February 16, 2018

Librarian of the Year 2004: Toni Garvey

Phoenix Public Library

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 01/15/2004

She has practiced her profession in a Western county jail, for the politicized board of a Southern public library, in the children’s room of a university community, and through the up and down economics of a major American city. She’s managed branches and systems, children’s work and reference services, huge building programs and major technology upgrades. Since moving to Arizona, she has focused all that expertise on salvaging an embattled urban library system. She has performed with charm and grace and come out of it loving her job, her profession, and her community. Those are the openers in the story of Toni Garvey, director of Phoenix Public Library (PPL) and LJ 2004 Librarian of the Year.

Reinventing via access

Garvey and her staff have truly reinvented PPL. Garvey says the key concept in this effort is the idea of access. It is the kind of access to the public library that is built and expanded through improved hours, strong print and digital collections, a diverse and talented staff, and growing and improved facilities.

The change began in 2001 when the city council voted to make PPL a new city department. For 25 years PPL was hidden in the folds of parks and recreation. Under Garvey, the library built its identity, demonstrating that it was a large, complex organization.

“We were a successful division,” says Garvey. “We had shown that we offered tremendous services and had a supportive, vocal constituency. We demonstrated that we knew what we were doing, and the political timing was just right.”

The rapidly growing population of the sprawling city of Phoenix, now nearing 1.5 million, has embraced its custom-made, modern, innovative program of library facilities, services, and resources. Since FY95/96, circulation has increased 105 percent, to 11,726,840 last year.

First came expanded hours of service. Every PPL branch, including the central library, is open seven days a week, for 66 hours. This schedule, which provides more hours of service than most city libraries, includes generous Sunday hours. Before budget cuts, PPL offered 75 hours of service a week.

When Garvey arrived, branch library schedules varied widely and hours of service were far fewer. Some branches were open 40 hours, others up to 55. Some opened on Sunday in the school year, others not at all. The fewest hours were often in the neediest neighborhoods.

“It was a fine political message to say, ‘We serve everyone equally,'” says Garvey. “In a place like Phoenix, with 13 libraries to serve 1.4 million people, you have to redefine what access means. Lots of hours and uniform schedules are critical to that.”

Access also means serving a diverse population. When a librarian visiting a branch in a Hispanic neighborhood found no staff who could speak Spanish, Garvey immediately discovered which staffers had language competencies. She transferred people into branches with gaps and began to recruit people fluent in Spanish. Most remarkably, PPL hired someone to teach Spanish to the whole staff, and now there are basic and intermediate Spanish classes going on all the time, with teaching geared to library situations and vocabulary.

More, bigger branches

Access also means more libraries. Right now, despite a tough economy, PPL has two branches under construction and a third in design. The system is about to buy land for a fourth building and is planning to purchase additional acreage for six more as the city grows. There were 11 branches when Garvey began, and at the end of the current program, already funded, PPL will have 15 branches.

Phoenix is not a walking city, and Garvey has a different approach to construction. “We do build large libraries, and we keep them open a long time,” she says. Phoenix is geographically the size of Los Angeles and growing more rapidly. People drive long distances to get to the central library, but they expect to find nearly as great an array of resources at their local branch. PPL builds no library smaller than 15,000 square feet and always with room for expansion. Some libraries open with 25,000 square feet of space.

The construction of the great Burton Barr Central Library, begun just before Garvey arrived at PPL, gave her spaces to plan and a chance to do some fundraising. Garvey’s signature Teen Central facility now attracts 400 teens every day and won the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) Highsmith Award in 2002.

What the public wants

“I’m interested in what the public wants. I like to know what they will accept and if they are ready to use it digitally,” Garvey says. PPL surveys the public constantly, online, through its web site, and through traditional focus groups or individually. Supported by a federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant, PPL conducted its first online survey in 2001. It showed an 85 percent level of satisfaction with the library’s then 56 subscription databases. Now PPL subscribes to more than 90 databases, all available remotely.

PPL’s strong materials allocation totals about 17 percent of the budget: $4.7 million, up from $2.5 million just seven years ago. A 2001 IMLS study showed that Phoenix citizens receive $10 in benefits for every dollar of library tax support. They even recoup $1.50 for each dollar spent on land and buildings. About 75 percent of the voters supported the last bond issue.

According to Garvey, library support is less volatile than elsewhere because library operating funds come from a sales tax. When economies crashed where she previously worked, as in Loudoun County, Leesburg, VA, libraries were clobbered. “We were building libraries from bond money and laying people off because we couldn’t collect the same levels of property tax,” Garvey says.

Fundraising and partners

The PPL Foundation, started in 1997 to capitalize on the 1998 centennial, raised $1 million its first year. Now it adds about $250,000 annually for the library. There is no endowment, so money raised is spent. According to Garvey it often means “the difference between a good library and a great one.”

For 25 years the Friends of PPL, with a chapter for each branch, have been tremendous advocates for library services. They always have library advocates at each of the city’s 15 yearly budget hearings. They provide funds for rare book collections and PPL’s children’s literature center and help with staff development events, special programs, and exhibits. The Friends and the foundation cohost the library’s annual Dinner in the Stacks fundraiser.

Other innovative partnerships extend the impact of PPL services. The library has partnered with the Phoenix Museum of History to digitize photo collections in both institutions and with the Arizona Science Center to hold 128 Satellite Science Workshops. PPL teamed with the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Arizona Republic in the countywide summer reading program involving nearly 33,000 Phoenix children. Some 12,000 families are benefiting from the first winter reading program, a PPL partnership with Casino Arizona, an enterprise of the Salt River Pima Indian Community and the University of Phoenix. PPL’s partnership with the city’s human services department makes a caseworker available for consultations with Teen Central patrons.

“Professional” government

Phoenix may be the largest city still using a strong city manager form of government. Garvey loves it. She reports to a deputy city manager and, like everyone in Phoenix, ultimately to the city manager, who reports to the mayor and council.

The Phoenix Library Advisory Board, appointed by the mayor and council, makes PPL service policy. Garvey says it is an informed and committed board, taking its role very seriously, with members educating themselves on library issues and posing tough questions to Garvey and her team. Fiscal policy for PPL is drafted by the city council.

“Members of the city council often say, ‘We hire professionals to run this city,'” says Garvey. “I think it is a wonderful system, and it builds tremendous respect for city employees. That is quite different from the situation I experienced in Loudoun County. The library board there worked fine when things were going well between the board and the political governing body. When they were not getting along, the library could get hurt.”

Asked about how she deals with budget cuts, Garvey is emphatic: “I don’t play politics with cuts.” Her attitude pays off in the long run. “Economies can go south,” Garvey says. “I knew at some point that we would lose some of those hours. I cried, but I closed my door. I didn’t cry politically, because we didn’t get hit any harder than any other city department. The average was about ten percent, and we came in a little under that. Then, when there was a little money around, they put $100,000 back into my book budget. That was important.”

Staff, recruiting, development

“My job here is to make sure everyone else has the resources they need to do the job I ask them to do,” Garvey says. “That might mean political support or it might mean money.” The starting salary for new librarians at PPL is $36,500, just below the 2002 national average. Garvey is proud of the PPL staff. “They keep this system running,” she boasts. “They do exciting, innovative things, and they have the freedom to do them. After all, they are smarter than I am.”

In the last few years Garvey has revised PPL recruiting and hiring policies. Staff can use a city tuition reimbursement plan to go for an MLS, and all professional staff have access to a professional development fund. The city benefit begins at $875 for library assistants (the top level of paraprofessional at PPL). The amount increases as librarians rise in the ranks. They can use the money for subscriptions, dues, travel, courses, and more.

PPL is a pretty lean organization. About a quarter of the staff are professional, and the entire central administration, including collection development, secretaries, and much more, amounts to fewer than 30 people. Because PPL was part of another department, Garvey is building staff in areas such as public information.

Mentors and milestones

Garvey’s first library job was as a children’s librarian at the Tucson-Pima Public Library (TPPL). That was in 1979, and she was fresh from library school (B.A., Western Michigan Univ., 1975; MLS, 1977). Susan Kent (director, Los Angeles PL and LJ 2002 Librarian of the Year), Agnes Griffen (retired director, Tucson PL), and Liz Rodriguez Miller (assistant city manager, City of Tucson ) were all there at the time. These are, and always have been, the three people Garvey calls on when she wants to discuss a problem. “TPPL was a safe place to try your wings, to experiment. You had the freedom to take initiative, and you didn’t have to worry about failing. You worried about not trying,” says Garvey.

Her experience as director of the Loudoun County PL was not as pleasant as at TPPL, but she learned from it. She took the job as deputy director in 1987, a time of political upheaval. She was appointed director by the county Board of Supervisors, which at one point renounced the American Library Association Library Bill of Rights and wrote its own version. “It was good experience,” Garvey says now. “Small-town politics teach a lot about how politics works.”

Ultimately, Garvey survived Loudoun County after deciding that in that job and in the future she would stay or leave “on my own terms.” She left when she was offered the position in Phoenix, and now she says, “I’ve got the best job in the City of Phoenix.”

Professional participation

In 2001 Garvey served as president of the Public Library Association (PLA), the world’s largest organization of public libraries and librarians, and she is active in the ULC, the organization of North America’s largest public libraries. Garvey and PPL were the local hosts for the huge Phoenix PLA conference in 2002. She will chair PLA’s 2006 conference in Boston and is now on the Board of Libraries for the Future, which has just opened a Phoenix office.

“I expect that this is the last library system I will work at, so working in organizations isn’t a question of career growth,” says Garvey. The administrative board prodded her to join the ULC board. “They thought that it would be very good for our library system to be seen on the national level.” With Garvey’s encouragement many Phoenix staffers are very active. “It is good for the people, and it is good for the library system,” Garvey asserts.

Impact on the people

“I love the buildings, and the collections and resources are excellent, but I’m proudest of the impact of this library on the people who walk in the door,” says Garvey. “That is what drives me. When I’m having a lousy day I go out and walk into Teen Central, or go to a branch and watch the people using it. That makes the rest of my job very easy.”

John N. Berry III is Editor-in-Chief, LJ