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TL v61n1 Interview with Pam Sandlian Smith
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Tennessee Libraries 

Volume 61 Number 1
 

 2011

 

 Interview with Pam Sandlian Smith, Director, Rangeview Library District

by

Scott Cohen, Interviews Editor

 

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As Director of the Rangeview Library District in Colorado, Pam Sandlian Smith has led four new library building projects and three renovations which will open within a three-year timeframe. She and her team took advantage of this opportunity to completely rethink library services and philosophy, inventing Anythink libraries. Since the “Anythink” state of mind took over at the library, circulation has tripled and program attendance has doubled.  The Rangeview Library District has been awarded the IMLS 2010 National Medal of Honor for innovating library services and the 2011 John Cotton Dana award

Formerly the Director of the West Palm Beach Public Library and the Manager of Children’s Services at the Denver Public Library, Pam Sandlian Smith has her MLS and PhD work from Emporia State College, Kansas.  She enjoys traveling, writing and inventing libraries that help people fall in love with libraries and reading.
 


WHAT MAJOR DIFFERENCES EXIST BETWEEN YOUR LIBRARY AND MOST OTHER PUBLIC LIBRARIES?

A critical element of Anythink and Anythinkers is our attention to how we look; our presentation and our hospitality. Many libraries do this as well; however, it is something that doesn’t always receive top priority in some libraries. Hospitality is how people feel when they visit your business.  We always want people to feel welcomed, empowered and energized/connected when they visit our libraries.  When I walk into our libraries, I always want to feel like I’m receiving a hug, metaphorically speaking.

Another thing that we concentrate on is a cohesive presentation and style.  Our libraries are designed to be comfortable and intuitive.  Everything works together, the colors, furniture, signs, graphics, library cards, library bags.  Everything reinforces our messaging, which is fun, curious, approachable and energizing.  We have a playful, supportive service style.
 
YOU USE THE WORD “ANYTHINK” TO DESCRIBE YOUR LIBRARY AND SERVE AS A BRAND.  WHAT DOES “ANYTHINK” MEAN?

Anythink is a new style of library – a place of unlimited imagination, where play inspires creativity and lifelong learning.  It is a place where anything and everything is possible. Anythink is anything you can invent or imagine. We think it is a perfect name for a library, because no matter what you might want or need to know, you can find it at Anythink. Any thing you can think of, the library can connect you with that idea or information.
 
YOU DON’T UTILIZE THE DEWEY DECIMAL SYSTEM TO ARRANGE YOUR BOOKS ON THE SHELF.  PLEASE DESCRIBE YOUR “WORDTHINK” METHOD OF CLASSIFICATION.

Wordthink is the Anythink adaptation of BISAC.  Our Collection Development Team used BISAC (Book Industry Standard and Classification) as the basis of our organizational scheme, and then adapted the language and organization to better meet the needs of people using natural language. The team then translated, or mapped our entire nonfiction collection from the Dewey Decimal numerical system to the correlating word classification.This process took a year to transition our entire district to Wordthink. Now all of our libraries utilized the Wordthink system.  Once our customers understood the transition, they seem to be able to locate things quite readily. Because of this method of organization and other self service features, we have been able to absorb a tripling of circulation with minimal increase in staffing.
 
WHAT HAS ELIMINATING FINES DONE FOR THE LIBRARY?

Since we went fine free in 2009, our library staff have jobs that are much more positive and friendly.  Instead of constantly having to say no to our customers, our staff now have more time to help people locate their materials, suggest great reads, register people for new library cards, etc. Overall, we have seen an increase in people bringing their books back later and we are working on this issue.

We believe that the positive image of the library compensates for the issues with tardiness. Helping children keep their library privileges more than offsets the late issues. 
 
HOW DO YOU INTEREACT WITH YOUR PATRONS SINCE THERE IS NO CIRCULATION OR REFERENCE DESK?

We have been working with the roving model and this works well at our libraries.  We have designed our libraries to have zones.  Staff are assigned to work in zones, so that they rove throughout that zone staying in touch with the workflows of each area.  We also have the perches throughout the libraries, where staff interact with customers whenever there is need for interaction with our ILS system.  Our staff always wear nametags which are highly visible. (They are on a bright orange lanyard.) Customers can easily identify a staff member. Our staff are always looking for issues or customers that look like they might have a question.

Our interactions are as positive or more positive since the barrier of a large reference or circulation desk is not part of this transaction.  We meet people on their own territory, on their own terms.
 
DOES THE USE OF SELF-CHECKOUTS WITHOUT A CIRCULATION DESK REALLY WORK?   DO YOU THINK THERE IS SOMETHING LOST WITHOUT INTERACTION WITH THE PATRON AT THE CIRCULATION DESK?

The self checks work remarkably well.  The staff are always available to work through any issues or to walk through customer’s first attempts at using the self-check.  It is remarkable how easy it is to use and most customers are quite happy to be able to take care of this themselves.  This frees up staff to have lots of great conversations with customers about programs, new books, movies, etc.  Our customers receive really good service and a warm sense of hospitality at our libraries.  I think things are much better without the official service desks.  
 
YOU DON’T HAVE A CIRCULATION DESK PER SE, BUT YOU HAVE A FRONT PERCH.  WHAT IS THAT?

The front perch is a small stand up desk which accommodates up to two staff members.  It is designed as a service point where staff greet people, register customers for library cards, and orient people to the library.  It is designed for staff to stand and then move around the library depending upon the traffic.

YOU USED A MYSUMMER PROGRAM INSTEAD OF A SUMMER READING PROGRAM.   WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?

The biggest difference is evident in the tag line: mySummer: READ, THINK, DO. We want people to do more than check out books and count them over the summer.  We want people to read, think about what they are reading, and then do something, or engage in some way with what they are reading.  We invest significant resources in our programs over the summer.  From learning how to dance, cook, camp, sew, design clothes to exploring the nature in our backyard, having Lego tournaments, writing and reading poetry, and playing music, our programs support ideas, imagination, creativity and taking ownership of your life.  Our summer reading program is intergenerational; anyone can participate. We have programs for each segment of our population, (children, teens, adults) as well as family programs for everyone.

This connects to the Anythink concept that everyone can connect to ideas, imagination and information.  We think reading is a powerful activity.  Summer Reading is about experimenting with a smorgasbord of activities and ideas.  Instead of counting the number of books read and then giving out prizes, we think that the prize is actually the reading, thinking and doing.

It is a shift in philosophy from counting things to creating emotional connections with the library and reading. 
 
WHY DO YOU CALL YOUR LIBRARIANS “GUIDES” INSTEAD OF LIBRARIANS?

We moved from a very traditional set of job descriptions to a competency based job description and performance review system for our staff.  The idea of Guide came from a statement:  

You are not just an employee, volunteer or board member.  You do not merely catalog books, organize periodicals and manage resources.  You are the gateway into the mind of the idea people who come to our facilities to find or fuel a spark. Part Wizard, Part Genius, Part Explorer. It is your calling to trespass into the unknown and come back with a concrete piece someone can hold onto, turn over, and use to fuel their mind and soul.

Upon examining the role of the librarian, it became apparent to us that librarians are really guides to information, interactions and experiences.  That is an important shift in thinking about our relationships with customers and with information.

HOW DO YOU INSPIRE YOUR STAFF TO CONTINUALLY COME UP WITH INNOVATIVE IDEAS?

In our competencies, we expect people to be flexible, problem solving, a continuous learner, an innovator and a leader.  We hire for these qualities and we evaluate our staff on these qualities.
 
Any time someone has an innovative idea, we try to support it or find a way to incorporate it into our work plan.  Our graphic artist came up with an idea for a creativity exhibit which is turning into a year long focus on creativity for our staff and our customers.  We believe everyone can live a creative life; we just need to find ways to support and celebrate creative thinking.

We support a playful workplace, in which our work is our play.  We encourage our staff to be creative and curious.  We do things like having Lego tournaments with staff.  We have optional events like hiking, bowling, trivia contests and Iron Chef cook offs.  We have a culture that is basically happy and supportive.  We encourage people who are optimistic.  Being grumpy is really not part of our culture.  
 

SINCE YOU DON’T HAVE A REFERENCE DESK, HOW DO PEOPLE ASK QUESTIONS IF THEY DON’T SEE A ROAMING LIBRARIAN?

Our staff are very visible throughout the library.  They are always looking for people who might be needing assistance.  It is much easier to ask someone a question who is not sitting behind a big, foreboding reference desk.  
 
WHY HAS YOUR LIBRARY BEEN SO SUCCESSFUL IN THE TRANSFORMATION OF A TRADITIONAL LIBRARY INTO “ANYTHINK”?

Because we had to accomplish so many changes simultaneously, the compression and speed of our work became evident over a much shorter period of time than many projects that might happen more incrementally. Our story is the story of an underdog that had a chance to become something more than the worst funded library in Colorado.  At every turn, we set high standards and criteria for all of our decisions.  When we had to compromise, we tried to insure that our compromises didn’t damage our overall integrity of trying to make our library very customer centric and hospitable.  We believe that having a sense of style and whimsy doesn’t have to be antithetical to having a great, well-run library.

WHAT ROLE DOES MARKETING/PR HAVE IN YOUR LIBRARY?

Marketing and public relations are essential to any library and especially at Anythink.  Consistent communications that deliver a certain tone and voice are critical to our internal and external customers.  The language that we use in communicating our library and our vision, our expectations, our values is integral to who we are as a library for our community.  Our passion for our product and our service is evident in our communications throughout our organization.

One of the important elements of our brand is the emotional connection that our staff and customers have toward Anythink.  This is a critical component of our marketing efforts.  Sometimes I think that marketing stands on its own in a company.  The marketing is creative and wonderful; the product or company is not so great.  At Anythink, our marketing has to accurately reflect our product and our service.  They are fully integrated at Anythink.

DO YOU HAVE PLANS TO CREATE A “BOOKLESS LIBRARY”?

No, we love books and think they will always be a viable format; however we are fully aware that digital libraries are playing a powerful role in our future.

Read more about Pam Sandlian Smith and the Anythink philosophy in Library Journal.

 

Scott Cohen, Library Director at Jackson State Community College, edits this regular column.
For more information on the column, see
Contributor's Guidelines.

 


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