Library metrics of success are changing from number of books borrowed to evidence of lives improved.
Columbus Metropolitan Library CEO Pat Losinski is a firm believer that libraries can no longer measure their success just by the number of books they loan.
"Counting how many books are circulated in an increasingly sophisticated society is not as impressive as it once was," he says. "People want to know how many of those books were read and actually changed lives."
They also increasingly view their libraries as places that help students, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods, do better in school and as sites where adults can further their education and conduct job searches. In addition, libraries are seen more and more as meeting sites for neighborhood groups and others engaged in the work of their communities.
Losinski says all that and more is taking place in the Columbus Metropolitan Library system, which has 22 locations serving Franklin County. And those libraries are good at what they do with the Columbus system having earned the Library Journal's top five-star rating in each of the last seven years.
But CML is not resting on its laurels, says Losinski, who has been CEO since 2002.
Evidence of that is the system's $120 million building program that will expand, renovate or replace 10 locations by the end of 2017. The first was the new Driving Park branch that opened in July on Columbus' East Side. The project list also includes a renovation of the iconic Main Library in downtown Columbus.
Losinski discussed the need for the building program and the library's expanding role in the community during an interview with Columbus CEO.
What drove the decision to embark on such an ambitious building program at a time when a growing number of your patrons are turning to e-books and online resources they can access from their homes?
Some of our buildings were very old and undersized and built long before the Internet came on the scene-and technology still takes space. When we talk about digital demand, often times that's PCs or tablets of some sort (for public use in libraries).
We're embracing the e-book revolution, but it doesn't happen with just a snap of the fingers. E-book downloads from our website have been growing every year-this year we'll be slightly over a million-but our customers will still check out 14.5 million to 15 million physical materials this year.
We understand we are going to live in two worlds for awhile… and the physical space that people use for technology and to bring their kids to the library is still very necessary.
What's been the neighborhood's reaction to the opening of the new Driving Park branch?
Our staff there says, 'We see all these children coming into the new building, and we've never seen these kids before.' It's drawing from a wider sphere and (serving) children who were not interested into going into the old Driving Park library.
It's also an iconic building in many respects, and it's a sizable investment by the library. The community has responded with a big 'Wow!' with people saying, 'We are really excited to see this type of building, investment and resources in Driving Park.'
How has the digital revolution changed the work of the library?
Being able to download e-books from our website has been a big change. As time moves forward, that will have an even more dramatic impact on our organization. As I said, we have one million digital (e-book) downloads and 15 million physical items (loaned out), but if a decade from now those numbers are reversed, then our library will look different in terms of the storage requirements for content.
Do you think those numbers will change that much?
I don't know. I've found predictions in the past that were wildly wrong. The industry has noticed a certain plateau for e-books-it's not a strict hockey-stick line for growth.
I often ask young people of high-school or college age if they think they will have books in their first apartment. They tell me 'yes.' I think we'll be in the physical book business for awhile.
In your ideal world, how would you like to see people use the library?
They should use it with as few barriers as possible. For example, we're trying to be innovative about making sure that young people's library cards are not blocked for overdue items… We would look at it as a total failure if a child in an adverse neighborhood has a blocked card because of library fines. So we have come up with a card that allows a child to check out three items with no overdue fines, although they're still responsible for the items.
There should also be greater wireless access so we can meet demand. Even at Driving Park where the number of computers is two to three times what we had at the old building, I can go in there in the afternoon and there are people waiting to get on a computer… We work with folks who are coming to the library because that's their only source of gaining access to the digital world.
We're also really interested in being major players in out-of-school time-preschool, after school, weekends and summers. I'd loved to see ways for us to connect more with preschool children, particularly in neighborhoods where early intervention programs can be so useful. That's why we are creating kindergarten readiness zones and homework help centers.
What are you most proud of in your work with the Columbus Metropolitan Library?
I'm proud of our ability to have articulated an understandable strategy around what's important for us in three areas: 'Young Minds,' 'My Library' and 'Life Skills.' It's about encouraging learning and growth in kids to help them create a foundation for a successful life; delivering the next generation library that works not at the lowest common denominator for everyone but (for a person) as an individual; and providing opportunities for adults who didn't get the foundation for a successful life reach their real potential.
We've stayed on that message. It's been directional for the staff, understandable for the community, aligned with community needs and enabled us to foster some strong partnerships.
What does it take to attain and sustain designations as a top library system?
Number one would be a strong customer focus. Customers are at the center of our organizational chart, and that's central to how our staff feels about the community it serves… Our people also believe in the mission of this organization and are dedicated to delivering it to the community.
Second, the community has received tremendous service from a dedicated and caring staff. In return, it has supported the library and created a culture and level of success that's sometimes easier to sustain than create.
What are the library's major challenges in the next 10 years?
One is around digitization. The analogy I use is that we're straddling two swimming pools. We have one foot in a pool that's about six inches deep-that's e-books. The other pool is about 20 feet deep-that's physical books. We see some of that water transferring. The question is how quickly is it going to transfer and how prepared are we as it moves forward.
The second area is moving away from the standard output measurements of a library to community-based outcomes we're trying to influence. For example, in Columbus City Schools, we see that roughly a third to 40 percent of the children each year aren't ready to begin kindergarten in terms of literacy. So how do we leverage library resources to improve kindergarten readiness scores? It's very complex… but if we concentrate on certain at-risk neighborhoods where 5-year-olds are congregated, it would make a difference in their educational careers.
It's all about watching community trends and saying, 'Where should we devote our resources to try to get the biggest bang and turn out the best result for the community?' It's groundbreaking work… Ultimately that's where libraries are headed.
Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.