February 16, 2018

2005 Gale/LJ Library of the Year: Fayetteville Public Library, AR – Five Steps to Excellence

On Halloween Day, in a black cape and mask, Louise Schaper was introduced to the staff of Arkansas’s Fayetteville Public Library (FPL) as the new executive director. The incredible progress of FPL from that day on has won it the Gale/Library Journal 2005 Library of the Year Award. “It was a very poor library in an area that was always very poor but was changing,” Schaper says of the FPL she took over in 1997. “The library was not well supported, it was physically a mess, the collection was a shambles. It was part of a library system within which it wasn’t getting its fair share of funding. The staff was disgruntled.”

The tactics she and her increasingly talented employees used to become a great library were instructive. “We became a good library by pretending we already were one when we were not,” says Schaper. “We ‘dressed the window’ with various things great libraries do, and the community began to experience what was possible. I realized that if we act like a great library we’ll become one. Yes, we had a strategic plan, mission, vision, goals, objectives, and values and all. But the ‘acting’ part was crucial to making it all come true.”

Last October, FPL opened a brand new, 88,000 square foot model library. It was designed, funded, and built with full community participation, including a commitment to making the building meet green standards.

The October 9, 2004 editorial in the Northwest Arkansas Timescaptures the reaction of local citizens to FPL when the new library opened: “For some, the idea of spending $23 million of our community’s limited assets on this facility was overkill…. We believe, over time, everyone in our community will come to understand that the investment was a great one, one for the future…. After all these years, today Fayetteville takes a giant step into the future and beyond.”

Schaper points out that the new building was only one of five key steps, taken simultaneously over the past seven-plus years, that brought FPL to where it is today.

Hire the happiest

Proud as she is of the building and the process that created it, Schaper seems even prouder of the top-flight staff who sparked the movement from the old structure, collection, and services to the new FPL. Building that staff was another of the steps to FPL success.

“Personalities are very hard to change,” says Schaper. “We try to hire people who are customer service oriented. We hire them already that way, because that is the way they are as human beings. They like interacting, and they can handle stress and pressure. “We don’t like cynicism and negativity,” she continues. “People enjoy working in a happy place. The leadership needs to be made up of well-rounded, happy people. When we hire people we definitely screen for personality. There’s no question about that.”

Patrons now tell Schaper that they love the new building, but they love the staff even more. That staff includes 35 full-time equivalents. More that 20 percent have their MLS, and one is working on the degree. They are encouraged to attend professional meetings, and most prefer the Public Library Association (PLA) conference. “We believe in minimizing repetitive tasks and have most of our staff out there working at serving customers,” Schaper says.

Schaper, who had been a librarian at AT&T–Bell Labs in New Jersey before she moved to Fayetteville, just hired a new assistant director, Shawna Thorup, from the West Coast. What sold Thorup on FPL, excited her, was the people with whom she’ll be working. Those happy staffers spend their time inventing new ways to squeeze more service and more materials out of every dollar FPL spends.

Use secret weapons

One of FPL’s secret weapons may be its volunteer program, run by a happy half-time coordinator, Georgia Kunze. Not only did volunteers handle most of the conversion to RFID, they contribute a huge number of hours to other operations, including the Friends bookstore. All told, volunteers worked 14,697 hours for FPL last year. “When you have a strong volunteer program you have a ready-made support group,” says Schaper, commenting that not only are the volunteers appreciated by the staff, but they build community support, too.

Another secret weapon is the FPL board, appointed by Mayor Dan Coody and the city council. “None of this could have happened without an extraordinarily mature board,” Schaper asserts. “They understood how to be a board. No micromanaging or personal agendas—this board understood that they were there to do the ‘big picture’ stuff, support the director, be involved in policy and planning.” Two sustaining organizations—a very strong foundation and an equally strong Friends group— fill out FPL’s team and empower it for success.

Funding for FPL has increased by more than 200 percent since 1997. To build the Blair Library, the FPL Foundation raised $8 million, gifts from local leaders made up $5 million (including $3 million from Jim Blair and $2 million from Barbara Tyson). Beyond that, some 75 percent of the voters approved a temporary sales tax to fund the $23.3 million project. Schaper attributes the operating and capital support to FPL’s effort to win trust with the community. The staff, through creative thinking, increasing efficiency, and inventing smart ways to expand programs, gets more bang from the $33.55 per capita contributed by Fayetteville taxpayers in 2004. The 2005 budget takes this to $45.73 per capita, putting FPL above the average for U.S. libraries for the first time.

Maximize the collections

FPL’s carefully constructed collections are displayed, indeed shown off, with retail style and a full range of promotional materials and techniques. FPL staff contribute reviews to local papers, employ “bookstore-like” browsing tables with rotating selections, and run seven active book clubs. The collection is kept up-to-date with popular and well-reviewed materials while staff make sure to include “culturally significant work designed to meet the varied interest of a broadening community.”

FPL collects the complete works of a wide range of authors, from John Updike to Lorrie Moore and Haruki Murakami. That policy has also spurred a collection of international, independent, and classic films, with works by Kurosawa, Fellini, Truffaut, and Bergman next to contemporaries like John Sayles, Wong Kar-Wai, and Hal Hartley. The music titles cover the spectrum, too, from current hits to jazz, rock, classical, and world music. Responding to the growth of the Spanish-speaking population, FPL received grants to build a Spanish-language collection that circulates hundreds of volumes every month. “We’ve sought to combine the popular with the excellent and to expose our community to new ideas, information, and culture,” Schaper explains.

The first time Schaper went for more money for materials, the previous mayor, the late Fred Hanna, responded with, “We don’t need to have that many books in the library; we have a university library here.” Schaper had already prepared the benchmarking she learned at AT&T, comparing FPL with public libraries in other college towns of the same size. The mayor went along. “I relied on my old AT&T data-based presentation skills,” Schaper says.

She explained that the university library is a research library, and FPL doesn’t try to serve research needs. On the other hand, the university doesn’t serve children and teens. Knowing that the university doesn’t go as deep with fiction made collecting it an imperative for FPL. “[The university] might have one of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s books; we have everything she’s written,” says Schaper. FPL did start to serve University of Arkansas students who needed a broader range of fiction. At FPL, they found not just one of an author’s books but all of them.

“We have tried to create a ‘knock your socks off’ fiction collection,” says Schaper. Now FPL is strengthening its nonfiction holdings.

Innovate with technology

FPL had a single computer when Schaper arrived and was just installing its first integrated library system. Now it has some 200 computers and an IT department supporting a broad array of services. FPL installed an RFID-based self-checkout system and through shrewd negotiations managed to pull off the whole transition for about $50,000—plus the cost of the tags. Schaper and her staff negotiated better prices on every item, and all the RFID tags were installed by willing community volunteers. The system is connected to a conveyor and sorting system with a drive-up book drop.

“It drives me crazy how much is stuffed down our throats by technology vendors,” Schaper says. “We are their experimental labs.” Her rules for buying technology: “Question everything and be creative. Don’t just accept what is offered, make them get you what you need. Negotiate.”

FPL now has Wi-Fi throughout the new building. Customers can do nearly everything via the web site—www. faylib.org—including renew books, place holds, search databases, and even register for summer reading programs.

The result of this amazing teamwork is booming circulation of 12.4 items per capita, increased 2.5 times since 1997 to a total of 718,159. More than 48,000 of the 58,000 people in the community have library cards. They made more than 576,000 visits to FPL last year, and 41,658 attended library programs.

Schaper’s five steps to excellence for FPL make a fine plan for any library needing to reinvent itself. There’s no order in them. They are taken simultaneously, after a careful planning process, based on data-based management. The steps are as follows: 1) build a model building to the specifications of the community; 2) achieve maximum benefits from all funding and support and develop new sources of revenue; 3) develop a unique, full, and deep library collection that features resources not available anywhere else. Give the people more than what they want—give them what they need to become immersed in the world’s cultural discoveries; 4) be technologically innovative but negotiate to get the most you can for your technology dollars; and 5) develop a “top-flight” staff of congenitally happy people who like to interact with customers and are creative enough to develop an innovative array of services.

Following those five steps are a tall order for any library, but the Fayetteville Public Library has developed it into an art form worthy of the 2005 Library of the Year.

2005 Library of the Year Special Mention

This year brought a richness of excellent submissions, attesting to the innovation and excellence in libraries nationwide. Several of the libraries feature the service philosophy and dedication to community that signify a Library of the Year.

  • Cleveland Public Library
    Andrew A. Venable Jr., Director
  • Hennepin County Library, Minnetonka, MN
    Amy E. Ryan, Library Director
  • King County Library System, Issaquah, WA
    Bill Ptacek, Director
  • Seattle Public Library
    Deborah L. Jacobs, City Librarian

2005 Library of the Year Judges

LJ thanks the following library professionals who volunteered their valuable time to help select the 2005 Library of the Year:

  • Patricia Breivik Director, San José State University Library, CA, LJ‘s 2004 Library of the Year
  • Jane Light Director, San José Public Library, CA, LJ‘s 2004 Library of the Year
  • Carla Hayden Immediate Past-President, American Library Association
  • Susan Nutter Vice Provost and Director of Libraries, North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, LJ‘s 2005 Librarian of the Year
  • Dedria Bryfonski Executive Vice President, Global Market & Customer Services, Gale

The panel also includes LJ‘s John N. Berry III, Lynn Blumenstein, Francine Fialkoff, Brian J. Kenney, Rebecca Miller, & Norman Oder

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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