June 19, 2018

2012 Gale/LJ Library of the Year: San Diego County Library, Empowering the Public

In 2008, after the cratering of the real estate market in San Diego County, almost 45,000 homes were in foreclosure. Many residents, victimized by fraudulent mortgage practices and housing scams, were hurting and in need of help. As the dimensions of the crisis became clear to the management team of the San Diego County Library (SDCL), under the direction of Jose Aponte, they moved the library, knowing it was a trusted organization, into the breach.

In 2009, SDCL partnered with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Opportunities Collaborative and began offering free, four-hour clinics at several of the system’s 33 branches. Families, many of whom went to a branch away from their community to avoid disclosing their plight to their neighbors, were taught about the mechanics of foreclosure and then got to choose individualized counseling from lawyers, mortgage counselors, real estate professionals, and credit counselors who all volunteered their services to the library’s program.

So far, 3100 families have attended these HOME Clinics at the library, the first of its kind for public libraries.

“These clinics provided a legitimate solution and were led by professionals. The information and support I received was integral in saving my home,” wrote Jeffery Broussard about the program. “A lot of people simply give up, but the HOME Clinics make it possible to fight back.”

The model has won many awards and has since been replicated in California’s Orange and Imperial counties. It also is a prime example of why SDCL is the Gale/LJ 2012 Library of the Year.

Such vitality and creativity at the library have been in evidence since the appointment of Aponte in 2005. The library serves a population of 1,091,536 spread over 4,199 square miles—a territory larger than several states—and circulation has grown by 300 percent over the last five years. Last year alone, the library offered 22,435 programs.

The use of SDCL has exploded despite budget cuts of 30 percent over the past three years. The staff of 290 have been energized by a management team and style under Aponte that empowers them to take risks, come up with new ideas, and offer levels of service that meet people’s needs and solve their problems. Aponte’s decision to manage the budget cuts through staff attrition and reductions in other resources, rather than layoffs, has paid off in creativity and teamwork.

Empowering the team

“We believe staff should be able to serve anywhere, anytime in the library system,” Aponte says. That has translated to encouraging staff to pitch in where they can and to risk initiating programs and services without fear of disapproval if they don’t always work out. The SDCL director believes good relations with the staff and unions are “paramount to success.”

“I don’t mean we all have to sing ‘Kumbaya’ together, but we have to communicate and when possible collaborate. Sometimes, we have to agree to disagree,” Aponte says, adding that he learned that as an assistant city manager in Oceanside, CA.

“We like hiring people who are different from us, smarter than us, bring new things to the table, people who challenge our status quo,” says Pat Downs, SDCL’s principal librarian, program services manager, and volunteer coordinator, who came to SDCL from the Minneapolis Public Library soon after Aponte arrived.

“The culture here allows for honest mistakes. We learn from everything and keep the focus on customer service,” says Downs, adding, “The one fundamental is that staff have the heart of a public servant.”

Downs says she is proud to work for a county government with the motto: “The noblest motive is the public good.”

This attitude led to programs such as “Welcome Back: Ex-Offenders Rejoin the Workforce,” which attempts to help the estimated 9000 parolees who hit the county’s streets each year, according to a report from the Pew Center on the States. The program offers former inmates computer and job readiness training in partnership with a California Department of Corrections parole officer and a local prison diversion program.

Preprogram surveys showed that only 26 percent of the participants knew “a fair amount” or “a lot” about computers. Post-surveys showed that 100 percent felt proficient, and six months after completing the program 23 percent reported that they were either employed or enrolled in postsecondary education.

Nora Judith Aceves of La Mesa, who was incarcerated for 19 years, found the program life changing.

“To have someone investing their time and energy to apply their knowledge and wisdom, fitting us to become a better person in the times to come, that is freedom!” she wrote. “One of the results of this program is that it has given me the ability to do the right thing, at the right time, and in the right place.”

A different type of transition program at the El Cajon branch was a response to having one of the largest Iraqi populations in the United States. With county partner Health and Human Services Agency and its Welfare-to-Work, the library created Professional Group Study (PGS) to help new refugees take work preparation classes.

PGS has given more than 60 foreign-credentialed physicians, engineers, architects, dentists, veterinarians, and other professionals an opportunity to spend time in the library, studying and working toward U.S. licensing exams. Several have earned U.S. engineering licenses. Four PGS participants have been admitted to medical residency programs.

The automation revolution

The whole management team sees the staff as SDCL’s greatest asset.

“We want staff to bring their other talents and interests to work by asking them, ‘If you were hosting a gathering in your home, what would you want to share with your friends and family?’ ” says Downs. “Then we empower them to make it happen in their library.”

For example, frontline staff helped transform the library’s circulation functions. A staff “RFID and Customer Self Service Solutions Team” was established in 2008. Among the outcomes proposed were a self-checkout system, wireless printing, e-commerce (paying fines online), online library card application, automated materials handling book sorters, print copy control, telerenewals and teleforms, and radio-frequency identification (RFID). “Industry Days” were established to allow vendors to demonstrate their wares, and all staff were invited to attend. Products were chosen, and support models were developed. Customer care and ease of use were priorities.

In 2009, SDCL proceeded to RFID tag all materials within a year, and most library interiors were reengineered to allow new technology to be implemented. The final RFID self-checkout station was installed on November 17, 2010, and 90 percent of the 427,666 people who used the library last year worked with the RFID self-checkout system. In Rancho San Diego, an initial 13 percent self-checkout rate grew to 92 percent.

Simultaneously, e-commerce, teleforms, telerenewals, and web redesign were initiated. The first automated materials handlers were installed in January 2011.

“The key here is we empower the staff,” says Aponte, adding that they are an “all-star team.”

Collections: floating and sharing

From the zip code with the highest percentage of million-dollar homes to the areas where residents are in financial distress, where there is 9.2 percent unemployment, and where one in 255 households is in foreclosure, SDCL does its best to deliver timely and relevant materials to where they are most needed. Floating collections, centralized materials selection, and CollectionHQ, the collection management software, make the collection programs work. In 2005, when SDCL had general collections, circulation was stagnant at 4.1 million. When the budget crunch hit, dropping the library’s funding from $54 million to $37.8 million over the last three years, Aponte slashed the materials budget, confident the library could achieve record circulation anyway.

When you ask Deputy Director Susan Moore about the budgeting, she says, “Jose has such a positive leadership style that I don’t really think about the cuts and problems. As a new person, I find refreshing and fascinating Jose’s empowering, treating people as equals, and encouraging their contributions. Everyone is told everything.”

The depleted materials budget was now redirected to formats and areas of greatest interest to borrowers. Data-based decisions made collection work harder and sharing resources meant expanding collection use without expanding cost. Since 2006, as collections float throughout the library system, and CollectionHQ software allows items to be freely swapped among branches in order to feed local interests, shelves are now stocked with items the community wants, providing ready access and better service to browsing customers.

During 5.8 million visits last year, SDCL’s 751,000 cardholders checked out 12.4 million items from the floating collections and networked consortia. Circulation went from 4.1 million to 8.3 million in four years, to 12.4 million last year.

Opening buildings

With its two newest buildings, SDCL implemented the cost-effective design-build model whereby design and construction services are contracted by a single entity. Staff, community members, and Friends groups were involved in the planning, funding, and execution of the capital plan. They attended all meetings with design teams. All new SDCL buildings are built to Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification or above. SDCL received the 2012 San Diego County People’s Choice Orchid by the San Diego Architectural Foundation for the Fallbrook Branch.

“We’ve already built seven new libraries, two are under construction, and we have two planned but not yet funded,” says Donna Ohr, SDCL deputy director who manages facilities. With the automation revolution, floating collections, and the huge increase in programs in every branch, Ohr and Aponte realized SDCL needed a new operational model for facilities. Aponte’s mantra was to build for capacity and access.

“Capacity has to do with how much a container can hold, what space can be used for what,” says Ohr. Instead of the traditional single community room, SDCL had to create spaces to accommodate several programs going on at the same time. Books were put out front, computers moved back and into labs. The plan works. Service now averages 52 hours a week.

For Downs, this is “being good stewards of the resources the taxpayers have bestowed upon us.”

The strategy for success

A lot of this redesign was necessary in order to incorporate the enormous increase in programming that has occurred under Aponte’s watch.

“SDCL needed to focus on what was not just relevant to our customers but what was essential, not just what they want but what they need,” Downs says. “What they need, they need now, not when budgets are restored.”

The strategic plan lists five new programming areas: educated communities, prosperous communities, safe communities, healthy communities, and sanctuary.

Helping children and their parents has been a particularly strong focus.

  • Working with the Public Library Association’s Every Child Ready To Read initiative, SDCL recognized the need for quality early literacy and parent education in many languages and spotted a critical lack of guidance for parents of school-age youth. SDCL developed partnerships with a variety of parent-education providers, and since 2008 29 parent-education series have been offered at SDCL. About half of all families attending the classes become regular users, according to the library.
  • Proyecto Paternidad, provided in partnership with North County Health Services, has increased the number of parents who report reading with their children three or more days a week.
  • The Let’s Read Together program was provided with County Extension Services in cooperation with University of California. After the program, the percentage of parents reporting that they had confidence in handling day-to-day child-rearing challenges rose from 30 percent to 71 percent and parents reporting confidence in their ability to help their child learn increased from 42 percent to 88 percent.
  • SDCL’s Group Summer Reading distributed 850 kits serving 32,645 young people.
  • Eleven SDCL branches are the only destinations for students during out-of-school hours, serving as a daily safety net between school and home. Students find a smorgasbord of social, fitness, and enrichment programs, some planned and cohosted by peers, from Tween Clubs and Multiplication Leagues to Chess Clubs, Teen Zumba, and Science Lab @ the Library. In the second quarter of FY12, some 16,162 students attended 1,305 SDCL Out-of-School-Time Programs. At the Vista Branch, these activities became the Vista After School Academy for At Risk Youth.

Volunteers and service learners

The SDCL Service Learning Program, now three years old, offers not only volunteer experience for students but also expanded capacity for SDCL branches. Students get educational credit for their experience and learn work skills, and dozens of SDCL staff serve as mentors. These service learners make up a third of the volunteer force at SDCL. Last year, 1,578 SDCL service learners gave 31,939 hours or about $800,000 in staffing value. Overall, 5,461 volunteers gave 126,919 hours of service, which translates to $2,654,017 in staffing value. The Friends of the Library contributed $3.5 million last year.

The library even empowers volunteers in programs outside the library proper.

In February 2011, SDCL welcomed the international Foundation for Women (“Eliminating Global Poverty Through Microcredit”) into its Fallbrook, Spring Valley, El Cajon, and Vista branches. The nonprofit foundation provides funds for women to start businesses and offers peer support and money. Each program serves women whose first language is not English.

Cecilia Taylor of Bonsall, CA, volunteers for the foundation. She credits the library with helping to make the foundtion a success.

“We wouldn’t be able to have such a program without the support of the library and of the library personnel [at the Fallbrook branch],” she wrote. “The ability to use the meeting room and the computer lab have been a gift to us.”

In addition, dozens of SDCL health partners regularly bring vital screenings and expert presentations to the library’s branches as part of San Diego County’s overall ten-year initiative called Live Well, San Diego: Building Better Health. Last year, one of every ten SDCL programs was about health and fitness. For example, health resources fairs like the Lemon Grove Library Health Fair & Mammogram Clinic with its 15 partners offered 57 dental exams, 18 HIV tests, 79 glucose tests, and 43 mammograms. Six women with breast abnormalities were referred to a local clinic for follow-up.

Proud and optimistic

The people of the county and the people elected to govern it have developed a deep trust in SDCL. They have learned that in San Diego County a library is much, much more than “a warehouse of books,” as Aponte says of the future.

“Do you remember civic pride?” Aponte asks. “We’ll live with it, and we will grow as the economy recovers. And we will grow. Next year will be the first time in three years that I’ll be able to hire staff.”

At SDCL, they’ve pulled off a miracle of service to the people, close community connections, huge growth, and increasing staff confidence in a very difficult economic time. One can only imagine how SDCL will flourish as the economy and funding recover.

Photos 1-13 ©2012 Gary Payne/Getty Images. Photos 14-17 courtesy of San Diego County Library.

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. Those HOME clinics are a perfect example of the mission/support crisis we face. We’re morphing the mission of libraries so much to keep them relevant that we risk undermining people supporting them. Those may be great programs, but why are they happening at a library? And is it appropriate to turn a library into a community center without explicity asking voters to approve that change?

  2. Marilyn Williams says:

    I assume the Friends contribution consisted of the value of volunteer hours as well as cash. Can you tell me how much was cash and how much ws the value of volunteer hours?

  3. Housing Bear says:

    Sorry – but it was more greed on the part of buyers, sellers and lenders then scams that caused the housing crisis in the mid-2000’s. I was in San Diego and telling people (as of 2005) that housing would fall 40% soon made me a virtual outcast. I was offered an $800,000 loan with no docs or proof of income but wisely choose not to accept it. Especially on a $250,000 (real value) house. Please stop making everyone who lost their home to foreclosure a victim – they weren’t. They were greedy and thought they were getting on a gravy train. The real victims are the people who bought houses they could afford (3-4 times income instead of 15 times) and lost their previously stable jobs when the economy crashed punishing the wicked and virtuous alike. The public library feeding into their victimhood is not helpful. How about going back to the idea that you keep your house by paying your mortgage and you don’t borrow more than you can afford to repay?

    (So I don’t sound so heartless, I do blame the banks far more than the individuals for knowingly putting people into debt slavery and giving them loans of multitudes of income that they could never hope to repay. If a bank offers you money of course you are going to assume they would not lend you too much. Oh, and San Diego is not done correcting by a long shot.)

  4. Gary Robinsonb says:

    It is evident that the SDCL has people and employees at the forefront of what they do. It is refreshing to see the difference it makes.

  5. Patricia Olson-Groshong says:

    I worked for the county from ’87-94. The best working experience of my life. I see they are still doing a marvelous job of integrating people with current needs. I wished I worked for them now.their library system is a stellar organization.