June 18, 2018

Best Small Library in America 2012: The Independence Public Library, KS

The Independence Public Library enjoys an exemplary renaissance

“The library was dying!” says Julie Hildebrand, recalling her feelings when she was promoted to the directorship of the Independence Public Library (IPL), KS, in 2009. “I knew we didn’t have enough money to keep our doors open. We had to make some drastic cuts and hard decisions, and we kept the library open. We did it with support from the city commission and our own Friends of the Library. We really worked hard to build relationships within the community and with local legislators as well.”

After just two years, IPL, which was founded in 1882, has been reborn. It has won awards, garnered grants and increased tax millage, and built programs and services that are “packing ’em in” to 220 Maple Street from all over Independence. So dramatic was the transformation that IPL, whose service district has a population of 13,420, is the winner of the 2012 Best Small Library in America Award, cosponsored by LJ and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

How the small staff of eight pulled off the miraculous resurrection of IPL exemplifies what makes good libraries and good librarians. Their effort combined innovative thinking with a participatory management style. They collaborated with other Kansas libraries and built partnerships with the community, its leaders, and the agencies, institutions, and enterprises that operate in the library district.

In a letter endorsing the library for the award, Lily R. Morgan, director of the Learning Resource Center at Independence Community College, wrote, “The Independence Public Library is truly an integral part of the greater Independence community, providing high-quality educational, entertainment, and employment resources and programs for all its users.”

Advocating for IPL

It became apparent to Hildebrand and her staff that stronger library advocacy would be needed to raise the budget and attract other grants and donations. They decided to use the national Geek the Library campaign from OCLC and the Gates Foundation. According to its official website, Geek the Library “is designed to highlight the vital role of public libraries in today’s challenging economic environment and to increase local library support.” IPL set up Geek the Library tables at local events. For example, Neewollah (Halloween spelled backwards), an annual week-long event in Independence that dates from the early 1900s, is now the largest festival in Kansas. IPL supporters carried a new “Get Your Geek” banner in several festival parades.

IPL’s tireless team (l.–r.): John Long, network administrator; Sara Gorman, library clerk; Blinn Sheffield, children’s librarian; Allison Merritt, teen library clerk; Kriztina Smith, public services manager; Nancy Kishpaugh, front desk supervisor; Becky Passaurer, technical services; and Director Julie Hildebrand. Photo by Rob Morgan Photography

In addition, the Friends of IPL bought three months of radio advertising. IPL bought Geek book bags, tattoo decals, wristbands, and balloons to give away in town. A local professional photographer took pictures of residents to make Geek posters. IPL’s Geek committee, which includes staff, board members, citizens, and the president of the chamber of commerce, planned an “I Geek” to involve local businesses.

Such activities, including many run by IPL, have created connections with businesses and organizations in the district. The local Soroptimist, Optimist, Lions Club, and Women’s Study groups have sponsored IPL programs.

Publicity and marketing

The library also takes advantage of the awards it wins, such as the EBSCO Excellence in Small and/or Rural Public Library Service Award; the American Dream Starts @ Your Library grant; the We the People Bookshelf, a Public Library Association (PLA) advocacy grant; and SEKLS (Southeast Kansas Library System) grants for Collection Development and ­Materials ­Delivery.

Blinn Sheffield, children’s librarian, plays Christmas bingo with the younger set.
Photo by Rob Morgan Photography

Patron Christopher Zimwinga takes advantage of the free Wi-Fi available throughout the library.
Photo by Rob Morgan Photography

“Social networking is one of our main sources for effective marketing. We have a number of Facebook pages, including one for our library cat, Trixie!” says Hildebrand. IPL staff keep blogs on various topics and make use of Twitter, Flickr, and Tumblr. In all of 2010, the library’s Facebook page had only 9,556 views, but in the first nine months of 2011, that number had jumped to 106,695. Hildebrand’s blog has shown a similar increase during the same period, going from 2,105 views to 7,697.

IPL disseminates an email newsletter and even has an iPhone app. The local newspaper, The Daily Reporter, apparently covers IPL’s every move, with pictures and reports appearing at least once a week.

“We are proud of all the coverage we get,” says Hildebrand, with a nod to Kristina Smith, the head of public services at IPL, who sends out news releases and calls the paper for big events.

Programs and partnerships

Winning one of 19 second-place honors (and $1300) in the Clifford the Big Red Dog Be Big in Your Community contest was a source of great pride at IPL. “Our idea was to provide healthy foods and snacks to local kids along with food and nutrition programs and education,” reports Allison Merritt, who heads YA services at IPL.

“Currently our county (Montgomery) has the highest unemployment rate in the state (9.6 percent), and we hold the 98th place in state health rankings (99 being the worst). More than half of the students in local schools are on the free and reduced-cost meal plan, the only source of food for many. There is no reliable source of food on weekends or during the summer. We will provide what we can with what we were awarded but will push on for our original goal of $25,000 to provide for these kids,” Merritt says.

Allison Merritt (l.), liaison for the teen advisory group, meets in the YA section with group members (clockwise) Jasmine Gray, Leonard Armstrong, and Darrius Scott. Photo by Rob Morgan Photography

Following the screening of the movie The Help, in the second floor conference room, patrons compared the movie and the book. Photo by Rob Morgan Photography

Partnerships, says Hildebrand, “are the key to getting community members involved, and that is both cost effective and a great marketing tool for IPL. It opens doors to other ­possibilities.”

When staff attend events or hear a speaker they try to connect. They always ask chamber of commerce members if they can bring something to IPL. For instance, a local candle shop offered a workshop on candle-making at IPL, and an organic farmer led a presentation on gardening. The Kansas Migrant Eduction program offers ESL and now conversational English classes at IPL, and the Southeast Kansas Area Council on Aging uses the IPL computer lab for sessions on how to register for Medicare Part C and D.

Local police suggested that IPL ban homeless folks who gathered in back of the library. Instead, IPL started a program that turned them into regular users. Teens had been so unruly that IPL was forced to hire a security guard in 2007. In 2010, IPL moved teens to their own space on the third floor and replaced the guard with Merritt, a dedicated library clerk who could run programs that engaged them. Now, teens volunteer for programs such as one that offers art instruction to younger kids, and they love the gaming tournaments at IPL.

More than 500 people came to the IPL Christmas Festival sponsored by the Friends of IPL. This turnout is supported throughout November, when local youth earn a “library buck” for every book they read—some 1,846 books this last November. They can then use those bucks to buy gifts at the festival supplied by a Friends grant. Active Friends number about 25 to 30, although there are about 200 members. They sponsor events like the festival and IPL’s annual ghost stories in the park.

The Bureau of Lectures and Concert Artists brought IPL a program with acrobatic dogs, robots, and animals from Egypt. Other events featured jugglers, ventriloquists, and magicians. For these larger events, IPL can move some of its stacks on wheels to make space. IPL will host the traveling exhibition “Lincoln: The Constitution, and the Civil War” in partnership with the Independence Historical Museum and Art Center.

“That partnering and community engagement is how we are able to provide as many programs as we do with just eight staff members,” says Hildebrand.

“I am constantly amazed at the depth and breadth of programming in Independence Public Library. The library has made a real commitment to programs at all levels—children’s, teens, and adults—and offers an aggressive and impressive schedule of programs that would do credit to many libraries many times its size,” says Roger ­Carswell, director of SEKLS.

Data and technology

Beyond the promotions, IPL collects endless data to provide evidence of its high use and importance in the district.

“As a nonprofit we can’t say we made money, so we show statistics that really help our library board and staff talk to our community about our success. Of course, we try to be sure we reach legislators and our funding leaders with those messages,” says ­Hildebrand.

The message appears to have had an impact. IPL is a district library with a seven-member Board of Directors. Its budget is governed by the local school board, and the budget requires approval of both that board and the Independence City Commission. Nevertheless, the budget has gone from $494,828 in FY10 to $609,488 in FY11 (a nearly $10 per capita increase), and another increase of one-quarter mill has been passed by district voters for 2012—a rare victory in the budget wars. The plan is to restore service to six days a week (IPL is currently closed on Sundays and Mondays).

The fireplace in the old section of the building features a plaque from Andrew Carnegie
bestowing the library on Independence in 1907. Photo by Rob Morgan Photography

A yearlong Impact Study on Technology Usage brought several surprising results. For example, 41 percent of IPL users tapped library technology to look for a job; 31 percent received one-on-one help with technology from IPL staff and volunteers; 28 percent did research for class work; and another 28 percent made travel arrangements. A whopping 31 percent use IPL technology to do research related to their job or profession, and 17 percent actually do work for their current position.

IPL technology services include free access to the Internet via 50 public access computers, purchased as part of a grant from the Gates Foundation some five years ago. This access is crucial to the increased use and support of the library. Some additional funds from an American Library Association (ALA) grant helped to establish a computer lab, and the plan is to use money from this award to upgrade those computers.

The library offers many programs to teach folks how to work with the databases that IPL subscribes to through the Kansas State Library, some of which include ebooks, audiobooks, research materials, and more.

“We found that technology is part of the solution to the problem of a dying library,” says Hildebrand.

The computer lab is available to businesses for training, and every day there are students taking online classes at IPL.

“People measure what is important to them. While all applicants for this award responded to the general call for information on ‘virtual visits,’ Independence added year-over-year detail on four different blogs, four Facebook sites, and four databases in addition to virtual views of its website. The data provided is indicative of an in-depth understanding and application of virtual services,” writes award judge Karen Perry, senior program officer, U.S. Libraries, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Teamwork for change

“We changed our management style,” says Hildebrand, when asked to identify the key to IPL’s transformation. “We replaced an autocratic management style with democratic teamwork.”

Morning staff meetings were initiated. Staff are now encouraged to participate together on projects, express new ideas, and ask for help from other members of the team. Each staffer has a set of primary duties, but creativity and innovation come when they help one another with new programs and ­projects.

Hildebrand cites as a typical example of staff deployment at IPL head of Internet and interlibrary loan John Long. Working far beyond his assigned duties, Long handles all the public computers and servers, but he also acts as reference librarian, teaches computer classes, conducts Wii and trivia tournaments, and carries on book discussions.

“We all wear numerous hats, and we all ask one another for help when we need it,” says Hildebrand, who started as public services manager at IPL in 2006 and became director in 2009, following a stint as assistant director. When she spotted the need for that new management style, she enlisted the aid of the small IPL staff and began the teamwork transformation.

A collaborating profession

“I love the collaborative environment in this profession. It really attracted me to the job,” says Hildebrand. “I’ve had help from ALA, PLA, YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association), LJ, and all the [electronic lists], webinars, and publications. It is an amazing profession, and an amazing collaborative environment.”

She still gets advice from her predecessor and relies on SEKLS for its numerous grant opportunities and workshops.

SEKLS’s Carswell sees IPL as one of the “most progressive” of the organization’s libraries and was impressed by its willingness to lend not only ideas but also materials from its collection to the other 26 institutions in the system.

“At SEKLS, we often learn from the Independence Public Library…. It has built support in the community through meeting the needs of the community, which has enabled [the library] to move forward,” Carswell writes in support of the nomination.

“The library has come out of the box and is full of life, thanks to the efforts of our staff, our community, and our partner libraries,” says Hildebrand proudly.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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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  1. Dr. Kari (Holloway) Johnstone says:

    I was so thrilled to see our library as the winner! My mother was Corine Holloway and she took us all the time to the library. You would call her to let her know when a good book came in that she would enjoy. I am truly blessed to have had the experiences I did at the library and thankful I had a mother who was so very literary! We kids still, to this day, laugh about all the thick novels our mom notoriously had on the back seat of the car. Even when mom moved to a neighboring town, she still went religiously to the public library.

    Thank you so very much for preserving and updating this fantastic place for adventures of the mind and soul.
    Kari (Holloway) Johnstone

  2. Dr. Douglas Ashcraft says:

    How proud I am of my hometown library! I’ve spent so many hours there. An enormous chunk of my musical education came from your record collection. I think it was my Mom’s favorite place in town. Congratulations!

  3. Alexis Jarrett says:

    I am so excited to see Independence receive this wonderful award. I grew up using IPL and always enjoyed studying there. My good friend’s mother (Nancy Zimmerman-both were named Nancy Zimmerman) worked at the library and tried—in her day—to make and keep the IPL a viable and current source for the town’s citizens. She would be so pleased and proud of everyone’s tremendous efforts. Congratulations on a job very well done! Thank you for keeping everyone’s dreams alive!

    Alexis Jarrett (Schererville, IN)

  4. Congratulations to the Independence Public Library, the Decater Public Library and the Dover Town Library AND to the communities that each of these libraries serve. What the libraries have in common is that each one has renovated their service offerings to completely align with the needs of their residents. They have brought community services into the library and brought library services out to the community.
    Even better, each of these libraries is an innovation engine for the field! Thanks to Library Journal for showcasing their work!

    Karen Perry – Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

  5. Alexandra DuPuis says:

    I am just a member of the Decatur community and and also a member of the library book club. I have felt ever since I moved to Decatur in 2003 that the Decatur Library is truly exceptional, not only do they provide so many great opportunities, but the staff and especially our librarian, Cecelia is one remarkable woman.

  6. Penny Layton says:

    Spent hours in that library as a kid. FOllow it on FB. They always have fun and different stuff going on. Congrats.