Joint Libraries: Models That Work
Combining town and gown
Posted Wed, 10/03/2012 - 10:46
The five-story Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library atrium at San José State University is a shared public and academic space.
In the past, academic and public libraries had very different missions and operation. Academic libraries were created to serve their own faculty and students and to facilitate research. Public libraries were created to allow educational resources to flow to a community through generous donations and tax dollars.
These may seem to be stereotypes, but to some extent these two cultures still exist in libraries today. In its 2005 joint-use feasibility analysis, the Tidewater Community College (TCC) speculated on whether “one facility can truly support the missions of a community college and a public library. The underlying concern is that in trying to serve all, the core missions of the institutions might be diluted and no one will truly benefit.” The report, coauthored by Anderson Brulé Architects, Inc., and Virginia Beach (Va.) Public Library System, concluded that if both entities are truly collaborative and not competitive, “each user group will have access to much more than one organization could ever provide alone.” TCC President Deborah DiCroce said in the March 17, 2009, Virginian Pilot that there were challenges in merging academic culture with public library culture. “We are not looking to create yours, mine, and ours.”
Ken Draves, deputy director of the Poudre River Public Library District in Fort Collins, Colorado, says this about public/community college collaborations:
A public/community college joint-use library is an especially good combination. The missions and the service populations are similar enough to provide significant overlap and allow for excellent services to all users. For example, community college students find that the public library’s collections of materials and resources meet many of their academic needs and provide an excellent complement to the materials owned by the college. Likewise, community college students respond well to the friendly service orientation provided by a well-trained public library reference staff. I think that other combinations, such as a high school/PL or university/PL joint-use library, present additional challenges to good service that we do not face.
Once the two cultures are merged during a joint venture, there can be some radical adjustments that must be made by the librarians and staff of each type of library. What is a joint library’s mission? To educate, yes. To expand horizons, yes. To help with research, yes.
There are legitimate cultural differences in these two types of libraries. It is a good manager who can harness the best of both worlds. Instead of saying, “This is how the public library does this,” have the librarians say, “What is the best way to do it for our library?”
Facilities. Most public libraries have separate restrooms for staff. Most college libraries don’t. Public libraries with open access can draw a messy and sometimes destructive clientele. Some homeless people and troublemakers deface restrooms with tools and effluvia of all sorts. Children will have accidents and have sticky fingers. Rarely does a college library have these kinds of problems. It may be a culture shock for academic librarians to have to clean a bathroom or deal with children’s accidents.
Treatment. Public libraries treat their librarians differently than academic libraries do their staff. Public libraries have a hierarchical structure, whereas many academic librarians are faculty and are accorded a strong say in how things are run. Public librarians often have strict dress codes and rigid time constraints on their day. Academic librarians are responsible to other faculty for curricular needs, and they are encouraged to publish and innovate. Some academic librarians can be shocked when the public library management treats them like the typing pool as opposed to valued faculty members.
Some faculty are concerned that public librarians do not have the experience in teaching that an academic librarian has. In the past, some librarians chose public librarianship because they are not comfortable teaching a class. This is really not the case anymore since public librarians now teach computer classes and even English as a Second Language classes. In a joint library it’s important to have flexible staffers who can learn teaching techniques and how to conduct programs for adults, teens, and children.
Filtering. Many academic librarians abhor filtering of computers. They believe this is an invasion of intellectual freedom. Public libraries routinely filter computers for pornography and even social media. A joint library will have to find a happy medium, perhaps just filtering children’s computers. At Lone Star College–Montgomery in Conroe, Texas, there was no filtering in the college library. A citizens’ group caused an uproar when it accused the library of offering pornography. All libraries can be targets of interest group criticism if they do not filter.
Collection. Centralized purchasing of materials is usual for many public libraries. The administration orders all the books with minimum input from librarians. Academic librarians purchase all of their materials to support the curriculum. It can be disturbing for academic librarians to give up control of what the collection will look like.
Programs. Adult, teen, and children’s programs are an important part of public library services. Public librarians have experience creating a diverse series of educational and recreational activities for all ages. Academic librarians usually limit their programs to teaching students. Librarians in joint facilities need to learn to do both. Joint libraries offer all librarians an amazing variety of activities that require imagination and creativity as well as academic credentials.
“Once a public librarian, always a public librarian” is a cliché that unfortunately can be accurate in describing professional career options. College and university librarians, as well, are hesitant to cross over or leave the academic career track for other career opportunities. If an academic librarian joins a joint facility, it may be difficult for him or her to be hired in any other academic library, especially those with tenure and requirements to publish. In addition, reference assistants are commonly part of the public library landscape. These are usually college-degreed staff who perform many of the routine duties of a master’s-degreed librarian. They work the reference desk, do programs, give tours, plan events, and do outreach such as retirement-home book clubs, and so on. Some academic librarians might balk at nonlibrarians performing these functions.
Two directors, two payrolls, two cultures—one happy story
Lone Star College–Tomball Community Library is a joint library with Harris County (Tex.) Public Library in Greater Houston. With two codirectors and separate staffers, this endeavor started out with two cultures not particularly cooperating nor truly partnering as a joint library should.
One of the unplanned things that changed the culture at Tomball and quickly integrated the public library employees into the college’s culture and rhythm was the location of the library at the front entrance of the college. The library parking lot was the first one spotted and made the first floor of the library the gateway/unofficial information desk for first-time visitors to the campus. Committed to providing the best customer service, the public library employees embraced this new role and familiarized themselves with the layout of the campus; the location and hours for admissions, the business office, conference rooms, the testing center and the bookstore; the college’s web page; the faculty phone directory; and the daily schedule of college events. Other things that made them feel a part of the campus included being invited to all the ceremonies, performances, and special events sponsored by the college and having the same perks as college employees, such as free access to the campus wellness center and discounts at the bookstore.
Harmony Library of Colorado, a joint public and community college library, had a director with a shock of her own. Draves says, “Inevitably the reality of a joint-use library will not match the expectations partners have prior to opening, despite the best efforts to plan carefully. For instance, I know that the initial campus librarian was distressed by the sheer popularity of the library when it opened, and in particular the numbers of children. Her previous experience had been in the much smaller, quieter, and less busy college library, and she was surprised and displeased by what she considered the overwhelming use by the public and especially by children and their caregivers. Ultimately she retired, and the new campus librarian came in with much different expectations and a robust appreciation for working together for the benefit of all members of our joint-use service community.” This highlights the fact that staff buy-in is important to overcome culture shock in a joint venture.
North Lake divorce
Often decisions to create a joint library come from leaders in the community who see a need or an opportunity to improve services in an innovative way. Sometimes the leadership changes or the goals are not adequately conveyed to the worker bees (librarians). The Irving (Tex.) Public Library director and the president of North Lake College became acquainted with each other while serving on the North Lake Community Library board of directors. This creative duo came up with the idea to create a joint library. Unfortunately, failure to integrate staff at the grassroots was one of the downfalls of this library. Additionally, when these leaders moved on to other positions, the impetus for success weakened.
A joint library with SOUL
SOUL (Save Our University Library) was the buzzword on the campus at the San José State University. What an uproar from faculty when the leaders of the university and the city of San José proposed a joint library. Fears of faculty not having access to research materials and of students crowded out of computer labs were rampant among the college staff. Secretly, librarians wondered how this project would actually work. It was a bumpy road, but eventually the cultures successfully merged.
What culture clash?
Some librarians beg to differ. A library is a library is a library. Dana Rooks, dean of libraries at the University of Houston, trusts the public library of Fort Bend County, Texas, to run a branch serving university students and Wharton County Junior College students as well as the public. In fact, Rooks said, she wanted the public library to run the facility and to that end mandated that current academic librarians working at the Sugar Land campus would not be grandfathered in but would need to reapply for new positions in order to work for the new joint library. This way they could hire librarians who truly bought into the idea of a joint facility run by the public library. Their hope was that there would be no culture clash if the right mix of librarians with the right attitude was hired. The university and the college also committed to paying the county library a sufficient sum of money to acquire materials to support the curricula and to hire librarians who could teach research skills to their students. The facility is a large, beautiful public library with public librarians serving all constituencies.
Is it worth it?
Most joint library ventures will not fire current employees and require them to reapply for jobs in a new joint library. Thus, there usually is some culture adjustment required for all employees. During the planning process, managers must weigh the pros and cons to ensure that both sides will benefit equally. Some libraries, after conducting feasibility studies, decide not to proceed. The intrepid few who do proceed must face more challenges. By studying how other libraries have merged or developed a single joint library, a library considering this project can learn how to avoid mistakes and go through a smoother process.
For more information about joint-library models, read “Rocking the Joint.”
CLAIRE B. GUNNELS is founding faculty and assistant director of the Lone Star College–CyFair Branch Library, a joint library with Harris County Public Library in Houston, Texas. SUSAN E. GREEN came to Lone Star College–CyFair Branch Library as founding faculty and previously served as branch manager for the Maud Marks branch of Harris County Public Library. PATRICIA M. BUTLER, a former archivist for Colonial Williamsburg, served as reference librarian at the Lone Star College–Tomball Community Library from 2002 to 2009. This article is an excerpt from Joint Libraries: Models That Work (ALA Editions, 2012).