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Case Study: Experimenting with Design and a New Staffing Strategy| Library by Design

Oct 4, 2011,  By Ted Johnson

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Inspired by a regional lava dome, the 55,000 square foot Prescott Valley Public Library, AZ, houses a new hybrid university, town council chambers, and public meeting space in addition to the new library. A folded corten skin and glass window wall wrap the outer shell, offering views of the surrounding community and distant mountains. The library and the university wing (a partnership between Northern Arizona University and Yavapai College) envelop the “volcanic cone” as it erupts from the site. Hiking up an extinct volcano, Glassford Hill, the design team examined the local geology and flora so that they could infuse the entire campus with those colors and textures, from the landscaping to the interior furnishings.

The purpose of the design is to evoke a feeling of adventure and wonder. From the expansive Children’s Division with its interactive wall to the Virtual Interactive Room, each space invites individual contemplation and study as well as group interaction. Small group “campsites,” a genealogy room, a computer lab, an observation terrace, and patios for adults and teens meet the needs of a diverse and changing community. The interior ceiling is lined with an irregular surface of breathtaking cedar.

Shelving with everyone’s boss
Thanks to the award-winning design by richärd + bauer Architects, Prescott Valley Public Library, which opened in late 2009, is a stunning gathering place for people from across northern Arizona. It is also the site of a radical staffing experiment.

Facing an economic downturn, hiring freeze, and a new, larger library building with new technologies, a novel staffing strategy was developed. Of course, we expected the building to attract many new patrons. And as everyone knows, a slow economy means a busier public library. When it was all added up, the town needed to pull more than a “rabbit” out of its administrative hat. Unwilling to back out of a ten-year plan to build a new library, management opted to mobilize available staff from nearly every other town department to operate the new facility temporarily.

It is a complex experiment with early signs of success.

Origins of a new model
Prescott Valley has a population of around 35,000 people and lies at about 5000′ in elevation in central Arizona. The town budget is sound, with a $15 million dollar surplus. In such a setting, would you expect to see the town manager erecting barricades at night on the street for a special event or in response to an emergency? How about shelving books at night? These are just two among numerous other examples of servant leadership in this organization, and not by the town manager alone. Most department leaders have rolled up their sleeves and stepped up to make this new library a success in Yavapai County.

When the town council approved a plan that authorized the town manager, Larry Tarkowski, to reassign staff as necessary to meet anticipated staffing needs, Tarkowski led with this kind of example, as did most department heads. Leadership couldn’t do it all however. Since department heads know best the needs of their own departments and which staff is best suited to help in the new facility, they were asked to fill a set number of slots using a formula developed by the Human Resources Department. Some filled their allotment with individuals transferred into the library department. Others stayed in their own departments. Public safety personal (police officers and fire fighters) were exempted from serving in the library, but, administrative personnel from the Police Department were included.

Library administration did some assessments of its own, reassigning selected library staff with additional responsibilities in reference, where professional responsibilities for readers advisory services, collection development, and programming required those with the necessary education and experience to provide the level of service the community has come to expect from the library.

An evolving experiment
Wouldn’t it be cheaper for temporary workers or entry level staff to shelve books instead of the town manager? Does it really make sense for the town attorney to process new materials? The obvious answer is, of course not. Several alternative staffing strategies are being explored.

The model currently employed would be best described as diverse or multifaceted, with additional staff being supplied by NACOG (the Northern Arizona Council of Governments) with stimulus funds. Additionally, arrangements are in the works to supply staff through AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), which pays the employee’s salary for specific lengths of time. These arrangements take time to put into place.

In the meantime, reassigning current town staff to handle library tasks has created a more cohesive work force. Solidarity comes at a price, but is worth the investment as town staff members adapt to our working world and we gain insight and appreciation for the issues they face as they carry out their regular responsibilities. Another benefit: Human Resources reports that the current model of sharing town staff to operate the new library has saved the town over $700,000.

Staff training
Town management requested that all town staff be provided with an overview of Library operations. Without getting into the nitty gritty details of filing and cataloging rules, initial exposure to library operations was general in nature. In addition to the basic principles of ethics, privacy, and resource sharing, we sought to dispel the stereotype of a library being nothing more than a box of books that anyone could manage. Emphasis was placed on customer service and the critical role played by technology in serving the public. In an effort to make the training interesting and fun, a series of skits were created where town staff participated in activities ranging from handling damaged returns to asking noisy patrons to be more considerate of others. Occasionally, the issues dealt with resonated with similar ones handled by staff in their home departments.

Volunteers and volunteerism
Library administration was charged with executing on this staffing concept. Fortunately, the library has a notable history of managing dozens of volunteers and the basic approach of training, scheduling, and supporting large numbers of staff on variable work schedules with a diverse set of interests and skills was well understood. Since many of the tasks assigned to town staff were in the circulation department, the circulation supervisor, Linda Bobadilla, who is no longer with the town, played a crucial role in bringing these people on board, making them feel welcome, and equipping them for success.

Everything from sign in sheets to posting the latest updates was covered by the circulation supervisor in an effort to communicate clearly the library’s expectations for performance in the context of the new and expanded library. Anticipating a wide range of questions from town staff and volunteers alike, she positioned herself to receive the constant flow of ongoing training.

If we have learned anything, it is the importance of a feeling of solidarity among all staff: permanent, temporary, and volunteers. TEAM (Together Everyone Accomplishes More) is more than an acronym here. Regardless of the specific task performed, everyone is valued and appreciated.

Results Snapshot June 2011

Selected Measures % Increases Comparing June 2009 with June 2011
Total Circulation 26%
Childrens Circulation 46%
Teen Circulation 56%
SelfCheck Use 22%
Volunteer Hours 22%
Door Count 30%
Patron Registration 31%
Internet Use 25%

What’s next? Vision
With a new, award-winning facility, novel staffing model, café, expanded Friends Book Store, 200 seat auditorium, observation deck, computer lab, Northern Arizona State University campus partner, support from town management and the town council, and new technologies (ILS, sorter, RFID tags, virtual interactive room) the library is in an ideal position to become the true heart of Prescott Valley.

Believing that a library is much more than a box of books but instead a place where people gather to get more out of life, the library now offers new programs for all ages (teen fashion show, children reading to a registered therapy dog, parent’s night out) along with traditional programs with the help of our faithful partners (Adult Literacy Group and Friends of the Library) such as ESL tutoring, homebound delivery, and family movie night.

Now we ask how we can utilize this space and its resources to demonstrate that “People, Our Priority” is not merely a slogan but our daily reality. The essential ingredients are creativity, innovation, and risk-tolerance. The “employee loan arrangement” is scheduled to end by January 2012. This creative and innovative program has resulted in a significant increase in understanding the value of library services as an integral part in the growth and success of the entire community. The long term goal of replacing loaned staff with library professionals will continue to depend on local economic growth, which is showing clear signs of improvement. No overnight turnaround is expected, however, we are well-positioned to take the necessary risks to build upon our current success.


Novel economics, educational partnerships

Arizona has historically ranked low in the educational performance of its students in elementary school. Currently, the State Education Performance and Reform Index produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council ranks Arizona 45th in the Country but gave Arizona a B- for reform. Arizona is headed in the right direction, but we have a long way to go. The state also lags behind much of the nation in the number of students graduating high school, the number of high school students attending college, and the number of college students who complete the requirements for a bachelor’s degree. And, compared to what’s available in states like California and Texas, there are fewer higher education options to choose from. What to do?

According to Tarkowski, the most important contribution to the economic vitality of Prescott Valley for the next ten years is the town’s partnership with NAU-Yavapai, on site with the new library. No matter how you slice it, as an investment in education or for economic vitality, that pairing provides a novel solution to a longstanding need.

NAU-Yavapai is the first visible impact of the Arizona Board of Regents and Governor Brewer’s call to revise and revitalize the present structure of the public university system in Arizona. The seamless transition from Yavapai College to NAU is referred to as YC2NAU, where both institutions collectively provide student outreach, educational programming, and advising in a coordinated manner so the issues of articulation and transferring credits disappear. The result is the state’s most direct and affordable pathway to a bachelor’s degree.

Target students include those who are looking for a structured plan to graduate. Structure minimizes duplication, reduces confusion, lowers cost, and saves time. Both recent high school graduates as well as older adults returning to complete, change, or advance their educational goals will find this program very advantageous. With an initial goal of 3000 to 5000 students within ten years, core services will be delivered by outsourcing to the local community when possible, providing a very lean organization and enhanced economic stimulus for the region. Close ties with the local business community will be a priority. As the needs of the community evolve, NAU-Yavapai will be well-positioned to respond to the changing environment by adjusting its mix of course offerings.

Students use a mix of YLN (Yavapai Library Network) and NAU resources depending on the academic track and specific course for each student. YLN consists of nearly 50 libraries including Embry Riddle University, Prescott College, and Yavapai College. The extent to which a student might utilize the Network’s resources versus NAU’s varies widely.

The unique partnership of Prescott Valley and NAU-Yavapai is as exciting as the new building and its operational model. During the planning process, the educational community and the town realized common needs and pooled funding to share in the construction costs and in the ownership of the facility. This stretched the public dollar for the good of the community and has blossomed into many more creative and unique opportunities.

Case Study: Experimenting with Design and a New Staffing Strategy| Library by Design.

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