Monday, December 15, 2014

Fresno County librarians leave the branch behind, hit the road

by: Marc Benjamin

The image of the shy librarian who points you to the latest novel or reference materials is getting a makeover by the Fresno County library system. The new-styled librarian is bolting out from behind the counter to meet Fresno County business owners and organizations and showcase library services.
Seven Fresno County librarians are fanning out in brand new Toyota Priuses to meet one-on-one with business owners or nonprofits, attend community events and inform the public about free services the library system offers.
The Library Without Walls (WoW!) program has been under way for about nine months but reached full staffing in September. It grew out of an analysis of library services and users through which county library officials learned that only 35% of county residents use the system. Overall, the system has had a 46% drop in reference questions from 2005 to 2012.
But 100% of taxpayers pay for the library, said Fresno County librarian Laurel Prysiazny, so “if our putting people out in the field moves that needle, then we are doing a good job.”
Library Without Walls is designed to offer a one-on-one approach to show library services to residents so they can see the research and online tools the library has available for free.
The work could be as basic as giving customers a phone number for getting information from the library, or going door-to-door to Fresno County businesses, or speaking with nonprofit organizations. The assignments also could be more complex, such as setting up computers outside a grocery store and making library cards, helping someone with an online business or setting up a makeshift library in socioeconomically challenged areas.
The program costs about $800,000 annually, paid for with revenue from voter-approved Measure B and the library system’s annual taxpayer funding.
It’s a project that’s gaining attention statewide.
Diane Satchwell, executive director of the Southern California Library Cooperative, said Library Without Walls is “treading new ground.”
She said there may be small geographic pockets where similar programs are being tried, but not to the extent of the Fresno County project.
“She (Prysiazny) has taken it up a notch,” Satchwell said, “especially in the rural areas because it gets to people who wouldn’t traditionally know all about library services … and outreach is critical to show the relevance of the library and the tremendous amount of resources at your fingertips.”
Greg Lucas, the California State Librarian, describes Fresno County’s Library Without Walls as among the more innovative programs in California.
“It touches on all the things libraries are and should be in the 21st century,” he said. “Every day I hear we live in an information economy, and this program shows that the most important place for getting hooked up with reliable information is the library.”
On the road
But being outside the library presents its challenges. The librarians make cold calls from the office and canvass door-to-door seeking customers.
“Making cold calls is so much different,” said Terrance McArthur, a librarian for 11 years. “We were really library-centric ... it was a completely different interface with the public compared with what we’re doing now.”
Rejection, at first, was a little hard to take. “One guy told me just keep on walking,” said Mark Berner, a 13-year librarian, who along with McArthur has been walking the Library Without Walls beat for most of the year.
“Sometimes they’re really friendly,” he said. “Sometimes they look at you kind of strange.”
Berner initially wasn’t sure he was cut out for the job, but as time went on he adjusted, learning that certain business owners assume that the person entering their business is usually trying to sell them something.
At first, the Library Without Walls librarians took a team approach to meeting new people. It wasn’t always successful.
“We used to go out in groups,” Berner said. “Four or five of us walking into a business and the guy would say ‘what church are you from?’ and we’d say ‘no, we’re from the library.’ It was really a matter of learning before we started going out individually.”
Another librarian even aroused suspicion in one Fresno County town.
Librarian Jennifer Bethel said she was walking around Caruthers introducing the program and representing the library. It wasn’t long before she learned someone had reported her to the local library branch.
And not everyone made the cut, said Susan Mann, the program’s field services manager.
“We started with a group of librarians drafted out of the branches and, for various reasons, some people moved on to other positions,” she said.
Part of the problem, she said, is that librarian school teaches cataloging, research skills and program organizing, but not lessons in communications and social outreach.
“We never learn how to proactively interact with community members who don’t know what we do,” Mann said. “Library school focuses you on techniques and skills specific to the job, not how you go out in the community.”
Art of the sale
The normal mindset of a librarian is a major reason why Without Walls librarians are participating in community engagement classes — a process similar to sales training — even though librarians aren’t selling anything.
They regularly meet at Sandler Training in downtown Fresno, where they are taught to “develop skills that have not been part of a librarian’s role,” said facilitator Dale Bierce.
In a recent training session, he told librarians to “see yourselves differently, see the role of a librarian differently.”
He said the librarians were required to add new skills that have not been part of their usual jobs. The Library Without Walls program is still trying to find its identity, he said, and it will be the librarians who will guide it through that evolution.
“We started with baby steps, ‘go out and call five people and we’ll talk about it,’ ” Bierce said. “It was pretty slow going until July or August before they got good at it and started getting positive responses. It bolstered self-esteem and they became more active.”
But, it’s also an adjustment for the customer learning the librarian is coming to them, Bierce said, and it may take repeat trips before the customer understands.
“I have to believe people have no idea this approach is out there and they don’t think about it until you’re there for the third or fourth time,” he said.
Much of Bierce’s training advises the librarians not to fear failure and to listen to the customer.
He said the first group of librarians didn’t get fully acclimated until they started getting positive feedback.
“All of them now will tell you they enjoy it, they feel valued and they get a kick out of going out and calling on people,” Bierce said. “They’ve come out of their shells and become more outgoing and they now see themselves as ambassadors/evangelists for the library and all the resources that they offer.”
Business people also could soon be Library Without Walls ambassadors if the experiences of Wholesale Equipment vice president Darren Eskew are any indication. His company sells and rents forklifts and trucks.
He said the reference tools McArthur showed him — which would be costly for him to buy — is helping his company find customers.
“You are able to go to your county library and as long as you have a library card you can access Reference USA,” he said. “The benefits of having the library card is that it gives you access to a very powerful tool. The list of how you can use it is endless.”
Using specific search criteria, his sales staff is learning locations of potential customers and training in Reference USA’s applications.
“We’ve been able to pinpoint companies for selling to that you don’t always find driving down the road,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many of our guys drove by a place and didn’t even know a business was there. You pretty much think you’ve covered everybody and then make a list in your territory and find a couple thousand customers potentially. If you combined all of our dealerships, it could in the thousands.”
For librarians, it’s been a bit of a learning curve, but the customer service theme is starting to rub off, said Emily Campbell, one of the newer librarians in the program.
“When you’re working in a branch, people know what they’re looking for and you know what you have to offer,” said Campbell, one of three newer librarians in the program. “But with what we do, everything is a possibility and we don’t really know what we’re offering when we start the conversation because we have to hear from the customer — what they do and what they need.”
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from: Fresno Bee

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