February 17, 2018

ULC Awards Celebrate 2016 Top Innovators


Accepting the ULC 2016 Top Innovators Award for Sno-Isle Libraries, WA: (l-r) director of technical services Rebecca Loney, public information manager Jim Hills, executive director Jonalyn Woolf-Ivory, and deputy director Kendra Trachta
Photo credit: Rob Rice

The Urban Libraries Council (ULC) announced the winners of the 2016 ULC Top Innovators Award at the 2016 ULC Annual Forum in Kansas City, MO, on October 6. The award showcases ULC’s Innovations Initiative honoring 20 public libraries whose services “demonstrate how our members, and public libraries in general, continue to evolve and serve as essential technology, education, and community leaders,” according to the press release. “The Innovations Initiative promotes innovations across ULC libraries, garnering national and international recognition for our library innovators and the integral role they play in building thriving communities.”

Winners and honorable mentions were chosen from a list of almost 270 submissions in ten categories: Learning: Birth thru Teens; Learning: Adults; Collections; Customer Experience; Positioning the Library; Workforce and Economic Development; Race and Social Equity; Civic and Community Engagement; Health, Safety, and Sustainability; and Organizational Change and Strategic Management.

“Winners were selected based on the strength of the innovation, results achieved and the capacity to be replicated in other libraries,” said ULC President and CEO Susan Benton.

Recipients spoke of the award as a chance for libraries to share outward thinking and altruistic solutions, and to communicate with each other on what has worked and what has not.


Proud of his library system’s win in the Health, Safety and Sustainability category, Luis Herrera, city librarian of San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), said, “To garner a Top Innovator Award means that we’re among the best of the best.”  Herrera felt the award “showcases the remarkable talent pool in staff throughout the country.”

To initiate a dialog about health in its communities, SFPL’s “Biblio Bistro” program focused on outreach. Librarians performed food demonstrations throughout the city and at farmers markets in order to address the connection of home-cooked meals to wellness.

Herrera said that in some areas of San Francisco, “we have food deserts and nutrient disparity. The program was a response to a compelling community need.”

The Queens Library (QL), New York, won the Learning: Adults category for its program, “Helping Adults Finally Achieve That High School Diploma.”

As standards performance manager for QL’s adult learner program, Nikeisha Smothers created ways for the free program to help students succeed—with online assistance, providing additional pathways for uneasy test takers, and adding a variety of locations and class times. When the students achieved their diplomas, QL held a May commencement ceremony, complete with graduation gowns and commencement speakers.

As of press time, Smothers’s efforts have helped over 300 students graduate.

“The key is to see this service as central to your [library’s] mission. The need will express itself,” Smothers said. She was overjoyed, she said, to be an Innovations winner. “It is an honor that our work is being recognized by different colleagues.”

The library recognizes her vital effort as well. “The real life blood of the public library is the staff,” Mary Bleiberg, QL’s senior vice president of institutional advancement and development, said. “Nikeisha saw a need. Now the program has grown to be borough-wide.”


Some award winners expanded their reach to meet their demographics. Gary Wasdin, director of King County Library System (KCLS), WA, said his system focused on the “the silver tsunami, rushing toward us,” referring to the influx of Baby Boomers 65 and older.

KCLS’s program, “Older Adults: Inspire, Engage, Connect,” won the Civic and Community Engagement category. The program created an extensive database for senior resources, covering everything from senior homeshares and social security information to wisdom cafés, where patrons can partake in discussions on meaningful topics.

The library system even hired a full-time Older Adults Project Specialist to connect with AARP, local senior centers, and other community organizations to ensure the success of the program.

The Sno-Isle library system, serving residents in Washington State’s Snohomish and Island counties, wanted to connect with younger cardholders. It brought the Generation Y and Z audience to the library by introducing a TEDx series titled “TEDxSnoIsle Libraries 2015,” which was Top Innovator in the Positioning the Library category.

Jim Hills, public information manager for Sno-Isle Libraries, said, “Our approach with TEDxSnoIsle Libraries is to take TED’s mantra, ‘ideas worth spreading,’ and focus it on the communities we serve. Most of our TEDx presenters are local people and so the ideas we’re spreading are from the communities we serve,” Hills said. “The event becomes a celebration of community with Sno-Isle Libraries as the host.”


Other winning programs kept their cardholders close by anticipating their needs.

Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, (PLCHC), OH, was recognized for “We Have the Hots for You,” aimed to make the library easier to use by predicting—and automatically placing holds on—the most current (or “hot”) ebooks, magazines, eAudiobooks, and DVDs for participating library patrons.

Kimber Fender, executive director for PLCHC, said that the program, which won the Collections category, “let us offer a personal service to thousands of cardholders efficiently without overwhelming our staff.”

Some winners were chosen for the ability to consider the future care of library buildings and how upkeep may affect cardholder access. Montgomery Public Libraries, Rockville, MD, won the Organizational Change and Strategic Management category for “The Library Refresh Program: In-Time Solutions.”

The program scheduled restorations to three branches per year, in order to minimize library “down time” when branches would be closed for construction for extended periods of time leaving the public without library access.

Director Parker Hamilton stated that Montgomery’s program worked because it saved money in the long run, “while ensuring all of our 21 branches keep pace with 21st century technologies, services, and spaces.” Doing so, she said, would let the library “delight customers while being good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars.”


Many 2016 Innovation Award winners emphasized how the Innovation Award symbolizes a move toward the next generation of libraries and hoped their solutions could continue the dialog.

Fender stressed the importance of libraries looking beyond their comfort levels. “We have to let go of some of our perceptions about libraries and our cardholders and truly be willing to listen,” she said, “we also have to be willing to change what we’ve been doing and adopt new approaches to service.”

Hills agreed. “The library is not just serving the community, but becoming a contributor, stepping up and taking some responsibility and ownership to anticipate where our customers are going,” he said.

There are plenty of working solutions for library systems with communication and open mind, Wasdin pointed out. “Each community is different and we can learn from each other,” he said.

For the full list of winners, see ULC’s 2016 Innovators page.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library Journal, Stronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.