Northbrook Public Library Connects With Customers

NPL-7In my conversation with Kate Hall, I was struck by how in-tune with the community she was, and how easy it appeared to be for the staff at Northbrook Public Library to connect with their patrons. There seemed to be something special going on that was embedded into the culture of the library. Our conversation was free-flowing, and Kate was gracious enough to expand beyond our original discussion about the library’s Light it Up Blue Autism Awareness campaign and talk about her library’s community engagement strategies.

Community engagement and understanding needs is a much talked-about topic with librarians. Here we continue the interview with Kate who shares her perspectives, expectations and the rewards of Northbrook Public Library’s efforts.

Please share a bit more about the ways in which you engage your community?

We are very fortunate that we have about an 80% cardholder rate in our community of 33,000 — if we want to be technical, 33,170 as of the last census — and it is an affluent community. They value the library. A perfect example of that is the finals study café we have for teens in mid January. We provide food and sustenance so they don’t faint in the library from studying too hard. For three days, we are overrun with teens — and I mean that in an awesome way. Over three days, 859 teens enjoyed snacks and pizza as they studied throughout the building.

Even though we are well supported and we do have a lot of people using us, we are constantly looking for ways that we can be a better resource for the community. As I remind myself all the time, the only reason we’re here is because of them. Our job is to find out what they want and then to give it to them. That’s why they are giving us this money. They’re not giving us this money so that we say, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun …?’ Certainly, a lot of the ideas staff has are fun AND something that the community really loves, including the Light It Up Blue campaign.

To me, it’s a constant solicitation from the community of ‘What would you like your library experience to be?’ I hear from people all the time. We do program surveys. I go out in the community. Staff go out in the community. We’re constantly looking and seeing, ‘What can we do for you?’ We are the Northbrook Public Library, we are here to serve the community.

While we are well used (2,000 visitors a day), that doesn’t mean we are sitting back and resting on our laurels. People are changing. We know that the demographics in our community are changing. We have more and more seniors. So we are constantly looking at what kind of programs do they want. Are we hitting all of the teens? Are we supporting our local businesses? It’s a constant state of evaluation and looking to add things that people are interested in.

How do you gather your information about your community?

Our board is looking at doing our next strategic plan, which will involve a community assessment so that will be a more formalized process. We have comment boxes in every single department in our library for ongoing feedback.

For every program that we do, we have a program survey and we ask them to fill out for other ideas or other types of programs they would like to see us offer. We also have a print newsletter that goes out every other month. One of the things on that is always ‘If you have any feedback or questions for us, email or call us.’ Twice a month we send an eNewsletter.

At the numerous community events we attend, we write up, compile and review any feedback we receive.

Other people just contact me and other staff. Today, I was picking up a book on hold and someone stopped me to say they loved what was happening in the children’s department. So, I get that kind of feedback as well, which I keep a log of to keep track of comments. Some of it is acted on immediately and some of it is ‘Oh, this would be great for some day.’

Your community seems very comfortable coming to you and your staff with forward ideas. What is your secret to building up this rapport?

We hear from a lot of people and I love it. They’re making my job easier by telling us what they want. This is great! I’m a strong believer in getting out there.  Don’t sit at your desk all day.  Get involved.  Be a part of the community. And this applies to not only me, but members of my staff from all departments. We go to the train station once a month;  we do the parades;  we take part in every community event that we can.

If I see someone regularly at the library, I’ll ask them, ‘How are we doing?’ I think people love to be recognized. When you solicit their opinion, you’re telling them, ‘What you have to say matters to me.’

I think people assume that everyone will come to them and give them ideas. It’s up to us to go out and say, ‘Hey, do you have an idea? Let us know.’ How else am I going to know if I don’t ask? Who doesn’t love being asked their opinion?!

You talked about needing to be involved in the community, but what I am hearing is that your staff is very comfortable doing that as well. Tell us more about that.

I expect every department to participate in outreach events. People say, ‘What about tech services? They’re behind the scenes.’ I say, ‘Yes, AND? Are they or are they not library staff?’ To me, we are not just this building. It is our duty to go out and talk to people so we have every department participate.

It’s fun to go out and it helps that the community loves us. What happens when you go out, people are like, ‘Oh my gosh! I love you guys. I love the library. I love the library!’ For those of us who don’t do programs or are working in administration, we don’t often get that tangible response the way that some of the other staff do. So, I think it is even more important for those people to go out there and hear that what they are doing is making an impact.

What advice do you have for other libraries about community engagement?

I know people are going to read this and say, ‘Yes, they can do all that because they have tons of money.’ I say this having worked with small budgets and large communities, what it comes down to is listening to the community. We listen and then we respond based on what the community wants.

They’re not saying, ‘We don’t know what we want.’ They’re saying, ‘This is what we want,’ and we say, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to give you’ and then when we do that, they say, ‘Oooo, we love you.’

It’s really about listening and then responding, and not assuming you know better than your community.


Angie Schoeneck

Angie Schoeneck

Growth Strategy Manager at Demco, Inc.
Angie is the Growth Strategy Manager at Demco. She focuses on the evolving needs and trends in education and library environments, their patrons and communities, and translating these into relevant products and services. She has an extensive background in new product development, product management and business process improvement.