Darien Library, One Year Later

By Cindi Trainor |
Darien Library has long been known for its “extreme customer service” and for making every Darien experience the best that it can be.  When the proposal to expand the old library building fell through, administrators Louise Berry and Alan Kirk Gray applied these same principles to dreaming Darien Library all up again.  The resulting new building opened in January 2009 to much fanfare and many awards, including being featured on the cover of Library Journal's Design Issue.  I spoke recently with Darien’s John Blyberg and Gretchen Caserotti and asked them to reflect on the past year and on what lies ahead for this Connecticut public library. 
When I asked what they got right with the new Darien Library, Assistant Director for Innovation and User Experience John Blyberg answered, “We hit SOPAC right on the head.”  SOPAC is software that integrates the library catalog and website into a uniform whole along with social features that make the user the center of the experience.  In designing the digital strategy for the new Darien Library, they thought consciously about where the digital and the physical intersect.  “The vast majority of users come at [their library] both ways.  One needs to reflect the sensibilities of the other.”  The goal of SOPAC was to create a remarkable online experience to match the phenomenal physical experience envisioned for the new building.  It’s had a great impact on users, who “have come to grasp the concept of a library portal that has its identity associated with the library and the same quality as the rest of the library.  There is no dividing line between librarian-posted content and the catalog. It is all a fluid experience.”  
The new website and SOPAC were implemented before the building was complete to give staff and customers time to use the new features.  “SOPAC complements what we do in terms of public service because the staff have bought into it. They understand the tools available and how to translate them into virtual and face-to-face reference, reader’s advisory” and other services.  SOPAC’s capabilities have changed the way that library staff do their jobs, in ways that Blyberg didn’t anticipate. “From materials workflow to customer service, it’s been a valuable tool."  For example, staff use tags to create high-quality book lists on the fly that are integrated with the catalog.
When asked what other libraries can learn from Darien’s approach to integrating technology into the user experience, Blyberg advises that it’s appropriate to recognize that some technology has a place in the library and some doesn’t.  “When you introduce a technology into a library, you’re introducing a new element into a system - you’re going to change something.  If you do it right, you can introduce technology in a way that feels right.  If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right.  It’s important to understand the system but also to be tuned into what effect a change to that system will have.”
When I talked to Gretchen Caserotti, Darien’s Head of Children’s Services, I wanted to ask in particular about their Creation Station, an idea that had captured my imagination a year earlier when I visited.  The Creation Station comes in a silver briefcase (like those you see in spy movies!) and contains a MacBook, Flip Camera, digital camera, voice recorder, cables and accessories.  The kit is intended to spark creativity in kids and is made available during programming and for checkout.  “Kids use the Flip camera most often,” Caserotti explains, “but there is a lot of need for adult support.” Children are adept at using the tools one at a time, “but they can’t always follow through to the next step of making and sharing an object.  When a librarian is there to see them all the way through, it’s more successful.”  With the Creation Station, the Darien Children’s Library is turning library programming into opportunities for creation, not input only.  “Kids learn sensorially. This gives older kids opportunity to be creative.” 
While kids ages 8-12 use the Creation Station the most, kids of all ages use the technology in the library.  The flexible space of the Children’s Library will allow for experimentation with the integration of computers into the younger kids’ area.  “Adults busily compartmentalize stories into formats, but kids don’t see the difference.  Stories can be told on any platform.”  Caserotti counts the fact that there is dedicated technology for the Children’s Library a success.  Having their own programming area, computers and other supporting technology “empowers them as a department to provide services and programming for children and for families.  Thinking about versatility, flexibility and portable things has been very successful.”  For an example of how the Macbook was used in the 2009 Summer Reading Program, check out the “Photo Booth” pictures from Darien’s flickr stream.
Underlying my conversations with John and Gretchen was the Darien ideal of extreme customer service.  The Children’s Library “doesn’t just serve kids; we serve everyone,” as Gretchen puts it.  Knowing how to “cover every market” and serve the adults—parents, caregivers—who come in with the children is just as important as serving those kids.  John summed up Darien’s approach to the user experience this way:  “We try and approach solutions in pragmatic way, that make sense for a public library whose mission it is to enrich the community.  We’re here to ultimately help citizens make better decisions.  To us, a big part of the answer is creating a community space/center where people come together and share ideas, engage in fellowship and consider a third place.”