Bill Young, with the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, recently talked to the Miami (OK) Public Library director, Marcia Johnson, to find out about her experiences as a pilot library for the Edge Initiative .
The City of Miami has always been a special place. Five Indian tribal headquarters call the city home, and two other tribes govern from nearby towns in the same county of Ottawa. No other American county has been home to more tribes. Located in the northeast corner of the state, Miami was the first “big town” Route 66 travelers encountered in the Sooner State while driving westward. Those travelers couldn’t have missed the beautiful Coleman Theater, known today as the Grande Dame of restored historic movie houses in the state. Miami was also the home of the late Charles Banks Wilson, a beloved Oklahoma artist whose paintings grace the state capitol building. And just up the road from Miami is the community of Commerce, a place baseball fans know as the hometown of an American icon named Mickey Mantle.
Miami Public Library is also a special place. Per capita visits to the library beat the state average, the library has almost as many registered borrowers (13,127) as the city’s population (13,577), and it hosted more than 25,000 public Internet sessions in FY2012. When the Oklahoma Department of Libraries was tasked with finding libraries to pilot test the Edge Benchmarks, Miami’s library was a good choice.
Bill Young: Marcia, when did the library bug bite you? Tell us a bit about your journey to becoming director of the Miami Public Library.
Marcia Johnson: I had never used a public library until my family moved to Miami when I was starting seventh grade. I fell in love with it, but never thought of working here. I started my career as an elementary school teacher, and I had such a huge personal supply of children’s books in my classroom that my peers would comment that I should have been a librarian. I had just finished my Master’s in Education when the school library position opened up. I was so intrigued with the idea that I applied for the position and then continued my schooling to be certified as a school library media specialist. When the position for a public library director opened up at Miami, I applied mostly as a lark. I didn’t think they would even consider me because I didn’t have an MLS. I was greatly surprised when they offered me the position with the understanding that I would complete my education. I have loved (almost) every minute of it. It’s like coming to work at my favorite place!
BY: ODL Director Susan McVey invited you to be one of eight Edge pilot libraries in the nation. Did you have any qualms about Miami being one of the guinea pigs?
MJ: I was thrilled to participate! Benchmarking is a great measurement tool and a way to learn best practices. We are so fortunate that Oklahoma was chosen as one of the pilot states, which I think speaks very highly of Susan McVey and the ODL staff. One of the great things about serving as a pilot is that there is lots of room for error! Since it hadn’t been done before, we could help make adjustments to the whole process as it developed. And we’ve definitely seen the results of our input in the final Version 1.0 of Edge. What a great opportunity to add to the profession as a whole! I also hope our participation will show other smaller libraries what is possible.
BY: The Edge Initiative is all about libraries meeting the information and public access technology needs of communities. That means working with community leaders, customers, and staff. Tell us how you involved, and plan to involve, your external and internal audiences?
MJ: Library staff members were all given copies of the benchmarks from the beginning and we discussed them at several staff meetings. I had some help in the actual assessment, although if I had it to do over I would have solicited more staff input in filling it out. I relied mostly on our in-house technology manager to answer technical questions and I completed the rest. However, when we received out results, I gave copies to the entire staff and asked them all to work in small groups to come up with ideas for how we could strengthen the areas we were weak in. We have used those ideas in our tech plan, our city departmental goals, and in our long range plan. I have also made many presentations about the results to the library board, the Friends group, the city council, and most recently to a community focus group that participated in our long range plan.
BY: While you were completing the Edge Assessment, were there any things that surprised you, or any eureka moments concerning your library's services?
MJ: One thing that pleasantly surprised me and the rest of the library staff was how much we were already doing. It really boosted their morale. And we compared well overall with the peer group, which was very encouraging. I think one of the biggest things that jumped out at us was how much more technology training we need. And that has been one of our big changes since Edge—upping the number of technology-related classes, webinars, etc. that we participate in.
BY: Another tool of the Edge Initiative is the action plan. What's the action plan for Miami Public Library?
MJ: Our main areas of focus include digital literacy and library staff technology expertise. We are offering approximately 25 classes annually to patrons, but something we’ve added since our Edge experience is one-on-one help in basic computing. We’ve always done this on demand, briefly, as we can. Now a person can sign up for a 30-minute session with one of the staff. This has worked much better than I thought because it can be scheduled for a time when we have enough staff to cover other areas, and people are more likely to show up when they have scheduled the class themselves. It also eliminates the problem of having varying degrees of skill among class attendees.
Before Edge, library staff members were required to attend two technology-related training events (workshops, conferences, webinars, etc.) per year. Now they are required to attend at least six with a total of at least twelve hours. And they want to do this. They realize the value in being well informed because they’ve all been asked by customers to help with technology. We are also looking at how we can assess our technology skills to see which areas need strengthening. This is a work in progress.
A third area was using a community focus group in our strategic planning. We held that meeting in May and it was so informative that we plan to repeat it in the future. From that meeting we were able to create our long range plan. A major part of that plan relates to facilitating digital inclusion, which ties into our experience in evaluating our Edge assessment results.
BY: How do you view the public library's place in Miami, and is that view changing due to your participation in Edge?
MJ: I believe the library has always had an important place in the community, and that the community has always been supportive of the library. Due to our participation in Edge, we are focusing even more on partnerships. The benchmarks speak to that, and that was something the community focus group emphasized as well. We have included some potential partnership ideas in our long range plan. I think this will give us an even stronger community presence.
BY: Since you were among the first libraries to pilot Edge, you've become a spokesperson for the initiative, speaking and joining panels at national conferences. How are other libraries and communities around the country reacting to your Edge experience?
MJ: I think overall people are very interested. Most of them are particularly interested in the process itself. How long does it take? What’s involved in doing the assessment? I expect a different focus in September when I attend the ICMA (International City and County Management Association) conference. I think city managers will be most interested in the information that can be gleaned from the assessment. Our city manager is very impressed with the idea of benchmarking, and I think that other city managers will feel the same way.
BY: Marcia, thank you so much for taking some time to talk to us!
MJ: You’re welcome, Bill.