What’s Darien Library’s Secret?

September 30, 2013

On Friday I attended the Programming Unconference Northeast at Darien Library and had a fantastic time: I reunited with Connecticut YA folks I hadn’t seen in a while, made some new YA friends (including a bunch from NYPL whom I hadn’t met yet!), got a couple good programming ideas, and was energized by conversations with other people who want to do good work.

darien library logoBut that day also provided me the opportunity to talk to a couple of Darien librarians to find out what their secret is.

I’d known about Darien Library even as a library student in Indiana. I assumed at the time that their greatness was a product of the wealth in the community, but after moving to Fairfield County and seeing other libraries with just as much money who weren’t nationally known, I realized that money isn’t enough to make a library successful. (It may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient.) So what’s Darien Library’s secret?

The librarians with whom I spoke identified a couple factors they thought were at play:

The support of the community. I think this is sort of a positive feedback loop more than a cause: the better the library does at serving its patrons well, the more the community will value the library, and the more the community values the library, the more they support it and use it and propel it to new heights. In fact, I think this is more of a characteristic of a successful library rather than a cause of its success.

A great director. This is definitely a key element. Especially in a smaller library, the director really sets the tone for the whole organization. The librarians with whom I spoke said that their director, Louise Berry, was driven, supportive, inspiring, and smart. Her being those things — and being a talented enough manager to make sure her ethos radiates out through the organization — is the first key step to what sets the library apart.

Assembling the right staff. This makes the next two factors possible. Staff are expected to put patrons first and to innovate, and when Darien Library is filling a position, they’re looking for someone who’s going to work hard and break new ground. They’re also looking for someone who’s going to be a supportive team member — having the right people is essential to the director’s vision and values being propagated through the staff and to their organizational culture continuing.

Commitment to patrons. They express this as “extreme customer service,” but I really hate the phrase “customer service” and I really hate calling patrons “customers” (if you don’t like “patrons,” at least go with “users” or even “clients”), so I’m thinking of this as being wholly patron-focused. They said that they try really hard to never say “no.” It might be “Yes, but it’ll take a while,” or “Yes, but it costs money,” but the answer as far as possible is “yes.” They’ll even deliver books to patrons’ houses for them! In some ways, I think this is the most fundamental piece to a successful library: you have to be doing what you do for your patrons, which means having what’s best for them in mind when you design policies and looking to their interest and talents when you’re planning programs and services. We only continue to exist because of the continued support (in tax dollars, votes, and general community goodwill) of our users, so we’d better be focused on them. Darien just takes this as far as possible.

A focus on innovation and supportive teams. One of the librarians told me that there’s a real effort to figure out what trends are around the corner so that when they’re the next big thing, Darien Library is already right in the middle of it as an expert. They talk not about what’s happening, but about what’s going to happen. And when someone says, “I want to do this” (like planning the unconference!), their manager helps them figure out how to make it happen. When someone says, “I’m not sure how to do this,” their manager helps them think through the idea and make it successful. The librarians also reported that “everyone wants you to succeed” and that people will pitch in to help, even if it’s not technically within their scope. This kind of repeated leaping off the innovation cliff sounds kind of scary but mostly incredibly thrilling.

So sure, having a big enough budget to hire enough staff, buy new materials, try new technology, and do things like start a county-wide Minecraft server is necessary (and having a good PR department helps, too!) — but there’s more to being an innovative, nationally-known library than that. I’m really intrigued by Darien’s model, and I hope I can foster a similar culture at least within my team at my own library.

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