June 19, 2018

Nicolle Davies: Stepping Into Progress in Charleston

Nicolle Davies has not been resting on her laurels since she was recognized as Library Journal’s 2016 Librarian of the Year. At the time of the award’s announcement, in January, Davies served as executive director of Arapahoe Library District (ALD), Centennial, CO, since 2012. While at ALD, she worked with staff to rebrand the library and turn it into a go-to destination for cutting edge technology, oversaw the construction of a new branch, and in 2015 helped pass a mill levy tax increase that will bring the library an additional $6 million per year. In July 2016, Davies left ALD to become the executive director of Charleston County Public Library (CCPL), SC.

Davies arrived in Charleston in October, as the system prepared to leverage a successful 2014 referendum and build two new libraries, replace three existing buildings, and renovate 13 more locations. LJ recently caught up with her to hear more about what’s in store for CCPL.

LJ: This is a big change—ALD and CCPL are so different in terms of infrastructure.

Nicolle Davies: You’re right—I left nearly a $31 million annual operating budget and eight brick-and-mortar facilities, and I came somewhere that is just under $16 million in terms of an annual operating budget, and [has] 16 locations. What was appealing to me about this opportunity is that in 2014, the voters of Charleston County approved a $108 million bond referendum with a 74 percent approval rating, which is amazing. For libraries to have that kind of support is phenomenal. That is so exciting—to be in a community that loves libraries that much, to get to build five new branches, and help bring the system into being a great 21st century library.

That seems to be a constant in your career, working in communities with a strong investment in their libraries.

I have been fortunate in that way. When we passed the mil levy increase in Arapahoe Libraries in 2015, we passed that with, I think, 57 percent. We were dancing in the streets, we were so thrilled. To think about 74 percent approval rating for a tax increase for libraries? It’s a bond initiative, so it’s not forever, but it’s amazing to think there’s that kind of support in a community for public libraries. There’s that sentiment that library is important here—that there’s value, and that [community members] really appreciate what public libraries are doing.

What is it like to step into the middle of the building process?

In 2015, a lot of work was started, but we haven’t broken ground on any of these buildings yet. So I’m early enough in the process that I am sitting at the table. There [has been] no schematic design done yet on any location. So I am literally helping to shape those branches, along with my team—everything from the look to the feel. It’s the largest building project the county has ever undertaken. So it’s a learning process for everybody.

Again, I don’t want to underestimate the amount of work that was done before I got here. But I’m not coming into [a situation where] we’re building something developed already. So I’ve really had the opportunity to be very much in the development and planning stages with my team.

What else is in motion at CCPL?

Not only are we building new buildings and [have] the money set aside for the renovations, the entire system is moving to RFID [radio frequency identification] and automated material handling [AMH]. That migration in and of itself can be a year- to two-year-long process. We’re doing that on top of these building projects.

What’s fun for me is that we have a very traditional model at CCPL, where there’s a reference desk and a circulation desk. So as we’re thinking about the adoption of RFID and self-check and AMH, it’s allowing us to start thinking about how we can free up our staff from some of those tasks and get them engaged more with patrons, helping to meet our patrons at their point of need, and roving throughout the branch in the stacks, things like that.

We’ve been very cognizant of those implications of technology in a positive way as we’re thinking about these new buildings. Because even the buildings that are going to be renovated are going to force our staffing models to change. This was work that I had done years ago at Arapahoe, and I’m getting to do it again with [CCPL].

And because I experienced it at Arapahoe, I have a great deal of sensitivity to the volume of change that we are asking of staff and patrons. I want to make sure that our staff has the tools that they need to be successful with that transition. There’s definitely the opportunity to rebrand our identity in the community.

That’s absolutely something I think will go hand in glove with the technology changes and the staffing changes. It will be a refresh of our look and feel. Hopefully, that all will start with somewhat of a cultural change for our staff, feeling like they’ve got even more opportunity to be with our public, and that they really are able to see themselves as the valuable resources that they are.

The entire program will probably take about five years to build the buildings and do the renovations, but I don’t want to wait five years to change our customer service model. So I think we’re going to start ramping up all of that later in 2017.

The feedback I’ve gotten from the senior leadership that I’ve been working with has been very positive. There is a great sense of excitement in our organization right now—because of the new buildings, but [also] because of the technology and the changes that are coming. What I’m finding here with the staff is that there’s more excitement than there is fear, which is great.

What challenges and surprises are you encountering in the design process? How are you planning for the system’s sustainability?

There are very interesting challenges about building in this part of the country that are new for me. There’s water everywhere—you dig into the ground and you’re going to hit water eventually. One of the biggest challenges I have faced is convincing architects and general contractors that we must build these libraries with access flooring, raised floors. Because we know that public libraries are going to change. We’re going to need to be able to move outlets and furniture and stacks. So the best way to facilitate that is with access flooring.

That wasn’t anything I had to worry about in Colorado. It’s more challenging to do that here with the humidity issues and the water table issues. It’s a bit more expensive, and it takes a little more creativity for development. But it can absolutely be done. We found successful examples—not in libraries, but in other corporations that have done building projects with access flooring—that we could point to, locally, to say this can be done, and it can be done successfully.

What are you most proud of from your time at ALD?

Oh, so much. How do I narrow it down? One of the things I’m so proud of is that we really sparked a sense of curiosity about technology with our staff, so in turn they didn’t shy away from hard questions when our public came in. They became really great at helping the public get up to speed. If you approach technology the same way you would a reference question, where you don’t have to know all the answers, you just have to know how to find the answers, it changes the way you view technology. And I felt like my entire staff at Arapahoe, they just jumped right in and they got there. I’m really proud of the team that I built there, and I think that they’re continuing to do great work. Somebody I promoted [Oliver Sanidas] is now the new executive director. I’m super thrilled about that.

And of course our rebranding initiative. I think we excited a lot of people in the community about what the public library was doing, and that helped us pass our mill levy increase in 2015. We were very intentional about rolling out a brand and getting people excited about what we were doing before we asked voters to further support us financially, and we did that successfully.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading South of Broad, by Pat Conroy, because he’s a Charlestonian—and Gone With the Wind. I’m trying to fully immerse myself in southern culture, as a western kid.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.