By Tina Thomas
Libraries have been at a crossroads of existence since I joined the Edmonton Public Library (EPL) five years ago – likely well before that and probably for many more years to come. In his article outlining that “being essential” is not enough to sustain libraries, Rick Anderson highlights that an important thing libraries must do is provide value and a return on investment.
We know that if you ask 1000 people if they believe libraries are important the vast majority will say yes. But we also know that those same people may not know what the modern library does or even use the library themselves.
The challenge is libraries are often valued as an institution or idea, not for the services they provide. And, to Rick’s point, if the lofty idea of “essential” is all libraries have, we likely will be challenged to find support for the work we do in a sea of essential services.
We need to be valued for what we do not who we are. To that end, EPL has spent a lot of time and energy thinking about how to build responsive, relevant services that continue to be in demand and used by the communities we serve. What have we done?
The diverse needs of the communities we serve inform the services we provide and the programs we deliver. Each and every one of our 17 branches has a community librarian whose job it is to connect, consult and collaborate with community members to understand community needs, identify and eliminate barriers and gaps, and inform and direct library services and policies.
As a direct result of our community-led approach EPL was the first library in Canada to hire outreach workers to provide support to at-risk, marginalized and homeless people using our downtown library. Over a three year period EPL’s outreach workers have demonstrated tremendous impact. In 2013 EPL outreach workers had over 6000 interactions with at-risk Edmontonians providing a range of services from addiction support to employment counselling and even suicide prevention.
The results speak for themselves. EPL’s Social Return on Investment report demonstrates that the program provided value of over $3.56 million in savings or reallocation of funds between January 2012 and August 2013 – all with an initial investment of $630,000. That’s a return on investment of 5.7:1
Focused on our Strengths
EPL’s community -led approach to service delivery has been coupled with a sharp focus on where the Library can provide value. EPL employs a collaborative approach to program development, building on ideas from a wide variety of people and then promoted and delivered system wide. With the move to foundational programs 80% of what EPL offers is consistent between locations, ensuring the most popular programs, reflecting customer needs and tightly aligned to EPL values, are offered at every EPL service point. It doesn’t mean there is no opportunity for innovation. We’ve put structure in place where pilot programs can be developed, trialed, test and perfected before they either roll out to other locations or are scrapped for something better. With this move EPL has eliminated one-off and low priority programs, defined those that are the heart of what we do and established a framework to try stuff out. Staff now spend less time developing and planning programs and more time executing what works well.
Spreading the Words
No matter how great your services are, the amazing return they provide or their “essentialness”, if people don’t know about them they will collect dust. Libraries provide awesome services. Life-changing services. Where we often fail is telling the story of what we do and what we offer to our community and the difference we make.
At EPL we take marketing seriously. We spread the words. In the same way we focus on our strengths and where EPL can provide real value, our service priorities lead the focus of our marketing projects. Well-executed marketing campaigns have helped increase our membership by 40% year-over-year. Because of effective communications EPL boasts over 20,000 Twitter followers – the second largest of any library in Canada and surpassing most in North America. Strong branding is the reason library cards saw a 200% increase in demand when our new brand along with its smart sayings and bright colors was launched.
A focus on telling our story will help make sure our story is heard; and that we are valued for both who we are and – more importantly – what we do and the impact we have.
This article was published in IMPACT magazine . See what more top library leaders think about shifting the perception of public libraries:
 Being Essential is Not Enough, Part One. Library Journal June 5, 2014.