The Journal Gazette
Sunday, February 17, 2019 1:00 am

Philosophical differences

Library's new focus reflects its efforts to remain relevant

Greta Southard

If you haven't been to a public library recently, you'll note a shift from the “books and reference” model you might have grown up with.

To stay relevant, libraries can no longer exist simply as a location to house books. Please don't get me wrong – as a library, books are still our business. However, our community is looking to us to provide more in the way of programs, meeting spaces and opportunities to connect with others. Our ability to respond to the needs of our customers in an ever-changing world is what is required of a 21st century library.

To determine whether the Allen County Public Library was meeting the needs of our community, we entered into the strategic planning process about 18 months ago. We asked our staff, customers, stakeholders and members of the community to provide feedback on what we were doing well as an organization and what needed improvement.

We asked about the programming we provide, as well as invited feedback on programs we weren't offering but perhaps should consider. We also asked about our community and ACPL's role in it. Questions included “Our community would be great if...” and “How do you think the library can help the community achieve what you value most?”

There were numerous opportunities to participate. For a six-week period, online versions of the survey were posted on ACPL's website in both English and Spanish, and paper copies of the survey were available at all 14 library locations.

Over a month's time, 14 public forums took place throughout the county. There were also forums specifically for ACPL staff, the board of trustees and for members of the Burmese community. The opportunities to participate were promoted in the local newspapers, via TV and through the library's various marketing channels. More than 1,800 people participated.

We then worked to develop a strategic plan and mission statement that we believed reflected the priorities of our community and customers. In choosing the new mission statement, there were several options weighed. Again, we turned to our customers and staff for their feedback. The various options were posted on our website and we asked people to rank the various statements. Those who responded believed that ACPL's mission was “Enriching our community through lifelong learning and discovery.”

The strategic plan approved by the Board of Trustees has four focus areas: Community Awareness & Engagement; Library as Place; Innovative & Adaptive; and Culture of Collaboration. The goals we are working toward  are:

• ACPL actively supports the community's value for promoting lifelong learning, economic growth, and overall quality of life.

• To broaden ACPL's reach throughout the community through direct connections and strong community partnerships.

• To create welcoming and easy-to-use environments at all locations.

• To provide meaningful, innovative and adaptable content and services.

I provide all this information on our strategic planning process for two reasons. First, as residents and taxpayers, you have a right to know that we are being good stewards of your dollars. Second, the feedback we received during the strategic planning process is connected to how we manage our collection and use our physical spaces.

One of the themes that emerged from the focus groups and surveys is that people use our libraries much differently than in the past. They want more space for programs, for collaboration, for studying. This is an issue especially in our branches, where space is at a premium. At the same time we are hearing this, we are faced with the reality that the way we used to manage our collection doesn't work anymore.

There has been some discussion and concern expressed regarding how ACPL has chosen to manage physical items in its collection. There are several points I would like to make about collection management, which is how we refer to the process of adding, retaining and removing items. It should also be noted that physical items are not limited to books, but also CDs, DVDs and audiobooks.

Does it make sense to keep books on the shelf if they are in poor condition? How long should an item be allowed to sit on the shelf without circulating? Those items that do not circulate for a designated amount of time are referred to as “dead on the shelf.”

I want to offer appropriate context for that number. In the branches, an item is considered dead if it has not circulated for nine to 18 months. At the main library, if an item is on the public levels, that length of time is five years. If it is in storage at the main library, the time is 10 years. When we began weeding books at the main library, we started with those that had not circulated since 1998.

You might have heard some argue that, as a library, we need to keep every item. That type of thinking in the past has led us to a reality in which there are currently 697,202 dead items on our shelves.

Sometimes, however, it is necessary to remove items from the collection to create space for the things our customers are telling us they are seeking. Weeding is a vital part of collection management because we are constantly adding to the collection.

Data for 2018 are not yet available. However, we do know that in 2015 through 2017, we added nearly a half million physical items to our collection. It is not sustainable to keep adding to our collection in those numbers without weeding. In the branches, the shelves would be overly crowded and it would not be a good “shopping” experience. At Main, despite argument to the contrary, we would run out of space on the shelves and in storage.

It is important for customers and staff alike to realize we no longer operate under a system of branches and departments acting as silos with their own individual collections. Instead, we are one library system with 14 locations. Not only do our materials travel from one location to another, but our data show that our customers also travel from branch to branch. This might be a product of their travel patterns throughout the city to and from work, or if they are seeking out a specific program or resource. This knowledge informs our holistic approach to the work we do.

In addition to lack of circulation, there are several other reasons why items may be removed from the collection. They are damaged; “grubby”; reported lost; or stolen. While addressing some concerns around how many items have been removed, we realized we could not verify past numbers that had been submitted to the Indiana State Library, dating back to 2002.

What does that mean? We don't know how many items we started with, so we don't know how many have actually been discarded. However, thanks to the efforts of a number of people, we have re-examined our processes and I have renewed confidence in the numbers we will be able to report going forward.

There has also been concern over the level of transparency and input throughout this process. Nothing has happened in a vacuum or behind closed doors.

We went out of our way to solicit public feedback during the strategic planning process, which also included the new mission statement. Changes in collection management have been discussed in staff meetings for the past 18 months, with ample opportunity for staff to air their thoughts and concerns. The trustees have been updated throughout the process. It is a regular feature of board meetings to hold board primers, during which staff members educate the board about a specific department or activity within the library. Board members have also been invited to participate in behind-the-scenes tours of the main library. They have found the primers and tours led to a better understanding of how the library works, which has been helpful to them as they administer guidance and oversight in their roles as board members.

As taxpayers and funders of the library, the same opportunity is available to you. I invite you to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the main library. Learn more about our Genealogy Center, and how we process all of the records and documents donated to the center. When you return a book to Aboite, how does it get back to Georgetown? How big are the stacks on the lower levels? We'd love to host you. You can register at or call (260) 421-1200.

Greta Southard is director of the Allen County Public Library.

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