Friday, March 26, 2010

You Say You Want a Revolution

When the Adams County (Colorado) Public Library spun off from the county in 2005, it owned seven crumbling building, had sadly out-of-date collections, had little funding, and foresaw the prospect of closure or partial closure. In 2006, speculating that the library would close if it did not get a tax increase, the library's third referendum attempt passed. The board of trustees hired a new director with the assignment to reinvent the library. As new director, Pam Sandlian Smith said that she knew that the library had one chance to become a vital part of the community. "We had to get it right," she said.

PLA's Thursday morning presentation You Say You Want a Revolution told the inspiring story of a down but not quite dead library reviving. New funds helped but were not the most important element, Smith insisted. New leadership, teamwork, rebranding, and radical institutional change were needed and realized. The library was renamed The Rangeview Library District. New logos were designed. Most importantly the library became a user-centric, experience emphasizing service. In designing a new main library, spaces for people were designed before spaces for materials. Dewey numbers on spine labels were replaced with natural language subject labels, which the library marketed as "Wordthink." Fines were eliminated. Big desks were eliminated. Library programming emphasized interactive programs. The story seems right out of a made-for-television movie, but it really happened, if the five people on stage and the visual evidence is to be believed.

I'm not sure the program really communicated how much work the library revitalization must have been. The presenters told about all of the committees formed with staff, trustees, and community volunteers, which must have involved countless hours. Changing all of the spine labels and related data entry must have taken many months of work. Everyone on the staff had to learn new jobs with new titles, such as "wranglers" and "guides." The presenters went quickly past the topic of work to get to "the fun stuff." They even threw out T-shirts just like between innings at a minor league baseball team.

The marketing firm Richocet Ideas influenced much of the redesign, helping the library design a campaign to appeal to client aspirations, selling experiences. The firm even helped create new imaginative language, such as "flufferovin" (the job of tidying displays to make them more attractive) and "Yellow Geckos" (staff who do something that I did not quite catch) and "Anythink" (the message that anything can be done better at the library). The work seems to have become more fun. The happy staff seems to have infected the clients who now come to the library more frequently.

The underlying message is that disrupting the library's long-lived conventions may enliven a library bold enough to embrace change aimed at pleasing clients. The hardest part may be believing that it can be done. With their backs against the walls, the Rangeview staff embraced the change. Over two dozen of them came to PLA to help spread the word, which is itself impressive.

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