The Soul of a Branch Library

This past Saturday the Friends of the Forest Avenue Library held their annual Soul Food Festival. No one seems to remember when the first one was held but it was in the old Mid-City Library sometime in the 1970s.  Many of the Forest Avenue Friends have been part of it for 30-plus years and were on the frontlines of establishing the Forest Avenue Library.  A lot of them are veterans of countless church suppers and know exactly how to put on such an event. 

It was originally held during Black History Month, February, but for a number of years it has been the first Saturday in March when there is a little less chance of inclement weather.  The Friends prepare dishes including fried chicken, ribs, black-eyed peas, greens, jambalaya, dirty rice, red beans and rice, corn bread, and a variety of cakes and pies (plus a few things I never knew were considered soul food  like macaroni and cheese) at home.   As a member of the Friends, I spent Friday evening preparing my own traditional contributions: dirty rice and sweet potato pie.  I was lucky to get the prize-winning pie recipe from one of the founding members of the Friends.  

Everything is sold at reasonable prices and all proceeds go to the Friends. Aprons with the cool logo designed pro bono by a well-known local graphic artist go for $12. 

The Friends of the Forest Avenue Library stand ready for the crowd at the 2010 Soul Food Festival

Is it a big fund raiser?  Well, no.  Like many bake sales, if everyone donated the cost of their ingredients, they would likely come out ahead.  Was the original purpose to introduce the larger community to chitterlings and sweet potato pie?   I’m not sure anyone remembers. 

What it is now is a splendid community event that draws people into the Forest Avenue Library and celebrates its place in the neighborhood and greater community.  While this Saturday was cool and cloudy, the first Saturday in March seems often to be one of the first warm, sunny days of the year and neighbors come out of their winter hibernation to greet each other.  People come from all over the city for a piece of sweet potato pie and, more importantly, to celebrate the special gem that is the Forest Avenue Library.

The lady who gave me the pie recipe will be 92 this month.  She was there, working the cash register, and had brought a number of dishes but no pie this time.  She says at her age she is just going to have to cut back.  My two pies were gone long before everyone wanting a piece got one.  So, I’m marking my calendar for March 3, 2012 and making a note to bake a few more sweet potato pies.


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Turning Teens Into Readers

Not so long ago, many public libraries, the DMPL included, sort of wrote teenagers off.  We focused on children, especially pre-schoolers, and hoped to get them back as young parents with their own children.  The public library is the premier free public educational institution for pre-kindergartners and adults and our focus sort of naturally centered on those age groups.  Teens were served by their school libraries and consciously or unconsciously, we viewed teens as perhaps unreachable.  We always had a shelving section for “Young Adults” as they were known in library lingo, but for a long time we didn’t put a lot of emphasis on attracting the age group to our buildings. Teens who were readers would read and teens who were not readers would, well, not read.

The arrival of public internet computers suddenly made the library attractive to teens.  They swarmed the internet stations (in groups, of course) disturbing the other library patrons.  A lot of time and energy was directed toward dealing with problem teens.

As many of my previous posts have indicated, libraries do a great job of re-inventing themselves as times change.  Since the teens were there, what would happen if we embraced them instead of treating them as a problem? About 10 years ago, with the help of the Junior League of Des Moines, a balcony area of the South Side Library was turned into a teen loft with comfortable seating, a television and the latest (at the time) AV equipment.  When the new Central Library was opened five years ago, a designated teen area included computers and special seating.  The Des Moines Public Library Foundation provided a grant allowing the library to offer increased teen programming at the Central Library.

Forest Avenue Library teens enjoy a Valentine's Day craft program.

The teens began to show up for popular craft, gaming, writing, Animé, and Manga programs.  In order to build on that success system-wide, the Foundation made another grant.  Young, energetic staff in each building were designated to coordinate teen programming.  Ideas and materials were shared and our What’s Happening began to overflow with teen programs.  Book discussion groups were organized.  Book discussion groups? For teens? Would teens really stop gaming, texting, and twittering long enough to read and discuss books?

We could hardly believe it when word got out that there were boys at the book discussion groups!  One group of teens was offered an additional hour of Internet Café time and chose a book discussion instead.  We celebrated the fact that putting time and energy into attracting teens to the library was turning at least some non-readers into readers.

At the Des Moines Public Library Foundation’s annual Iowa Authors Dinner in October, the designated project for the evening was a renovation of the South Side teen loft. The remodeled space will feature technology, for sure, but the biggest need identified was for additional shelving to accommodate an expanded collection of teen books necessary to keep up with the readers’ demand.


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Sticking to Policy

Like many organizations, the Des Moines Public Library is policy-driven.  With six buildings, a staff of 100+ serving 4500 library users each day it works better that way.  The policies are clear to the employees and the library users and if there is a conflict, the staff can refer to the policy for guidance.

The management staff has to judge when policies should be broken. Most of the time, it’s best to stick to policy; sometimes the line is fuzzy and the decision is a difficult one, other times it is a no-brainer.  Then, sometimes, a situation occurs that makes you decide to change the policy. 

This afternoon I had the privilege of attending the 100th birthday party of Lois Bright held in the meeting room of the East Side Library.  Lois and her deceased husband Dale have contributed generously to the library and countless other local organizations through the Dale and Lois Bright Foundation.  The Meeting Room at the East Side Library bears their names to recognize the substantial donation they made to the renovation of that branch library. 

Normally, the meeting room would not be available to an invitation-only party during hours the library is closed.  When the request to hold the party there was first made, we had to think about it – for about 30 seconds.  What kind of precedent would this set? Would everyone want to hold birthday parties at the library when it wasn’t open? If we said yes to this, how would we say no to the next request?

In the end, it was a no-brainer and we changed the policy.  Every major donor who turns 100 may hold a birthday party in a library meeting room.  No questions asked.  The branch manager and acting director will be there to help set up the room and arrange the designer cupcakes and enjoy every minute of it.

Happy 100th Birthday, Mrs. Bright, and many more!


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Matching Furloughs with Library Usage

The holiday season is in full swing and I have long concluded that in these final weeks of the year, many regular library users are just too busy to come to the library. Usage drops dramatically and the staff has the opportunity to catch up on a few things and perhaps take a few vacation days. I hate to disappoint anyone, but with few exceptions, students do not come to the library to study over Christmas break.

Faced with three years of devastating budget cuts, the DMPL staff has agreed to furloughs two years in a row, three days in the last fiscal year and a staggering eight days this fiscal year. Like everything else, we learn from experience and improve the way we handle furloughs; I just hope we aren’t getting too good at it. Last year, we scheduled our three furlough days during the slowest week of the year, the week preceding Christmas. All our statistics showed that this was the week the public would be least affected by a library closure. With three furlough days followed by two holidays and a weekend, we were closed a solid week. Staff working Saturdays at the library are given a free day during the week and since we were closed all week, we couldn’t schedule anyone for Saturday.

Hours of planning and preparation preceded the closure. The publicity effort was monumental and in every format. The Horizon automated system was set so that no books would be due and no fines would accrue during the closure. Our efforts paid off, and the week’s closure went very smoothly with few complaints. Library patrons welcomed the staff back and thanked them for taking unpaid leave in order to help meet the library budget shortfall. From our experience, we learned that

  1. A week, even a historically low-volume week, is probably too long to close down.
  2. Even though no books are due and fines do not accrue, people leaving town want to get their books returned and object to book returns being closed.
  3. We can keep the website and catalog open without disastrous affects when we re-open.

So this fiscal year we spread the whopping eight days of furlough throughout the year. We scheduled a system upgrade for two days during a traditionally low-volume week at the end of August, closed the library and furloughed the staff. We scheduled the remaining six days around holidays. This simplifies the publicity for all and usually lands them on days the libraries are less heavily used. This week we will be closed on Saturday, Christmas Day, Thursday and Friday, the scheduled City of Des Moines holidays, and Wednesday as a furlough day. Next week will be closed Saturday, New Year’s Day, Friday, the scheduled City of Des Moines holiday, and Thursday as a furlough day.

We have arranged to have the book returns emptied so that they can remain open during the days we are closed. A polite message on the website will alert web users to the closure and warn that items placed on hold may not be pulled quite as quickly as normal.

We have furloughs down to a science but I hope we have seen the last of them. For now, I say thank you to Des Moines Public Library patrons for their almost-universal understanding. Most of all a huge thank you is in order for library employees who have taken unpaid leave in order to avoid layoffs and preserve other library hours and services.

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Making the Call to Close for Bad Weather

It’s cold but sunny in Des Moines today and I have to confess I love an Iowa day like this.  The sun is blindingly bright off the new snow and if you don’t have to be outside too much, it seems downright cheery.  I’m also breathing a huge sigh of relief.  There were blizzard warnings last night and it sounded like the roof might blow off the house.  In the end it was an all-bark, no-bite kind of blizzard with very little snow accumulation.

But, I was worried that I alone would have to make the decision of whether or not to close the library and it’s not a decision I would ever choose to make independently.  If I were to announce the library would be closed, I’d take a risk that the snow would stop abruptly and everyone would question my decision.  If I waited too long and staff ended up sleeping at the library (it has happened), I’d look like I don’t really care much about our employees.  So, I’m grateful that I dodged having the make the call this time.

When I first began working for the Des Moines Public Library in 1979, the library seemed to never close for weather.  Rumor had it that our library director would close the library only if Younkers department store closed.  That didn’t mean a mall store; that meant the big downtown Younkers store.  We were thrilled when after an ice storm that knocked out power for several days we were allowed to close each day at sundown.  The card catalog couldn’t do what a computer can but it didn’t require electricity and we carried flashlights.

Years later, there was an enormous snowstorm and authorities from the police chief to the director of public safety were advising businesses to close and send their employees home.  We had a new director, and to our utter amazement, she decided to close the library early.  One librarian, riding home on the Ingersoll bus, struck up a conversation with her seat mate.  She told her she worked at the public library and that it had closed because of the snowstorm.  Her seatmate was stunned; she had worked at Younkers and their rule was that the store didn’t close unless the library closed.  So, that explained it! Did they even know they were engaged in a standoff? 

Our new director, Greg Heid, who begins next month, is coming from Georgia but he’s a Minnesota native so he’s definitely not a weather wimp.  Will he have a benchmark like the Younkers test?  I for one am hoping for an easy, mild winter.  But I’m also sort of hoping if we should have a show-stopping blizzard, it will be after Greg’s January 12 start date so he can make the call.

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Measuring Up to Our Peers

Every year the Public Library Association (PLA) sponsors a Public Library Data Service statistical report.   It collects information from more than 800 public libraries across the United States and Canada on finances, library resources, annual use figures and technology.  It is strictly voluntary and as such, not scientific.  But, The Des Moines Public Library has participated from the start because the information we can get about peer libraries is informative and valuable.  We compile most of the figures for reports that aren’t voluntary so we don’t re-invent the wheel, as they say, every year when we complete the survey.

For years the survey came in a wide, spiral bound volume with reams of spreadsheets that can look a bit daunting.  Now, the survey can also be purchased electronically allowing quick sorts on just about any kind of data.

The Des Moines Public Library has reduced hours significantly in response to reduced staffing necessitated by budget cuts.  Both the Des Moines City Council and the Des Moines Register have advocated using volunteers to staff our libraries and restore lost hours.  The library board and administration, with trepidation, are carefully examining the possibilities. 

So, how does the DMPL compare to our peers around the country?  Using the PLDS database, I quickly identified five other libraries with a central library and five branches.  All had operating budgets within 15% of Des Moines’, two a little lower, three a little higher.  There are two in Florida, and one each in California, Ohio, and Washington. 

The average number of hours the central libraries in these systems are open is 60.66; the range is 52-65.   The DMPL central library averages 61 hours per week.  The average number of hours branch libraries are open in the six systems is 42.06; the range is 34-50.  The DMPL branches average 45.4 hours per week.  Two of these library systems have no buildings open on Sunday at all.  Two, like Des Moines, have one building open Sundays during the school year.  One system opens two buildings on Sunday during the school year and just one of the six library systems has one building open on Sundays year round.

When it comes to programs for children and teens, however, the Des Moines Public Library has no peer in this group.  In the month of December, the DMPL has scheduled 68 programs for children, including 43 story times, and 22 programs for teens.  The peer libraries average 28.4 programs for children in December, none for teens. 

What does this tell us?  It tells us that of the six libraries (that voluntarily participated in the Public Library Data Service survey) with a central library and five branches and the most comparable budgets, Des Moines Public Library buildings are open slightly more than average.  The range is not that great and there are no benchmark studies to follow.  This is what each library has determined it can do with the resources it has.  It also tells us that of these peer libraries the DMPL has devoted greater resources to children and teens:  precisely where our community surveys have shown us our citizens want us to direct our focus.

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Learning to be a Librarian

Many of the people the library serves consider anyone who works at a desk in the library a librarian. That’s OK with me. The public just needs assistance using our services; they don’t need to keep straight who is a clerk, an intermediate clerk, a senior clerk, a library assistant, a librarian, a senior librarian, a supervising librarian… you get the idea.

In our world, though, a librarian is someone with a master’s degree. Depending on the university awarding the degree, it may be called a Master of Library Science, Master of Library and Information Science, Master of Arts in Library Science, etc. Most librarians don’t go directly from undergraduate school to a graduate library program. It is often a second career. Many work in libraries in paraprofessional positions before deciding to pursue a master’s degree. The advent of online and distance-learning programs has greatly facilitated this because paraprofessionals can hold on to their jobs while earning the master’s degree.

At the DMPL, we have 28 librarians, 23 full-time and five part-time, including ten in management positions. We have six paraprofessionals currently pursuing graduate degrees.

Awhile back, I asked our librarians what was the most important thing they learned in library school. Many, like me, reported that it had been a long time ago and things that stuck were often ideas and philosophies, not the intricacies of cataloging or the names of long-obsolete reference tools.

Here are some of the things our librarians reported had impressed them the most about their graduate education. 

  • I remember being impressed by some of the big picture philosophies of librarians—the emphasis on the role of libraries in a democracy, to provide openly available information covering many approaches to topics and to make it accessible to all of our citizens.
  •  The library is the public’s link to lifelong learning.
  • The concept of intellectual freedom.
  • The idea of the reference interview (figuring out what folks are really looking for) was always a pretty major discovery for me.
  •  The fact that library school teaches us to find credible sources and how to evaluate them (at that time, it was print resources but it also applies to electronic resources). 
  • The organization/classification of information is still a vital aspect of library school. Doesn’t do you much good to have a vast collection if you can’t determine the information you need and then retrieve it.
  • Never let the customer leave empty-handed. If they come in looking for some specific information and you were unable to locate it or don’t have the resources, give them a phone number, address, ANYTHING so that they have some way of obtaining the information that they need. A customer leaving empty-handed is a librarian not doing their job, and a patron who has just been given a disservice.
  • The most important quality a manager needs to have is courage. I’ve never forgotten it.
  • Even after you finish school you aren’t really done. I remember on the first day of library school, during orientation class, the dean told us that much of what we learn during our time in library school will be obsolete within a few years of graduating. His point was that the most important thing to take away from library school was the ability to learn.


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