CLR Case Studies–Seattle Public Library



Strategic planning suggested a variety of ways that the public library could become more relevant to the community and improve service to its clients. The library provided multicultural awareness training to all of its staff. Also, staff members are empowered to make exceptions to any rule, except confidentiality, and are encouraged to treat each customer as a very important person.

To make the institution–the central library and branches–more relevant, the library has looked at the whole city to decide what information services are appropriate for each location. Developing and sustaining services to fill the needs of particular communities sometimes requires a give and take, says Gloria Leonard, the advocate for neighborhood libraries (the manager of branch library services). She looks to see who is not being served–displaced workers, for example. She then identifies resources in other parts of the library system that might be “pulled back” to support initiatives for that underserved audience. If, for example, the schools offer services late in the day in one neighborhood, the library might ask if some of its own educational services are redundant at that location. Or, instead of cutting back other services to find the resources to meet unserved needs, the library might find an agency with mutual interests, and, through collaboration, find the resources to initiate or expand a service.

In Seattle, new technology has created opportunities, but it has also required that staff members take on new roles and responsibilities. Stroup observed that there is a natural tension between line operations and the library’s three centers that are trying new ways to carry out the library’s mission. Some staff members are being pushed “outside their comfort zone” as they are asked to try new ways of doing things. For example, Ray Serebrin, the advocate for lifelong learning, describes the library’s community learning laboratories as a way for middle managers to experiment with new services. Library staff members have received orientation to the central library computer lab. After orientation, librarians are asked to invite community groups to the lab. There, they introduce group members to electronic resources of potential interest and learn more about the information needs of various groups. These efforts parallel the way the library approaches the development of programs for adults, and push line staff into greater contact with grassroots organizations. This is in contrast to the more familiar pattern of reference librarians working one-on-one with individuals to find the information requested.

Training staff to understand and use changing technology is a concern for the library system. Leonard emphasized that team leaders and administrators need to build in time for training, as well as time for staff to experiment with technology. Bringing training to the staff is especially important because not everyone can attend professional conferences. She described how the library’s in-service training spotlights services within the system and seems to boost the morale of branch team leadership. Branches need to have resident technology experts, she notes. In addition, however, individual staff members learn through training support modules distributed over e-mail and by using e-mail to share information.