Risk, Failure, and Yield

A private-public partnership requires creative management but offers significant rewards

March 8, 2010

Elisabeth Doucett is an entrepreneur. She has to be. As director of the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, Maine, one of her chief responsibilities is to raise funds for the collection. If she doesn’t, nothing new will be added to the shelves.

"Our town essentially pays for the building; but everything that goes inside of it depends upon the amount of money we can fundraise," Doucett says. Imagine if each year your collection, technology, and furniture budget depended entirely on grants, donations, and endowments. This arrangement demands ingenuity and according to Doucett it is quite common in New England. "Many of the libraries in this region are private-public partnerships," she says. "It requires us to be very creative and diligent."

Outside monies have enabled the Curtis Library to introduce new services including a job center for those seeking employment and classes on computer skills, small business development, and financial literacy. The library has also implemented a small IT "petting zoo," placing emerging technology into the hands of patrons. Staff has expanded the collection by obtaining a $15,000 grant to purchase large-print books, a $2,500 grant for foreign films, and an ongoing partnership with local hospitals to provide access to up-to-date and accurate medical information.

What is most striking about this library is how it is helping a community in transition. Brunswick is home to just over 20,000 residents who are undergoing a dramatic evolution. A nearby naval base is closing down, resulting in the loss of an estimated 6,000 jobs in the region over a four-year period. The town is also steadily becoming a retirement community while seeing a rise in homelessness. Added to this mix is Bowdoin College, an elite liberal arts school.

These various segments are all placing increasing demands on library services, and Doucett is up for the challenge. She started her career as a marketer and embraces the "leading from behind" style of management. "When you are bringing forth change it is important not to force your ideas on a resisting organization," she explains, "I think you need to give people the opportunity to provide feedback about change and then be willing to adjust your plans in order to make others more comfortable. I spend a lot of time listening and trying to develop a clear vision of where we need to go."

Reducing the fear of failure is one of Doucett’s key themes. "As a profession we librarians spend too much time worrying about making an idea perfect before we execute; I’m more interested in testing things out, and learning along the way." While many administrators pay lip service to risk taking, Doucett is not one of them. Asked for an example of a recent acceptable failure, she recounted how the library had purchased Playaway audio book devices aimed at senior citizens. They discovered that these patrons found the technology too much of a struggle, and they discontinued the project. Doucett maintains that this was a great experience for her staff, demonstrating that it is okay to try something new and have it not work out.

Like most libraries, the Curtis Memorial Library is anticipating a financial shortfall. Doucett is expected to cut $100,000 from her budget and indicates that her only option is to reduce services. "Building hours and staff are the primary things the town pays for so when the town has to reduce funding that’s where the money has to come from." She does not plan to remain silent about it, however.

"Librarians are really good at covering up their financial problems," she says. "We hide the truth and make do with less and less, but personally I want my patrons to notice and to feel the impact because hopefully then they’ll become champions for us and find ways to help us improve our situation."


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