Understanding Community Goals Leads to Success for Libraries and Communities – A post from the 2016 Library of the Year

By Leah Sewell, Communications Editor, Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library

Have you ever been on the other line of a survey call? I haven’t, personally, but I’ve often wondered if I would be a willing participant. Perhaps in the midst of a particularly juicy book, soaking up one-on-one time with my fast-growing 9-year-old or closely watching a new recipe simmer, what would compel me to answer the phone, but also to converse with a researcher for an indeterminate spell? Well, for one thing, I’d pretty much drop everything and let dinner burn to gab with any stranger, on the phone or otherwise, when the topic is libraries.

You see, in my career as the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library’s Communication Editor, I am enamored with the “public” part of the public library. How does the public feel about our services? How will they react to a minor or a major change? How can we woo them, engage them, help them feel a part the community through literacy and learning, and subsequently change their lives for the better?

My library is focused on the public and the public good. It’s asking the right questions, discovering people’s goals and needs and assisting them so they can reach them. Ultimately, it’s about making a difference in the community by working with our fellow citizens to make their lives better. That’s a good chunk of the reason why we’re the Library Journal / Gale, a part Cengage Learning 2016 Library of the Year. We have our ears to the ground.

When the 2016 Pew Research Center report, Libraries at the Crossroads, was released in September 2015, I wondered about the people on the other end of those cell phones and land lines. Those individuals that Pew cites variously as “a share of Americans” or “a majority of Americans,” or “low-income Americans” are real individuals with busy lives, loved ones and their own dinners to prepare. Yet, they all sat a spell to gab about libraries.
At my library, we conducted a large-pool survey, too. But we also talked to people who live in our midst, our customers, our politicians and leaders. We talked to people who live in the inner city – our neighbors, in fact, since we operate out of a single downtown building and from a fleet of bookmobiles. We met in person with people in the rural outskirts of the county and in the community centers and church basements in the heart of the city. At my library, we’re like a Pew survey, but a Pew survey on steroids. We’re interested … no, strike that. We’re obsessed with what our customers think.

As our library’s dynamic CEO, Gina Millsap, says, “great libraries align their goals with the dreams and aspirations of their communities.”

Like Pew, we also love to ask our community questions, such as, “What are your hopes and dreams for yourself and your family?” “What kind of community do you want?” “How can the library support and make a difference for you and the community?”

We invested in a large survey pulling from a statistically significant pool of the population. We conducted SOAR analyses (strengths, opportunities, aspirations, results) with our Board of Trustees, our Friends of the Library Board and our Foundation Board. We asked our staff of 225 what they thought. We then held a series of community meetings throughout the city. Our management team and librarians facilitated the meetings, armed with their Effective Facilitator/Masterful Meetings™ facilitation training.

We went beyond the impersonal questionnaire and rolled up our hems to wade into the needs and wants of our community. While our brand of questioning in our home community differed from how Pew conducted their research, what we found mirrors a lot of what the Pew Center reported in their wider study.

Here are three ways in which the people of Topeka and Shawnee County and the people of America agree about the role of libraries:

  • Libraries should offer free early literacy programs to help young children prepare for school.
  • Libraries should offer programs to teach people, including kids and senior citizens, how to use digital tools such as computers, smartphones and apps.
  • Libraries should create services or programs for local businesses and entrepreneurs.

Like the Pew Report shows in facts and figures hard to ignore, libraries truly are “at the crossroads.” Here in Topeka, we’ve managed to get a map before we’ve reached the intersection between tradition and innovation, and so we’re confident we’re headed down the right path as we hone our goals and plans of action to improve the lives of everyone in our community.

Our leader Gina believes libraries can change the world, and says “we’ll do that by helping make our communities be better places to live, work, play and learn.”

As we accept the laurels of our Library of the Year designation, we keep on believing in the world-changing capacity of libraries, yes. But beyond that optimism, we have concrete evidence of what our community wants. Now is the time for action.

The Library of the Year Award is a prestigious recognition that goes to a public library that profoundly demonstrates service to community, creativity, leadership and innovation in developing community programs. It is sponsored by Gale and Library Journal. 
Holly Hibner Mary Kelly

About the Author

Leah Sewell is happy to gab with you about libraries anytime. Leah is the Communications Editor for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, which basically means she’s an observer, collector and creator of library stories. She’s a veteran publisher and magazine editor who has brought her passion for all things literary and writerly to library communications. Leah has an MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska, is a published poet and author, a graphic designer, and has a very healthy obsession with books, podcasts, art and from-scratch cooking. She lives in Topeka, Kansas with her two wily kids and a similarly unruly to-read pile.

Library photos by Alistair Tutton Photography.

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