Snapshot: White House Champion of Change and Fayetteville Free Library Director Susan Considine

SConsidine_photolarge.jpgLeadership can happen at any time, at any level, and from anyone in the organization. We need to strategically engage our communities through formal and informal conversations, by partnering with businesses, and schools, as well as by creating access to technologies, innovative services, and collaborative spaces.The community may have different expectations about what a library should be and what they should offer. The community's needs, desires, and aspirations should drive the library agenda.- Sue Considine, Library Director of Fayetteville Free Library

White House Champion of Change and Fayetteville (NY) Free Library (FFL) Director Sue Considine is preparing public libraries to be incubators for "ideas and dreams" in the 21st century. FFL has about 400,000 virtual and onsite patron visits to a library based in a town with less than 15,000 residents who have a median average salary of about $67,000. FFL's innovations and marketing prowess have more than quadrupled its operating budget since Considine was hired as director in 2001.

How has the White House's Champions of Change award elevated the library's position in your community?

It's been overwhelming. From the county executive to our patron visitors, the FFL community at all levels has responded with an outpouring of support and enthusiasm with cards, flowers, volunteerism, and donations. Appreciation for raising the visibility of the Fayetteville Free Library and Central New York and putting these places on the map has been expressed by the community.

Our success with social media, which includes an active presence on Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Wordpress, and Facebook, as well as traditional outreach in magazines, such as Forbes, is the direct result of the efforts of FFL Director of Marketing and Community Relations Brenda Shea. For the FFL to be relevant in our community, we need to communicate in our patrons' virtual and physical spaces. Although Brenda is not a librarian, she brings marketing expertise that is not always part of a MLS curriculum.                                                            

Our ongoing community engagement influences our budget; 97% of our funding is derived from a community vote. While other libraries are struggling with decreasing budgets in the depressed economy, we consistently receive the 8% increase we ask for annually from our local constituents through a referendum vote that goes up at the same date and time as the school district budget vote. The FFL has never been denied an increase by the voters since I became the library director. Since I started in 2001, we've grown the budget from $300,000 to $1.6 million, which does not include the $3.6 million in grants and donations, including capital campaigns, which we have received through strategic, targeted, tenacious fundraising efforts. We pay close attention to our community, look constantly for ways to engage them, and then develop access to what they need to improve their lives.

Your library is embracing the change from "consuming information to creating content," which includes transforming libraries into tech centers and maker spaces.  In addition to traditional story times, the FFL offers innovative and seemingly expensive services, including book clubs that allows participants to Skype with authors, mobile device loaner programs, the first Maker Space program, career assistance appointments, specialized teacher resources, the Fab Lab's 3D printers, and the digital creation lab. How does your library afford to create and support such programs?

We have never paid an author one dime to Skype our community. We began reaching out to famous, well established authors, back in 2010 and asked if they would be interested in engaging with their readers via Skype through the FFL. To date, only one well-known author has declined. The authors enjoy the experience and appreciate the time to connect directly with their readers. The popular program builds community relationships and is consistently full.  

I also attend conferences and webinars to learn about the obstacles to success in LIS and to share the FFL'S successful efforts in challenging assumptions, changing our brand, and staying relevant today. Several assumptions in LIS can be challenged by FFL's victories. First, I believe a lack of funding is often an imagined barrier. It takes only a few dollars to experiment with an idea. For example, we knew that access to new technologies would not only create access to a universe of new content, but it would also allow us to empower patrons to create new things. We reached out to a local business and as a result received our first 3D printer through a generous donation by a computer repair store. They donated the printer because they were excited that the average person could visit the FFL to design and produce a new and interesting idea. In return, the FFL dedicated time and energy to promote the company's generosity on our website, a banner, and social networks. As a result of our successful outreach, additional local businesses reached out to the FFL to ask how they could become involved. Interested engaged community members, including a retired physics and a math professor, volunteer their expertise to the FFL community by teaching classes and helping in the Fab Lab.   

We also understand that librarians are busy. Librarians should realize that they don't have be an expert in everything to incorporate new services and opportunities. Look to your community of users to find a wealth of knowledge, skill, and curiosity. Have conversations. Ask people, what do you love to do? Would you like to share that knowledge with your community? Then librarians can focus on what they do best, which is to create a platform for the engaged community to share knowledge and create access to the equipment, spaces, and technologies that are necessary to share the knowledge. You do not have to master Google Sketchup to create access to a 3D printer.

Second, a lack of space for new programs or activities is also another assumption. For example, a maker space is what you make of it and it can be built on a humble budget. A 3D printer, sewing machine, and other materials can be placed on a standard library cart and transported to available areas so a dedicated space is not required. Our library's mission is to create free and open access to ideas and information. Spaces, content, equipment, technologies, and tools for making things with your hands are part of developing such access. It's possible to provide such tools with ingenuity and simple, cost-effective solutions.

Last, the problem of obtaining staff and leadership buy-in is another obstacle that can be overcome. When examining shrinking budgets, librarians may feel that they will not receive their administration's support for an uncertain service. Instead, they need to ask, "What services are core? What should we stop doing to divert resources and produce a more meaningful impact in our society today?"  Many libraries pay tens of thousands of dollars for databases that no one uses. However, since the databases have been bought by the library for 25 years, no one thinks about changing the subscription. The FFL found free, authoritative content that we offer to patrons to substitute for the $16,000 worth of database subscriptions. Libraries don't need to find new funds for new projects. Instead, funds can be re-allocated to provide more effective services to our patrons. The money is out there, but libraries need to re-assess how funds are used to provide the  cost-effective and relevant services to patrons.

Libraries can't afford not to take risks or seek outside support. The security blanket of doing things the way they have always been done to stay relevant is gone. Libraries need to provide value by engaging their communities and developing access to what they need to help them live rich, interesting, and successful lives.

As mentioned in the Library Journal "Movers and Shakers"  article, a "forward-thinking arrangement in which graduate students from Syracuse University's  iSchool work in the library and operate as paid, full members of the library team" has led to many library service and program innovations, such as the FabLab, at the FFL. What does the arrangement involve and what advice can you offer Simmons GSLIS about creating such programs with local library and information institutions?

We've known for some time that the traditional way of thinking about how libraries work and what they are supposed to do does not work. Since 2003, we have directly recruited students from the Syracuse University School of Information Studies to work at the FFL, ideally while they are in their first semester of school. The students become paid staff members and typically stay for about three years as they complete their MLS program. Since students are exposed to cutting-edge ideas, they bring their enthusiasm and ingenuity to the team and they are encouraged to contribute to our "what if" and "why not" monthly brainstorming sessions.They are encouraged to participate in program development and execution, as well as provide circulation services. In addition, our skilled volunteer team is in charge of the substantial work necessary to process items, call holds, and provide all different levels of program, collection, and service support to the professionals on the team.

Our internship program, which requires 150 hours of time dedicated to the FFL, allows students to define the internships for themselves. In return for the internship, we receive three remitted tuition credits, which we give back to our students to apply toward school costs. We built relationships with the Syracuse University iSchool faculty, career services, and registrar to implement the internship program.

While we are overloaded with applicants, we make an effort to accommodate everyone. Interns select three to six issues they would like to explore, and then I ask them, "What are you most scared to do?" Whatever that is, we have the intern dedicate time to a project that allows them to increase their skills. It's gratifying to watch the interns overcome their fears and succeed.

Currently, the FFL has 43 staff members and 67 volunteers. We try to keep our staff to no more than 50 people. When we notice that the students are dressing better than usual when it is close to graduation, I help them in their job search by tapping into my network since we cannot keep all of them indefinitely. Most of the time, Heather Matzel,  FFL Director of Patron Services, and I, find opportunities or provide references to lock in potential placements for all of our students, which further contributes to FFL's growing network and support system. 

Since you have been a leader in the field, what have been the most challenging obstacles to overcome? How did you overcome such barriers? What do you consider to be the secrets to your success?

When we were initiating the Fab Lab concept, I assumed that the entire library team would be on board with the idea. Instead, some staff members became quiet and removed themselves from the discussion. I started to investigate what was happening at the library and worked to understand the different ways that staff were thinking about librarianship. It proved to be a great leadership challenge. I approached my staff one on one to discuss our approach about what we do and how we work through challenges and opportunities. I also tapped into the larger community and brought a Syracuse University professor to speak to the team and library board. A messenger discussed how creation rather than consumption would have a positive impact on the community. The professor brought an outside perspective and additional credibility to the project. The talk also instilled the idea that staff did not need to be experts, but could be navigators and facilitators of information. Librarians' goals are to build information bridges for the community to help them acquire knowledge and to support discovery.

Relationships and communication are the keys to success. Cultivating relationships is the library's most important investment. Trust is a great bank to borrow from, but you must invest in it wisely to make sure your team feels valued and heard.

What innovations are on the horizon for the FFL?

First, I would like to build a business center in the library and we are currently seeking financial support. We want to incorporate access to tools and technology for small business and entrepreneurs, as well as a networking component. We want like-minded people to find each other in the library, connect and create plans together, design these plans with software and support, and then print the big idea on a 3D printer. 

We should not underestimate the importance of contact with other people. Sometimes, for some community members, the library is the only place for those who feel disconnected or disenfranchised to connect and share a sense of community.

The next area we are exploring is how public and academic libraries can work together. How do we share resources, space, and technology to provide increased access? As Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) continue to grow, student school enrollment decreases and online learning expands, we are asking questions about how the public library can be a bridge to education for individuals and communities.

Although you probably have limited free time, what interests and hobbies do you have outside the library?

I am a full-time library director and a mom. My limited free time is spent drivingm watching, and cheering as my children play competitive lacrosse and hockey. I enjoy supporting their activities and celebrating their passions. I am fortunate to have a large, supportive family nearby.

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer

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