March 16, 2018

2011 Library of the Year: King County Library System, WA | The People’s Library

By John N. Berry III, June 7, 2011

The words “Open to all” permeate this library’s strategic plan

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Top row, l.-r.: The jaunty Sammamish Library, one of LJ‘s New Landmark Libraries, anchors a new city center; the Snoqualmie branch bustles. Second row, l.-r.: KCLS’s robust building program has produced many innovative designs, including those of the Bellevue Library, the Woodmont Library, and the Carnation Library. Third row, l.-r.: Just one arm of KCLS’s assertive outreach, the Traveling Library Service has Susy Gonzalez Pieschner (l.) and Susan Conn, both outreach services specialists, helping out Frank Matzke, a resident of Aegis in Bellevue; at the groundbreaking Preston Shipping facility, Anna Piettrusinska (l.) and Julie Okomoto work with the massive sorter. Bottom row, l.-r. another means of outreach, the Library2Go program, uses green vehicles to deliver greater access to technology; inside, while parked at the Hazen High School in Renton, teens pick out books and log onto the laptops; Exterior building photos and Snoqualmie interior photo courtesy of KCLS, William Wright Photographer. All other photos ©2011 Patrick Bennett Photography

For decades,
the King County Library System (KCLS), Issaquah, WA, has earned a reputation as a model for libraries throughout the nation and the world. The surprise is that it has not won the Gale/Library Journal Library of the Year Award until this year—and a banner year it was. KCLS had its busiest year ever in 2010. Among the benchmarks was circulating 22.4 million items—more than any other library system in the United States—to the 1,318,745 people who live in King County. Those people visited their libraries an amazing 10,199,150 times last year. More than 100,000 new library cards were issued. KCLS web traffic reached 31,000,000 visits, and 77,000 people attended programs at its libraries.

That record is enough to win an award, but, beyond it, KCLS initiated a host of service expansions and improvements and adopted a new Future Services Strategy to develop new ways to provide services in the libraries, out in the community, and online. The library system overcame challenges ranging from huge new demand for service and the staffing needed to deploy outreach and online activities to planning ways to live with declining tax revenues despite a lift in the levy cap voted by grateful citizens. Amid all of this, KCLS continued to set a high bar for experimentation with technology in the field, and it completed the sixth year of its massive $172 million capital improvement program that has resulted in exciting and sustainable library spaces.

The innovations and programs, the creative management of KCLS resources, the ability to stretch but still serve the principles and core values of librarianship, the strong public support, and the vision for the system’s future make it clear that KCLS is more deserving than ever to be named Library of the Year.

Management strengths
“There are four factors that allow us to effectively manage KCLS,” says KCLS director Bill Ptacek. “First is that we are an independent taxing district. Second, we plan for the long term, and our planning is done by collaboration between labor and management. The union is right with us from the beginning. Third, we believe that people will come if they can get good stuff at the library. That means a strong effort to build relevant collections, whether they are books, videos, databases, or online. Finally, we try to use technology effectively and well.”

Solid fiscal support
KCLS is proud of its consistent support from taxpayers and voters who choose to pay $73.78 per capita for library service. In the February 2010 election, despite the worst economic conditions in decades, King County residents approved a levy lift to replenish KCLS operating funds. It was a strong vote of confidence, but tax revenues were still below predictions, and KCLS had to manage that lower revenue.

A new Future Services Strategy was implemented. Pilot staffing projects revised duties and workload structure to give staff more time for outreach and online activities. KCLS closed a little-used facility and reallocated resources to outreach to underserved areas and groups. It upgraded and expanded its online resources and, famously, put itself out there by spearheading the development and conversion to an open source integrated library system.

All of this was done within the constraints of a hiring freeze and moderate budget cutbacks amounting to $877,000. KCLS maintained current staff levels and hours of service. The system was able to finish the year using only 95 percent of its reduced budget.

“To have a separate taxing district is almost as powerful as having strong public support. We’re lucky here; we have both,” says Ptacek. “We manage for the long term and try to anticipate [more than] our fiscal future.” KCLS surveys the economy of its jurisdiction, and as it is funded primarily by property taxes, revenue forecasts are relatively accurate. A two-year budget cycle helps, too. When KCLS comes in under its budget, the money is held for future use by the system. This structure gives Ptacek more options in his toolbox for solid fiscal management and planning, and it prevents the kinds of cyclical and political ups and downs faced by many other public library systems.

Capital improvements
In the six years of its $172 million capital improvement program, KCLS has built nine new libraries, expanded six, renovated seven, and is currently working on ten projects. Plans are in place for a dozen more. The impressive report at the end of the project’s sixth year carries the title “Delivering on a Promise to the Voters.” It reveals dozens of architectural masterpieces, each expertly designed to fit the community in which it is built.

“We help develop communities. When we select architects, one of our main criteria is whether the architect can respond to the particular community,” says Ptacek. The libraries, each unique, embody that attention to their neighbors and the nature of the place.

KCLS began 2010 with 44 libraries and ended it with 46. The residents of Renton, in a close election, voted to make their two beloved city libraries part of KCLS. KCLS staff worked with the Renton librarians to facilitate the transition. Since that vote, use of the Renton libraries has grown ­dramatically.

Going green
For several years, in both its old and new locations, KCLS has looked for ways to support green standards. The system has developed new approaches to lighting, using a combination of CFL and LED bulbs to reduce energy consumption and costs. Low-flow toilets cut water use in both new and renovated KCLS buildings. Recycled materials were employed in construction and remodeling projects, and containers for separating garbage from recycling were placed at the libraries.

The Sammamish Library, named one of LJ’s ten New Landmark Libraries (“LJ’s New Icons,” LJ 5/15/11, p. 22, and Library by Design, p. 11, also 5/15/11), is a great example. Its green roof, with a layer of living vegetation, reduces energy consumption and water runoff. Computer-controlled HVAC systems make immediate adjustments to temperature and lighting possible. Rain gardens of composed of native trees, shrubs, and grasses help decrease water runoff and prevent flooding in four KCLS facilities.

Reaching out
“We try hard to make ourselves relevant,” says Ptacek. When the economy tanked, KCLS upgraded and enhanced its resources and services for job seekers. When the schools hit funding problems and school libraries were badly hurt, KCLS stepped in with help for students. The KCLS Research & Homework resources responded to 179,267 student requests for assistance last year.

It recently added and equipped six vehicles to provide mobile services in its Library2Go! and Digital Discovery Zone projects. The vehicles were part of the KCLS effort to reach out to underserved communities and groups. In the Library2Go project, the vehicles rotate among sites. Part of the job of staff at each library is to connect to agencies and groups in their areas and use the mobile facilities to serve them. In the mornings, they are likely to visit some of the 110 home day-care centers the librarians didn’t know about before the program but have since identified. They pull into the driveway of one of those home day-care centers and the kids, most preschool-aged, come out and get materials. The librarians leave a cache of books. In the afternoon, they do the same at community centers, after-school programs, or senior centers. Ptacek sees the service to the day-care kids as the beginning of building lifelong library support. Kids who would never get to the libraries learn about them now.

One vehicle carries the new KCLS Digital Discovery Zone, which brings tools for creating computer graphics, games, and animations to groups of all ages. It visits schools, community centers, after-school programs, and, of course, senior centers.

The purpose of the mobile vans is to strengthen KCLS outreach efforts and provide more deft service delivery to locations where library patrons already go. KCLS partnered with other community agencies in the process.

For jobs and businesses
To meet specific new needs, many brought on by the economic troubles, KCLS developed fresh programs. In partnership with WorkSource employment and training services, KCLS offered 46 workshops on job searches, résumé writing, and networking. Attendance made new records.

Special resources for small businesses were added in a partnership with infoBiz, an online resource guide for small business owners. The web pages, offering detailed information on starting and running a small business, attracted 3,741 visits from local entrepreneurs.

KCLS has been developing sections of special content on its web site to surface value for e-users.

Look to Your Library attracted 21,752 visits from people seeking jobs, and InfoVote answered election questions from some 3740 voters.

InfoGreen offers a directory of information on environmental conservation and sustainability.

Taking technology risks
KCLS developed a long-term plan to improve the quality and management of its computer network. Like most KCLS plans, this was in response to growing patron demand for improved technology and wireless access. Network services were installed in all the Library2Go vehicles, new wireless access points were added to the buildings, and central network equipment was upgraded along with email and messaging systems.

KCLS has always been an innovative risk taker in technical services—since its founding in the 1940s, it has leapfrogged to newer technologies and never had a card catalog. Many of its feats have been done under the guidance of Jed Moffitt, director of information technology services. In its most recent significant effort for the library field in general, KCLS spearheaded a collaborative technology effort to adapt the Evergreen open source ILS for use at high-volume public libraries. Library systems as far away as Florida and Michigan are involved. An Institute of Museum and Library Services grant of $1 million, coauthored by Moffitt, funded KCLS’s role to provide a peer-to-peer support model to help public libraries migrate to the Evergreen software.

“We wanted control of our own system, to customize it to meet the needs of our own library users, and to reduce our dependence on an outside vendor,” Ptacek says. He is proud of this initiative, despite the risks and difficulties in getting the software exactly as KCLS needs it. That is nearly completed, according to Ptacek.

In another risk-taking effort based on what library users will want and need, KCLS bought 2000 new ebook titles, redesigned web pages, and produced ereader information cards to answer questions about using of the new collection. “Get Started” videos and Facebook ads were part of the publicity plan, which resulted in a 200 percent increase in ebook downloads. Now about 1450 downloads take place every day at KCLS, tapping a collection of over 40,000 ebooks.

In the controversy over limits placed on ebook use by some publishers, Ptacek sees a position of strength: “At least the HarperCollins policy recognizes that there is a library market for ebooks, and it is important,” he says.

The KCLS “Tell Me a Story” wiki earned Angela Nolet a spot as a 2011 LJ Mover & Shaker. It includes filmed finger plays, songs, rhymes, and links to materials used in KCLS story times to help adults share early literacy activities with their children. There were more than 1.3 million visits in 2010. Views of the 63 online children’s book lists grew to 131,447 in 2010.

The KCLS Book Talk blog offered a fantastic collection of book recommendations from more than 60 librarians. Users found it easier than ever to tap book recommendations from their favorite librarians.

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KCLS’s innovative reputation is one legacy of a dynamic leadership team (top l., l.-r)-Julie Brand, community relations and marketing director; Bill Ptacek, director; Bruce Schauer, public services director; Jed Moffitt, information technology services director; and Kay Johnson, facilities development director-pictured at the Fairwood Library. Reading remains central at KCLS, where the “Take Time To Read” program is touted all over town with catchy ads like this one on a local bus. Left photo ©2011 Patrick Bennett Photography. Right photo courtesy of KCLS, William Wright Photographer

Take time to read

KCLS is very proud of its Take Time To Read campaign, a multiyear effort by KCLS and the KCLS Foundation to encourage and help people to read whenever they have a few minutes. Reading chairs and collections of “quick reads” were set up in retail outlets, medical facilities, at the DMV, and other such busy places. Free “Gift of Time” cards were distributed at the libraries to push the idea.

In conjunction with the national Take Back Your Time Day, KCLS worked on a campaign that produced 145 signs viewed some 26 million times via the transit system and engineered promotions on four local radio stations and a broadcast on Seattle’s PBS station. As part of the program, a Book Cover Walking Tour is planned for later this year, which will feature some 100 six-feet-tall framed book covers, for installation in eight cities across the county.

Staff and volunteers
Proud of the way KCLS operates collaboratively, with management and labor in on both planning and oversight, KCLS also works to build a diverse and strong staff in the future and gets all the high-quality help it can from volunteers.

The KCLS Page Fellowship Program recruits, hires, educates, and aims to retain a staff that closely connects with the communities served by KCLS. The program targets young adults attracted to a library career but lacking in education, skills, and work experience. In 2010, 21 young people completed the program. KCLS then employed seven including two as library assistants and one public service assistant. Seven others were accepted into the KCLS library assistant pool. The KCLS Tuition Assistance program helped two earlier graduates earn their MLIS from the University of Washington.

The new KCLS volunteer services program will provide training, networking, and enhanced recognition for KCLS volunteers. A new policy was developed; guidelines, standards, and ID badges were introduced. KCLS is presenting a program on its volunteer effort at the American Library Association conference in New Orleans this month.

The purpose of a library
As this was being written, Ptacek decided to remove security cameras from all KCLS locations. He saw them as a threat to users’ privacy and risked controversy and a negative response from local law enforcement officials to serve what is probably the most important principle of librarianship: library users are entitled to intellectual freedom and privacy in their pursuit of knowledge. It is more evidence that at KCLS the library user comes first: in the planning process, in programs and services, and in its efforts to protect the people’s rights to free inquiry and free information. Serving those values, and through them building a library service and system that effectively and efficiently serves all the people of King County, is what makes KCLS the 2011 LJ/Gale Library of the Year.

Library of the Year 2011 Special Mention
Many of the stalwart nominees in this competitive round attest to the innovation and excellence practiced every day by U.S. and Canadian libraries. Several of the institutions feature the service philosophy and dedication to community that signify a Library of the Year:

Jefferson County Public Library, Lakewood, CO
Marcellus Turner, Executive Director

Middle Country Public Library, Centereach, NY
Sandra Feinberg, Director

San Diego County Library, CA
Jose Aponte, Director

Library of the Year 2011 Judges
LJ thanks the following library professionals who volunteered their valuable time to help select the 2011 Library of the Year:

Camila Alire, Immediate Past President,
American Library Association

Leslie Burger, Director, Princeton Public Library, NJ

Patrick Losinski, Director, Columbus Metropolitan Library, OH; LJ 2010 Library of the Year

Paul Paladino, Director, Montrose Regional Library District, CO, parent system of Naturita Community Library; LJ 2011 Best Small Library in America

Nader M. Qaimari, Senior Vice President, Marketing, Gale|Cengage Learning

The panel also includes LJ’s John N. Berry III, Francine Fialkoff, Josh Hadro, Brian Kenney, Rebecca Miller, & David Rapp

Author Information
John N. Berry III is Editor-at-Large, LJ
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