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October 20, 2013

[templelib] Siobhan Reardon: Renewing the Free Library of Philadelphia

At Temple University’s symposium in honor of the inauguration of the University’s new president, on Oct. 18, 2013.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Siobhan A. Reardon is president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia. [So awesome!] She came in 5 years ago when the system was facing serious financial cutbacks. She brought in a consulting group to help the library come up with a strategic plan. The consultants took the Library through an extensive and well-structured process. [Siobhan gives us a lot of info; the following is at best an outline.]

They looked at four scenarios for where the economy and the state of tech access might be, from booms in both to busts in each. Since we don’t know what the future will be, how do you create an organization that can shift from one scenario to another?

Key success factors include not only operational effiiciency and marketing, but also the possibility of offering a premium service for a fee. Also, partnerships, virtual presence, facility design, and specialized talent.

Vision: Building an enlightened community devoted to lifelong literacy. Mission: advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity.

This works out to a dozen operational goals, which include focusing on providing especially strong support for: children under 5, new Americans, jobseekers, and small businesses.

Key takeaways from the study: Every project needs an owner.

  • Marketing has to be amplified.
  • Staff training is imperative.
  • The library must have a robust virtual aspect.
  • Each of the 48 neighborhood libraries have to be focused on its community.

They have a set of new potential programs. One is fine-free cards for children. (The library takes in $800,000/year in fines, so this will affect its bottom line.) The most progress has been in reaching jobseekers. They’ve also focused on users with special needs (which includes people with emotional issues and the homeless).

They then went through an organizational restructuring. After studying 14 other libraries, they realized that the Philadelphia Library is not sufficiently focused on customer engagement. Also, they’ve clustered libraries geographically, with shared staff and shared specializations.

Siobhan shows the layout of a re-designed library. Books are on the perimeter, with social space in the middle. Plus quiet rooms. Plus a cafe. She points out that libraries traditionally don’t like food near books, but people take books home and read them while drinking coffee and eating donuts. “Go figure,” she says.

She quickly cycles through photos of other libraries, each of which address some problem or opportunity. Beautiful.

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