1000 visits to schools at various times last year, 83,779 students were moved to register for library cards and use them. Another 6,022 children were connected to the library through outreach at preschools and some 299 community events.

Reaching out

The system’s dedicated community outreach librarian brought library service, programs, and resources to ESL classes, community events, Family Literacy Nights, and to many social service providers, reaching another 7000 adults. The LVCCLD web site received awards from the Technology Business Alliance of Nevada for its integration with the library’s service program.

Walters says LVCCLD will be the first in the nation to install a kind of reserve software on the library system that will interface with credit and debit cards so library users can use them to pay for printing, fines, rentals, and the like. Ultimately, Walters sees the library operating like Amazon.com, even to the point of mailing materials to patrons.

Already there has been a substantial shift in use now that digital services have been made available: more people are using the library from locations outside the library. In December 2002 alone, some 30,000 electronic user visits were counted. Over 11,000 loaned items were renewed that same month, and that remote use is growing.

Walters concludes that expansion of LVCCLD will ultimately be more in “virtual terms.” The real growth in the use of licensed databases is already from beyond library walls. LVCCLD will construct some buildings, but external electronic use “will easily be the equivalent of a busy branch.”

Building a staff

LVCCLD has a long tradition of aiding staff development and of supporting the growth and promotion of staff members. The heads of the divisions of LVCCLD for public services and collection development are “home-grown” professionals who started as pages. The library district contributed to their MLS degrees. It provides funding for staff to study for both BAs and the MLS.

Walters says LVCCLD’s support of staff development is the key to the system’s success. He crows about the three members of his management team – Salvador Avila, Felton Thomas, and Paula Wilson – who all succeeded in the unique Urban Libraries Council (ULC) Executive Leadership Institute. ULC and Johns Hopkins partner in this exceptional program where library systems come up with service- or management-related problems for evaluation.

LVCCLD proposed teams with Walters as sponsor or mentor, and the three managers as members. Avila found a way to develop a new branch in the dense urban east side Las Vegas Latino community – an effort that inspired LJ‘s sibling Críticas
magazine to name him the Librarian of the Year for 2003. Thomas and Wilson developed new alternative virtual branch services for the growing areas of the community where LVCCLD doesn’t have or plan to have buildings. Thomas was an LJ
Mover & Shaker for 2002. Through a partnership with the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV), Las Vegas-Clark County Library District library staff have been able to fulfill on-campus requirements for the University of North Texas distance degree. The library also has a full-time trainer to work with staff on human resources and other issues.

Walters’s management style is based on his own experience. “Great mentors were the key to my success,” he says. “They let me put my foot in it, let me screw up. Young managers need opportunities for growth and great generosity in supervision.” They get it at LVCCLD.

The library has another staff advantage, according to Walters. The line staff, the people who greet the community, have been there for a long time. Library patrons know and like them.

The Las Vegas challenges

The major challenges to its library are the instant growth and great diversity of Las Vegas and Clark County. The population increased 100,000 in the month during the judging of this award. It is increasingly diverse. That growth and diversity create heavy demands. The library, now organized to be fast and flexible, knows how to study the desires of a changing population and how to change fast to meet them.

LVCCLD has a diverse governing board with absolute governing authority. Five members are appointed by the Las Vegas City Council, five by the Clark County Commission. They represent a variety of neighborhoods and that has been a tremendous strength, allowing the library to build a mix of services that reach out to all segments of the city and county.

Diversity on the board, as on any board, heightens the group’s awareness of issues on all fronts. It not only defines the library’s collections, staff, and services, diversity impacts on its contracting and levels of outreach. “You can only improve your standing in a diverse community when you practice truly equitable contracting, hiring, and outreach,” Walters says.

“Because we are an absolutely independent district, we have taxing authority: we levy the tax, collect it, and bank it. We do our own payroll, our own legal, and our own personnel. The board hires one person, the executive director. Everything else is delegated by the board through management. That means that we have to do more than many librarians. It means, for example, that the city is not our banker, Wells Fargo is. We bid out our banking,” Walters explains.

The capacity to change

In the four-and-a-half years since Walters was hired, LVCCLD has increased every aspect of its services and collections and transformed the way it operates.

“I’m proudest of the capacity of the district to be willing to look at itself critically and not be so bound by traditional preconceptions about what we should be,” Walters boasts. “I’m proud that we were willing to engage the community in a planning process that really changed the library. That process refined how and why we build collections and services and how we organize our outreach efforts.”

During his first years in Las Vegas, Walters has dealt with LVCCLD’s first union contract. He has learned to approach a population that is loaded with retirees who came because of the city’s low taxes. He admits that there are tough issues to face, not the least of which is perceptions about Las Vegas and gaming.

“Most people see the strip as Las Vegas,” Walters says. “In truth, there are 1.5 million people who live in Las Vegas and Clark County. Their kids play baseball, football, and soccer, and they go to recitals and pay for piano lessons. We’ve got a great public library system here. Living here is a lot like anywhere else where there is a service-based economy that has an income a bit above the national household average and lower property costs. People here use their library.” That library went to those people, listened to them, and radically changed its services and organization to serve them.

2003 Library of the Year Special Mention

Exceptional libraries exist nationwide, as illustrated by the difficulty of choosing from many submitted for this year’s honor. Several of them feature the service philosophy and dedication to community that signify a Library of the Year. As we can only choose one library for our award, we take this space to acknowledge those others we feel are exemplars in the field:

  • Cerritos Library, Cerritos, CA, Waynn Pearson, City Librarian
  • Denver Public Library, Denver, CO, Rick Ashton, City Librarian
  • Fayetteville Public Library, Fayetteville, AR, Louise Schaper, Director
  • King County Library System, Issaquah, WA, Bill Ptacek, Director
  • Worthington Libraries, Worthington, OH, Meribah Mansfield, Director

2003 Library of the Year Judges

LJ thanks the following library professionals who volunteered their valuable time to help select this year’s Library of the Year:

  • Saul Amdursky, Director, Kalamazoo Public Library, MI, LJ‘s 2002 Library of the Year
  • John W. Berry, Immediate Past-President, American Library Association
  • Raymond Santiago, Director, Miami-Dade Public Library System, FL, LJ‘s 2002 Librarian of the Year
  • Dedria Bryfonski, Executive Vice President, Global Market & Customer Services, Gale

The panel also includes LJ staff:

  • John N. Berry III, Editor-in-Chief
  • Francine Fialkoff, Editor
  • Brian Kenney, Senior Editor, LJ & netConnect
  • Rebecca Miller, Senior Editor, Features
  • Norman Oder, Senior Editor, News
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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