Northbrook Public Library Secures IL 2015 Library of the Year With Light It Up Blue

Demco’s Angie Schoeneck (left) presenting Northbrook Public Library’s Kate Hall, Executive Director (center), and Andy Kim, Assistant Director (right), with the 2015 Illinois Library Association Demco Library Innovative Award.

Thinking of the American Library Association’s Libraries Transform™  campaign, I have become even more enthralled with stories about the phenomenal changes that libraries are spearheading. For me, the Northbrook Public Library personifies the ALA’s campaign.

I first learned of their transformative actions when I presented Kate Hall, Executive Director at Northbrook Public Library, the 2015 Illinois Library Association Demco Library Innovative Award. This award “recognizes a library’s achievement in planning and implementing an innovative or creative program or service, which has had measurable impact on its users.”

Kate and her team were recognized for their Light It Up Blue efforts on World Autism Day 2015. Last year, Northbrook Public Library’s exterior was lit up in blue lights, making a highly visible statement about autism awareness — a disorder that affects every 1 in 68 children in the U.S. In previous years, staff attached blue lights to the service desks.

I recently talked with Kate to hear what is planned for World Autism Day this year, and I received the bonus of learning how her team masterfully listens and responds to what their community needs. (I’ll cover that part of our interview in another blog post.)

Read Part 1 of our conversation …

Describe how Northbrook Public Library came to have a connection with autism.

Northbrook Public Library has a permanent autism collection courtesy of a community partnership with the North Suburban Special Education District (NSSED).

The beginnings of this idea started 10–20 years ago. At that time, the North Suburban Special Education District (NSSED) was getting rid of its physical library and putting it at area public libraries to improve access. Northbrook was the recipient of the autism collection, and to this day has a very close relationship with NSSED. They do field trips with the kids here at the library, and host programs, one of which is a monthly sensory-based art program. They also have a group that comes once a week for their library visit.

One of our staff member’s son has autism, and we have a number of volunteers who have autism. In general the awareness level was higher within the library, which made this more of a natural fit. But the thing is, you don’t have to have all of that to make this type of program work. Certainly, there are so many things that deserve our attention. The key thing is that it needs to be something that you are passionate about because that passion is conveyed. As we shared information about autism, you could see people start to get on board and get excited about showing more support for the people impacted by autism.

How did Northbrook Library come up with the Light It Up Blue campaign?

A year ago, my Youth Services Manager came and said, “I’d love to do something about autism awareness library wide.” To me, it made perfect sense. One in 68 people are affected by autism and people don’t realize the wide range of it. They call it the autism spectrum for a reason. I personally have worked with people who have Asperger’s who are very high functioning and extremely intelligent, all the way down to kids who were nonverbal. It impacts us. There is also a common misconception that suddenly there are more people than ever who have it. However, it isn’t that there are more people, it’s that they’re better able to define it. Back in the early 20th century, we didn’t have names for it. In the last 15 years, we’ve worked hard to define what it means to have autism and what impact it has and provide those people better support and services.

We as a library are in the business of connecting people with information, and each other, and we felt this was important because it does impact a much greater number than people realize. Plus, people who are on the spectrum once they grow out of the youth services department are not going to suddenly stop needing the library.

We talked about the idea with the rest of the managers. The goal of lighting the outside of the building blue was really twofold: One, to shine a light on autism within the community and make people who are not impacted be a little bit more aware of it. Two, to show people with autism and their families that the library welcomes them.

Inside the library we created book displays, did selfies, and we had resource lists. We also had blue lights on all the service desks, and did special programming. And, it was really, really powerful. We heard from a lot of patrons who said, ‘I didn’t realize the statistics about the number of kids and adults who have autism.’ We also heard from people whose families are impacted by autism or they themselves have autism. It was great. Our mission was accomplished.

This will be Northbrook Public Library’s third year participating in Light It Up Blue. What is on the docket for this year for World Autism Day on April 2?

We know we have to keep going. This year, we tossed it out into the community and other governmental agencies — schools, parks district, the village. We said, ‘We lit it up blue for autism to show our support and now we are challenging you to do the same.’ So far, the village has said, ‘Yes, we’re going to do it as well.’ Other organizations may start small where they have the outside of their building blue or have something blue inside or have a banner. Our goal is that over time, we develop this to where businesses and homeowners and everyone in the community is lighting it up blue to show awareness of autism and the impact it has on people’s lives and to be more accepting.

The library will do what we did last year and prominently light up the building, as well as internal things with book displays and resource lists. Some of our displays will just be books with blue covers. All of which show that we are continuing to support autism awareness and our community.

What have been some of the lasting changes that have happened as a result of this campaign?

These things are hard to measure in concrete numbers, but there are a couple of anecdotes I’d like to share to illustrate how things have changed.

1) I was walking by a public service desk and I heard a patron saying, ‘They’re being loud and disruptive,’ to one of the staff at the desk. Normally, people get loud in libraries despite what everybody thinks, but the staff person looked where the patron was pointing and said, ‘Oh, that actually is a regular patron. You may not be aware of this, but they have autism. They have a verbal tic and so sometimes they don’t realize what they’re saying. I would be happy to go and speak with him, but just so you are aware, that is what is going on.’ To me, this indicated everything that I had hoped would happen. We’re making people feel welcome and working to educate members of the community, thereby trying to improve tolerance and understanding.

Example of library signage modified to be
more clear for patrons.

2) We just finished a huge renovation of all of our meeting rooms. We had a sign on the floor by our checkout desk that said, ‘Line Starts Here.’ It was a basic sign with a line on it, and that was where people lined up.

I had a patron come up to me and say, ‘This isn’t working for us. My son has autism and the Line Starts Here sign doesn’t tell him what to do so he’ll sometimes cut and not realize he’s being rude. I want to make sure this isn’t happening. Is there anything you can do to help?’

I took it to the circulation team and asked for suggestions. One of the staff suggested that we get a new sign that said, ‘Please wait here until you are called forward.’ When we notified the mom that we had a new solution, she said, ‘Oh, this is perfect! This is exactly what I need because it is very clear. It’s tells him exactly what he needs to do.’

Making this minor change made it much, much clearer. Interestingly enough, I heard from several other people, and those who may have developmental delays, who said that the sign is so nice and clear that now they can come in and be more autonomous. In the past, we may have said, ‘We’re very sorry, but this is the sign. That’s what it is.’ Patron empathy and the desire to improve the user experience is at the forefront of the staff’s decision-making and actions.

Northbrook Public Library’s support of World Autism Day was driven by the staff and their connections with patrons and the community. Stay tuned for Part 2 of their story focusing on engaging with and listening to their patron customers.


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.