Library Focus Group Session Raises Questions

C.H. Booth Library Director Shawn Fields held the first of three public focus group meetings, Thursday, August 15, in the meeting room of the library.

In the position of library director since July 1, Mr Fields hopes that the focus groups and comments delivered to him via social media will provide him with insight into what changes patrons would like to see, or not see, in the short term and in the long term, he said.

Looking 15 years into the future, he asked, what should [C.H. Booth Library] be doing? The responses would help him and the library board determine a vision statement leading to a three-year strategic plan, said Mr Fields, prior to the start of the 11 am meeting.

“A three-year strategic plan works toward attaining goals in that vision statement. It’s a good time to do this kind of thing, before preparing the budget for this next year,” he said, adding that he had already received a number of replies to his question online.

Nancy Carlin was one of only nine people settled into the room, a bit past 11 am, and sought information on the new library director’s background. As Mr Fields responded, he was briefly interrupted by a passerby to the room, who wanted to tell him that she thought “the library is wonderful the way it is,” and offered praise for the staff.

It was the first of several notes Mr Fields scribbled on the flip chart nearby: “Loves library.” That was quickly seconded by Suzanne Davenport, a Sandy Hook resident in attendance.

The library director moved on to a brief explanation of the importance of a strategic plan, noting that such a plan “helps everyone look in one place,” and gets everyone pulling in the same direction to attain goals.

The atmosphere took a contentious turn before long, with three participants focusing on changes within the library reference department.

“Will you be increasing the reference department?” questioned Ms Davenport, referring to what appeared to be common knowledge of potential upcoming changes to that department.

“We want to offer the best,” Mr Fields responded, market the library and its resources in a better fashion than what is done currently, “and teach people to use those tools.”

Sounding unsatisfied with that response, Ms Davenport pointed out that those statements were reasons to increase personnel in the reference department. People, more than computers, she said, are utilized in that department.

Plans are to have the reference desk staffed at all times by a qualified professional librarian, Mr Fields assured the group.

Listening politely, Mr Fields found himself targeted as Newtown resident and retired Newtown Middle School teacher Nicole Morris read aloud a letter she said she had given to The Newtown Bee for publication. (See the August 16, 2013 Letter Hive in The Newtown Bee, “Library Board Needs To Reconsider.”) She requested an explanation for the recent firing, or elimination of the position in the reference department, of longtime reference librarian Andrea Zimmermann. (For Ms Zimmermann’s description of her departure, see the Letter Hive this week, August 23, “An Abrupt Departure.”)

Ms Morris defended the former library employee, as well as reference librarian Beryl Harrison, whose duties have taken her out of that area since Mr Fields’ arrival. Suggesting the director was an upstart who would soon move on, Ms Morris said, “The choices you have already made have been very offensive. What are you doing to this library? Build on it. Do not destroy this library.”

“We have an ongoing search for the head of reference position, and have a number of great candidates already,” Mr Fields told The Bee, Monday, August 19. “Beryl is still going to be working in reference, but her new title is assistant director and head of circulation. Our goal is to have the reference desk staffed only by degreed librarians by this fall,” he said.

“This is a great library,” Mr Fields told the focus group, “but not perfect,” one reason for seeking public input. “In life, sometimes there is a decision to be made between a bad thing and another bad thing,” he said. He emphasized that he has asked the staff for their opinions and has interviewed many, with more staff interviews still to go. “I start by listening,” Mr Fields said.

For various reasons, “some I can’t get into,” Mr Fields said that there has been consideration to move the public computers now located in the third floor reference department to a central location near the circulation desk. “It’s safer for the staff and the public,” he said. As for concerns about privacy, should that move occur, Mr Fields said that the library would circulate laptop computers, enabling users to find a private space to work.

(Mr Fields later addressed concerns about finding a balance between privacy for computer users and keeping users aware that they were in a public space. He clarified on Monday, August 19, to The Bee the concerns that the public referred to at the focus group meeting. “No decisions have been made, but we are seriously examining all of our spaces. We have been looking at how reference service has changed since 1998 [the addition], and how we can provide better service,” he said. “One idea is to move reference down to the main level. In this way reference and circulation can support each other. We can also better delineate between more noisy and quiet spaces. The reference desk in this era tends to give a lot of lengthy technology lessons, which of course involve talking,” he noted.

Board of Trustees president Martha Robilotti, in an e-mail to The Newtown Bee on August 19 also said  that an examination of space use is in progress. “We have been talking about how much reference service has changed over the last decade, and are reviewing how we might be able to provide better service. The reference desk has often been covered by non-librarians, and that is something we want to change. At the moment, the reference librarian who worked part time covering some weekends and vacations has increased her hours,” Ms Robilotti said. She also noted a need to improve security within the building for both staff and visitors and emphasized that “No final decisions have been made.)

It was unclear how the public had learned of what Mr Fields believed were discussions directed to staff and board members of Friends of the C.H. Booth Library, he said.

“We have building security issues,” Mr Fields explained, in response to how the reference department space would be repurposed, if computers moved out, and added that there is a need for more community meeting places.


The Traveling Portrait

Mr Fields also was confronted with an issue from multiple people in attendance, regarding the portrait of his predecessor, Janet Woycik, being moved from a prominent second floor placement to one that is less publicly viewable, on the third floor. Resident and former library board member Kathy Geckle noted that it was a library board decision to shift the portrait.

Returning to the question of the loss of reference librarian, Ms Zimmermann, Mr Fields said, “I’m at a loss. An organization can’t discuss personnel issues. I can’t respond to it,” he said.

He went on to say that he thinks of staff as family, and strives to be fair, to compensate people fairly, to help staff provide consistent service to the public, and provide opportunities to succeed. “We need a set of rules for everyone to follow,” he said. “Sometimes you lose somebody you think is fantastic, because you’re not part of their personal plan,” Mr Fields said, reiterating that he could not respond specifically.

Ms Geckle readdressed the concern of reference computers being moved from the third to the second floor of the library, and asked that Mr Fields rethink that idea. The configuration of the reference department was suggested by input from the Connecticut State Library, Ms Geckle said.

“There’s a big concern with our library. You’re coming very close to creating a hostile environment,” she cautioned Mr Fields. “It’s not pleasant. It’s not pleasant for the staff,” she said.

While she believed the director to be well qualified for the position, she reminded him that he was coming into a town that had been injured. “You’ve got to tread lightly,” she advised. “Be very careful with what you do change. Moving reference is a mistake,” she asserted.

Ms Geckle’s opinion and concerns for privacy when using public computers was supported by comments from participant Barbara Yarborough, and Ms Davenport suggested that surveying users of the reference department computers as to how they felt about moving the equipment downstairs might be a good idea.


Can’t Wait For Comfort

Regarding staff discomfort, brought up by Ms Geckle, Mr Fields responded that people are resistant to change, and that neural activity is behind that. “Any change gives you physical discomfort… When someone is new, that’s uncomfortable. If the concept is that people are happy all the time, that is not a reasonable goal,” he said. “We make decisions based on needs of the public, and what we can afford to do.”

Mr Fields acknowledged that Newtown has gone through a tough period since 12/14. “I’m very conscious of that, and am talking to board and Friends [of the C.H. Booth Library] about things we are considering. But we can’t always wait for people to be comfortable.”

Moving himself out of the spotlight, Mr Fields asked the group to consider his initial question of where they would like to see the library in 15 years, a thought interrupted once again by comments from Ms Davenport.

“Do you truly understand what we’re going through since 12/14?” she asked. “I don’t think coming in and making a lot of changes while we are still in shambles… don’t make major changes,” Ms Davenport pleaded. “You need to work with us,” she said, and like Ms Geckle, cautioned the new director to tread lightly.

“Do not remove the staff,” Ms Morris piped in. “Whatever was in place worked beautifully. We had a team that worked well — bring [Ms Zimmermann and Ms Harrison] back [to the reference department],” she said.

Finally moving forward, nearly an hour into the meeting, Ms Yarborough answered Mr Field’s initial query, stating that she thought there should be an increase in the town’s contribution to support the library.

“I certainly will do my utmost to increase funding sources,” he assured her, “but it is also the duty of citizens to tell elected officials what is important to them.” As a new director, Mr Fields said he is seeking to have terms clarified as to what extent the town is responsible for the library building, an awkward situation that he believes will be resolved by the “intelligent” and “reasonable” people of Newtown.

“It is hard to prove tangible links to the library. It’s a hard time to be competing with others for town services,” Mr Fields reminded the group. He addressed some of the issues of funding the library and the challenges presented, before moving on to other subjects.

Ms Carlin said that she envisioned a library that was inviting to young people, and that an increase in plug-ins for technology and better lighting would be helpful for all patrons. Library curator Mary Thomas suggested that increasing the hours during which the library is open to the public might be a way to increase supporters of the library, with Ms Carlin adding that better night programs would give purpose to increasing hours the library is open.

The first focus group ended on a comparatively subdued note. Mr Fields reminded all that two more focus group sessions would take place “and then we’ll start putting together a vision plan.”

The second public focus group is scheduled for Saturday, August 24, at 10 am, in the meeting room of the C.H. Booth Library, with a third to follow at 7 pm, Tuesday, August 27. Mr Fields continues to welcome suggestions at his blog, www.theboothlibrary.wordpress.com, by calling the library at 203-426-4533, or stopping by his office during library hours.

This story was amended August 20 to include comments from C.H. Booth Library Board of Trustees president Martha Robilotti.

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