April 23, 2018

Gale/LJ Library of the Year 2007: Worthington Libraries, OH

Library of the Year 2007 Special Mention

Many of this year’s submissions attest to the creativity and excellence in libraries nationwide. Several of the libraries feature the service philosophy and dedication to community that signify a Library of the Year:

Austin Public Library, TX

Brenda Branch, Director

Loudoun County Public Library, Leesburg, VA

Douglas A. Henderson, Library Director

Middle Country Public Library, Centereach, NY

Sandra Feinberg, Library Director

Library of the Year 2007 Judges

LJ thanks the following library professionals who volunteered their valuable time to help select the 2007 Library of the Year:

Mary Baykan, Director, Washington County Free Library, Hagerstown, MD; LJ 2007 Librarian of the Year

Michael Gorman, Immediate Past President, American Library Association

Jill Lectka, Senior Vice President, Circulating & Trade Publishing, Gale

Nancy Tessman, Director, Salt Lake City Public Library; LJ 2006 Library of the Year

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

Worthington, OH, has deep library roots. A library has been part of its history since the planning by settlers before the city’s birth in 1803. Among the treasures brought by James Kilbourne and the Scioto Company from Connecticut to the new, planned community they built was a collection of books for their new subscription library. The books were purchased with funds from a $2 fee the planners levied on each member of the founding company. Over two centuries later, the habit continues. In 2005, 58 percent of the voters of that same community, now with a service population of 59,983, elected to tax themselves 2.6 mills per $1000 worth of property value to support their library.

The ties to the community it serves are a crucial legacy and a vital asset to the current Worthington Libraries. With great ingenuity, the staff at Worthington Libraries make the most of that asset to serve patrons better. Their efforts have gained Worthington Libraries the 2007 Gale/Library Journal Library of the Year award.

Diverse funding

There are three Worthington Libraries (WL) in all. One is a virtual, online library, and two are bricks-and-mortar branches, the Old Worthington Library and Northwest Library. WL is a school district system, serving some five jurisdictions. WL is governed by a library board and, ultimately, by the district school board. Both the neighboring Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML) system and Delaware County Library System to the north overlap the WL district, making for some unique initiatives and cooperative efforts. For example, the Northwest Library is operated by WL under a novel shared support and governance agreement with CML. It is one of very few jointly operated libraries in the United States. The arrangement has resulted in a fine facility effectively serving two systems for 11 years.

What separates WL from most Ohio library systems is its 65.5 percent funding from that local tax levy and only 23.6 percent from the State of Ohio. In contrast, about 75 percent of Ohio’s public libraries get all or nearly all of their support from the state. The WL staff and Director Meribah Mansfield are sensitive to the duties that come with the library’s enviable funding level (about $112 per capita). They see “stewardship” of this tax money as a primary responsibility. “We have to do some sophisticated financial planning,” says Mansfield. “With the new levy, we realized we had to maintain a very high level of accountability. We report our progress all the time, on our web site, in a column in the local paper, and, of course, in our annual reports.”

Prior to the passage of the levy, library use was increasing, with circulation up more than 35 percent in the past few years. Funding was still static, growing only about 1.6 percent each year. “This was not the result of staff layoffs or reduced hours,” says Mansfield. “We simply looked for creative ways to become leaner and more efficient.”

Plans and core values

That accountability plays out in part through the libraries’ excellent planning program, including the 2005–08 Strategic Long-Range Plan, many aspects of which have already been achieved. To get there, WL turned again to its citizenry. There were many open community forums, and a baker’s dozen residents formed WL’s Community Strategic Planning Group. Two of those planners are now library trustees, another is on the school district board, and others are leaders in civic groups. After training, WL staff conducted some 50 interviews with citizens where they live and work. Of course, as in most of what WL does, teens were part of the process.

The mission of WL is simply stated: “to encourage lifelong learning…by providing exemplary services and promoting equal access to information.” To that mission the plan adds a vision, a short paragraph that tells how WL will execute its mission with partnerships and aggressive promotion of services and programs along with careful stewardship of resources in both services and collection building.

First among the core values that lead WL is communication, and second is “quality service.” WL excels in both areas, as its well-written award application and web site indicate. Other core values are being “future oriented” and having a respect for and trying to serve “diversity,” both in its services and collections and in its efforts to gather ideas for new directions from the community. WL is also committed to intellectual freedom, integrity (“we act with honesty and fairness”), and teamwork, notably in its new team-based staff organization.

The strategic plan, which includes those core values, is clearly the road map to WL development. The award application notes that Mansfield always has a copy handy. “We like to say we evolve, not change,” she says. While accurate, her comment doesn’t indicate how fast and constant evolution is at the library. WL keeps abreast of the people it serves and local developments and frequently leads them to new places.

Building collections and staff

The execution of the plan represents WL creativity and innovation coupled with tight management and careful allocation of resources, that “stewardship” idea. In the past year, 20 percent of the budget went to materials, with 22.6 percent spent on materials since 1979. “What are our patrons looking for?” asks the award application. “More often than not, it is a book to read,” says Mansfield. Of the library collection of 474,720 items, 405,070 are books. Selection was centralized in 2006, and most of the collection is acquired by profiles with vendors, but the newly reorganized staff, now out with the public and in the collection, find “holes” and recommend titles to fill them. Staffers also give more attention to replacing worn copies and weeding. Strong resource sharing arrangements through the Discovery Place consortium with CML and Southwest Public Libraries provide more collection depth as well.

Stewardship of resources includes the most vital and expensive asset: the library staff, upon which 60 percent of the budget is spent. In an effort to find the right balance, the staff has been reorganized three times in the last five years. “We reorganized very carefully,” says Mansfield. “We had a traditional hierarchy, and I saw the retirement of boomers coming. We started to work on reorganizing and diversifying ourselves years ago.” The result? WL has turned away from the standard ladder of department managers and turned toward lead librarians and work groups. This, coupled with a full reevaluation of every position that is vacated, has made for tremendous flexibility and substantial savings.

Mansfield, who proudly boasts about all the talented people on her staff, has hired from all age groups. The staff has representation from several decades and has held workshops on working together with people from different phases of life. In the reorganization, the salary and classification charts were “collapsed,” and work is continuous on job descriptions.

Mansfield is equally proud that WL librarians are frequently hired away by other libraries. Earlier this year, WL lost Chuck Gibson, a very effective associate director for 12 years. He now runs the South Georgia Regional Library System in Valdosta. Of the 132 employees, about 30 hold an MLS. Three librarian positions are open, and Mansfield interviewed six candidates during the week of her interview with LJ. “I’m extremely impressed with the candidates we’re getting from library schools now,” she says. “[They] are good people who are still interested in the mission of libraries and still want to serve. We’re getting librarians…who are very interested in using interactive technology with the public. I think libraries will not only survive but thrive as these new librarians find new ways for their [institutions] to connect with the communities they serve.”

A new service model

One of the new work groups was assigned the job of upgrading and modernizing WL customer service. Its members searched for better ways to meet patron information needs and to make that service more direct and proactive. A “rover” was added to reference desk coverage. In one-hour shifts, the rover greets patrons, uses a handheld device to access library resources, and interacts on the floor. Staff got training on how to read body language and interpret “clues” to assess whom to approach and who would prefer to be left alone.

WL also began a program to “merchandise” its collections and services. A merchandising work group visited bookstores and other libraries to get ideas, met with a marketing consultant, and initiated real changes. “Power walls” were installed to push high-traffic materials like popular new fiction, cookbooks, travel materials, and picture books. New self-checkout machines, accompanied by staff helpers, brought a surge of positive feedback from users.

The online library

WL’s dynamic web site (Worthington Libraries Online, www.worthingtonlibraries.org) functions as a third branch available 24/7/365. It is maintained by a webmaster and two teams and was the first winner of the LJ netConnect award for small library web sites in 2002. The WL Digital Library Team plans and implements the creation, integration, and delivery of digital resources for staff and patrons. These include the Worthington Memory site, operated in large part by volunteers, which offers tremendous local history materials online.

The Electronic Resource Team identifies, evaluates, selects, and promotes new e-assets. The library offers some 164 premium electronic resources and more than 8000 full-text periodicals. Students can get help from HomeworkNow, and young children can enjoy the new TumbleBooks animated picture stories. The site also provides access to KnowItNow24x7, an online, round-the-clock reference service from the State Library of Ohio.

WL also maintains a Flickr page featuring photos from library events, a blog, and a MySpace posting for teens.

The “Volunteens”

With creativity and innovation, WL has initiated a series of events and involvement attractive to various teen interests. The WL TGIF program invites teens to stick around after the library closes on Friday nights for a dance, dance revolution tournament, video game tournament, or Bollywood movies, complete with Indian food. More surprising, WL teen librarian Ann Pechacek’s Book and Bagel program brings teens to their school library at 7:15 a.m. for a book discussion before school starts. Her Book and Bag program does the same for middle school kids at lunchtime in the Northwest Library. The teen blog and MySpace page mentioned above have attracted hits from all over the WL district and the world. Teen advisory groups at both branches help plan these events, work on library projects, and write reviews and articles for the teen blog and WL’s teen newsletter, Etc.

The Volunteens, WL’s dedicated corps of teen volunteers, help out at WL all year but are truly essential in their role in the summer reading program. “We couldn’t manage without them,” says Lisa Fuller, WL’s community relations and development director.

WL does as much or more for younger children, with just as much creativity. The library aims its programs at developing an early and lasting love of reading. In partnership with local pediatricians, WL distributes free Raising Readers packets for new parents. It also hosts pajama story times for parents and kids in the evening, runs a series of special kids programs, and allows new readers to practice their burgeoning skills by reading aloud to Lucy, a certified therapy dog, in the “Sit, Stay, and Read” program. And these projects are just a glimpse at WL’s excellent work for kids.

Programs for grownups

WL’s adult curriculum has similar variety, promoting both leisure and learning. Noveltea is a book discussion with tea and/or refreshments based on the title under consideration. The “By the People” forums, presented in partnership with Worthington’s Council for Public Deliberation, aim to promote citizen participation in conversation, not debate, of hot topics on the American agenda. A recent forum addressed the teaching of evolution in public schools. There’s a program to create “Résumés That Get Noticed,” an “English Conversation Group” for people whose first language is not English, and “Behind the Bestseller,” which features celebrated authors of fiction and nonfiction like New York Times food critic Molly O’Neill or author Sharon Draper. One of the Library of the Year judges gave WL the edge, she said, because of the plethora of ideas, “half of which I plan to steal.”

Most of WL’s programs are paid for by money raised by the very active Friends of the Library group. It brings in nearly $50,000 annually.

Reaching out

WL’s Ambassador Program, begun in 2001, won an “Innovator Award” from Tutor.com. WL technology staff go to community sites and classrooms to demonstrate all the online resources at WL and to promote the availability of 24/7 online tutoring from the library. The program is heavily used and has become a model for many other libraries.

The WL Homebound Program currently goes to several nursing homes and assisted care facilities in the district as well as 33 homes. Deliveries are made by dedicated volunteers, and WL plans to develop a books-by-mail service to augment the effort. Last year, Ronald McConnell, a homebound library user for many years, left his estate, worth more than $250,000, to the libraries.

WL outreach initiatives include seeking ways to enhance service to the northeast part of the district, an area with no library outlet. While the current funding outlook does not allow for a branch there, plans are underway for a storefront facility in a retail center.

The ties that bind

The libraries’ strong connections to the community are demonstrated in a host of ways. “The staff here all live and breathe both the library and the community,” says Mansfield. About 30 WL staff and seven members of the board belong to some 119 local organizations, agencies, and groups to make the point. More impressive is the massive list of partnerships the library has developed with neighborhood organizations and agencies.

“Worthington collaborates on everything,” says Mansfield. And a look at just a short list of partners shows it: Worthington schools, the city, and the Worthington Chamber of Commerce, Arts Council, Historical Society, International Friendship Association, Community Relations Commission, Alliance of African American Parents and Educators, Elizabeth Blackwell Center, Thurber House Literary Center, a half-dozen daycare centers and children’s agencies, Parks and Recreation Department, and Ohio State University, among many others.

“In any given week I could see the school superintendent, the city manager, the director of the Chamber of Commerce, city council members, school board members,” says Mansfield. “I see most of them more often than I see our own administrators.”

The library is proactive in these partnerships. This year, for example, the Healthy Worthington Coalition, an organization devoted to providing creative health-related educational opportunities in the district, gave WL its 2007 Collaboration Award for exemplary service as a partner.

Loved by all

A stack of letters from Worthington community leaders reinforces why WL deserves to be named Library of the Year 2007. But the most compelling testimony comes from the people who use WL, the community that supports the library in return for that great service.

“I love my library because it has had a major impact on my life,” writes one user, a slow reader who goes on to tell how WL staff convinced his son to read and enjoy books and to learn from them. Another citizen, Holly Willard, puts it just right: “I would be lost without our Worthington Library.”

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.