Finding the Path to Sustainable Public Computingby James LaRue, Director, Douglas County Public Library
I’m very lucky. More by chance than anything, I happened to be on the job market in 1990 and landed the position of director of what was then known as the Douglas County Public Library System. At that time, Douglas County was a mostly rural area , straddling I-25, in the vast undeveloped land between Denver and Colorado Springs. The population of the county was sixty-five thousand—which was, coincidentally, about the number of library holdings. In 1990, the library employed twenty-five people, or about fourteen full-time equivalents. Our total budget was about $688,000.
Things have changed. By the end of 2003, the population had swollen to over 225,000. Today, we have more than half a million items in our collection, employ more than three hundred people, and have a budget approaching $15 million annually.
I can’t take any credit for the county’s growth. My move to what would become the fastest growing county in the United States was chance. But our library did succeed in growing with the county, and our success directly depended upon two local elections, and the strategy outlined herein.
The Library DistrictThe first election, in November of 1990, involved our separation from the county to form a new, independent library district, based on property taxes. Our campaign to form a library district—pitched to the new demographic of highly educated professionals just starting their families—aimed to raise support from 1.1 mills to 2.5 mills (.00025 times the assessed valuation of property), or a total of about $30 per household.
The focus of this article isn’t running local campaigns, but the election, quite apart from its result, was important: we were forced to directly engage our public to make the library case. We began with a hard analysis of our own statistics. We conducted a survey to find out what people really wanted from us, then we went out to meet the public to try to sell that vision of a future.
And we were successful. The library election passed by a commanding 66 percent.
I’ve worked under almost every kind of public library set-up: municipal, county, and independent library district. The latter is unquestionably the best. Why? Because library districts have more money. And why do they have more money? Because the people who use the library, not harried city, county, or state legislators with other priorities, are the ones making the decision about library funding.
The Second ElectionBy 1996, our library had done very well, more than fulfilling our campaign promises, but there were two threats on the horizon. The first was the recent passage of a tax limitation measure. The second was the challenge of meeting continued demand for new facilities with revenues that were growing tight.
Douglas County is overwhelmingly Republican. It is fiscally conservative. So we made a pitch that was in sharp contrast to the approach of the local school district. Our schools tended to come back to the voters every two years. First, would be the bond issue. Two years later, came the request for a mill levy increase to operate the new building.
Our case went like this: we have done the analysis and we know exactly where the growth will be and when. Instead of using taxpayer dollars to pay the interest on debt, we will earn interest on what we get from the mill levy. When it’s time to build, we’ll have the cash, and enough money to run it.
We asked the voters to raise our mills from 2.5 mills to 4, and promised that that was the whole package: construction and operations, no surprises, no second election to do the same thing we said we would do in the first. We also asked them to allow us to keep the same tax rate, despite tax limitations.
Once again, out we went into the community to sell a vision of the future. This time, however, we had all the good will of the previous six years. As local newspapers said, “The library keeps its promises. And isn’t it refreshing to hear about an institution that knows what it will need, and saves for it?”
Once again, we won, but it was much tighter. We got just 51 percent of the vote—enough, in Colorado, for us to win.
ChangeSince 1996, we have again worked through our list of promises, being very careful not only to fulfill, but to publicize their fulfillment widely.
Just after the first election, we also took steps to establish a 501(c)(3) library foundation. Frankly, we didn’t use it much in the first decade of our operations. Our tax revenues were sufficient to fund our plans, and those plans were ambitious. Indeed, for the past decade, we have built or renovated at least one library every single year, and we really have paid cash for every one of them. It wasn’t until the past several years that we actively pursued grants, largely to fund public art, something not directly encompassed by our mission, and something we would not have been able to afford otherwise. We were also fortunate enough to receive two large grants from the Gay and Lesbian Fund to underwrite our outdoor Shakespeare Festivals. I was also active in the establishment of a state grant program for libraries, in which a modest $2 million allocation went to the purchase of intellectual content around the state. In 2000, the state grant program, just two years after its birth, fell prey to budget cuts. The Gay and Lesbian fund changed its timeline, and we found ourselves ineligible for a third grant.
What’s the lesson here? Don’t become dependent upon people who don’t use your services. To city, county, or state officials, the library is a political issue, waxing and waning in importance. It’s much smarter to tie your fortunes to your immediate constituents, and then make sure that you have the largest percentage of those constituents you can corral.
A Model of Library Marketing: Building Market ShareTo that end, I’ve put together a model of library marketing. The goal is simple: to capture “market share.”
Open the Doors: 35-50 PercentIn my experience, most public libraries are both frugal and well-managed. We give a good bang for the buck. Our core services—a circulating collection, children’s services, reference services (both one-on-one and electronic), our facilities, our public computers, our various reading promotions, our public programs—are thoughtfully developed and delivered.
But even a very solid program of such services, all by itself, tends to top out at 35 to 50 percent of the population. There is a predictable percentage of diehard users, who will find you even if you hide from them. There is another, smaller, group of people who will look for you only when they face major life changes: the discovery of pregnancy, early parenthood, major consumer purchases, continuing education, medical issues, investments, job changes, retirement.
Many, many libraries in this county make the mistake of believing this 50 percent is “everybody.” Under municipal or county libraries, 50 percent may be enough, since library funding depends more on the lobbying skills of the board and director than it does on service. But when you are answerable to the voting public, 50 percent won’t guarantee a winning vote.
Public Relations: 5-15 PercentPublic relations is nothing more than the one-way communication exemplified by the poster, the press release, and the bookmark. It encompasses all the in-house collateral that tells people about the services already offered in the building. Its purpose is to help those people who are already inclined to be library users to find us more easily.
A smart PR campaign can be very effective. I believe it can capture another 5-15 percent of the public, particularly if it is shrewd about its targeting, but most libraries aren’t very good at this. If they do PR at all, they tend to focus their efforts on the people who are already at the library, satisfying staff more than anybody.
At Douglas County Public Library, we brought in a communications consultant to look at all of the stuff we produced. Once she laid it all out, we could see that we were producing an utterly amateurish hodgepodge of materials, a proliferation of fonts and colors and papers, and an image that was as confusing to the public as it was chaotic.
Good PR can drive business. But it has to be good PR.
Marketing: 5-15 PercentThe next phase is marketing. If PR is one-way communication, marketing is two-way. If PR is a statement, marketing is a question. If PR says, “Come to the library!” marketing asks, “How many times a week do you watch a movie, and where do you get it?” If PR is a tale told to a friend, marketing is an interview with a stranger. If PR is speaking, then marketing is listening. The purpose of marketing is to better understand the environment in which the library operates, to capture trends. In the process, the intent is also to capture new customers—the people who don’t use the library already.
Marketing can be in-house. We’ve learned a lot simply by asking people, on their way out of the library, what all they did here that day. There have been some surprises: in some of our libraries, as many as a third of the people showed up just to meet somebody. They may or may not have done anything else measurable (through a circulation or a reference transaction, for instance).
Marketing is most effective, however, when it takes place outside the library. Here, phone surveys or man-in-the-street interviews outside grocery store are often effective. But I believe that more important than a particular formal instrument is a consistent, frequent pattern of investigation by board members and staff. Library advocates need to be taught to question and to record all the time, the better to get a steady and more up-to-date stream of information about the library’s environment.
I believe that this kind of marketing, intelligently applied, can capture another 5-15 percent of the community mindshare.
The Community Reference Question: 5-19 PercentNot long ago, I was doing some consulting and meeting facilitation for another library’s long range plan. The “problem” was that the library hadn’t found a good way to connect with and understand community issues. I began by asking a simple question of the attendees: “What community organizations do you belong to?”
The answers revealed the source of the problem—and the path to a solution. Most of the staff belonged to no community organizations. Of course they didn’t know what was going on in the community.
Imagine a staffing model that looked like this: You hire for community connections—that is, you advertise for and interview people who actively participate in community groups. You keep track of what kind of groups are not represented through your staff, then you ask your staff how many hours they spend on those community activities. Let’s say the answer is 10 hours a month with a group. Then you say, “May I pay you for 2 of those hours?” In exchange, the staff member’s responsibility is to take PR to that group and bring marketing information back from it.
One of the fundamental library transactions is “the reference interview.” This is the process through which trained professionals figure out what members of the public are really asking—because it almost certainly is not whatever they asked at first. This exactly describes most community meetings. They think they have a question, but they’re not sure...
It is time for librarians to begin to answer the community reference question. That means we have to show up with our library hats. We have to ask the same kinds of questions we ask individual patrons. We have to marshal our resources and come back with research avenues and pertinent facts.
Of late, our library district has been doing a lot of work with various planners and developers. I believe we have succeeded in demonstrating the economic development impact of the library—of a large, busy, cultural hub functioning as an anchor store that will not go out of business.
There are many people who might not be readers, or have children, or need our computers, but if they have any interaction with their local community at all, through homeowners associations or water boards or quilting clubs or Boy Scouts, sooner or later they are going to run across a library representative directly contributing to their organization’s success.
And sooner or later, the library is going to ask for their vote. At that time, they are far more likely to think, “I’ll help the library because the library helps me.”
Unreachable: 1 PercentI don’t know what percentage of the community can’t be reached, of lives that can’t be positively touched with some library service. Sometimes I think it’s five percent. Sometimes I think it’s less. There are people who drive to work, drive home, pull into their garages, watch TV all night, and as near as I can figure, don’t talk to anybody at all.
I can, and do, track such households via library cards compared to county Geographic Information Systems data. We mail things to those households that don't, apparently, use us, trying to strike up some kind of conversation. One hundred percent market share may not be entirely reasonable. It’s still worth shooting for.
Public ComputingWhat does all of this have to do with the sustainability of public computing? Just this: public computing has now become one of our core services. Expecting it to be funded in perpetuity by philanthropists, whether corporate or community-based, is simply irresponsible. At some point, successful libraries have to cultivate long-term and reliable funding, based on the people who do, or may, make use of their services.
That can’t be done on a random or poorly coordinated volunteer basis. Ultimately, it requires the same level of planning, staging, and financial analysis that goes into our collections, our staffing, and our facilities.
Moreover, that success will require public librarians to engage with their environment on a more personal, and more concentrated level, than they may be accustomed to at present. For some librarians, that won’t be easy.
But this much is certain: if they don’t engage with their communities, their failure is guaranteed.