Creating a world-class library

Camas Public Library director talks about challenges, vision for the future

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In June 2016, Connie Urquhart was one of four candidates vying for the Camas Public Library director position.

The job hadn’t had a permanent successor in place since the departure of the longtime director in October 2015. The city’s intensive recruitment efforts took place over the course of several months.

As part of the last chapter of that process, the finalists were taken on a tour of municipal facilities, as well as the city’s unique features including its parks and Lacamas Lake.

“In my head, I was thinking, ‘don’t fall in love with this place, Connie,'” Urquhart recalled during the City Council’s two-day planning conference held at the end of January. “You don’t have the job yet.

“I didn’t know yet what secrets lurked inside of this big, beautiful building, but I fell in love and I got the job.”

It’s been more than six months now, since Urquhart landed the position. It includes a variety of responsibilities such as overseeing the library’s programs, activities and operations; administering its policies and procedures; developing its $1.4 million annual budget; and leading approximately 16 employees.

She has now had an opportunity to uncover some of those “secrets.” And while they include some incredible assets, there are also some challenges Urquhart is planning on tackling as she works toward creating what she describes as a “world-class library.”

Urquhart, who previously worked for 14 years in the Fresno County Public Library system in California, revealed her observations and vision for the library to the City Council on Jan. 27.

On her list of the library’s strengths is the customer service provided by a dedicated, experienced staff. There is also a strong support network that includes the Board of Trustees, and non-profit groups including the Friends and Foundation of the Camas Library, and the Second Story Gallery Society.

“You put this all together, and it lays this tremendous groundwork for us to provide service for the community,” she said.

The library currently has 17,000 cardholders. Of those, 10,000 are identified as active library users.

The facility’s many programs and events are extremely popular with the community it serves. On an annual basis, approximately 20,000 kids participate in the library’s youth programs, and an additional 6,000 individuals take advantage of activities provided for adults.

“It’s really amazing to see,” Urquhart said. “I am coming from a place where we have 37 branches. We try to do something occasionally to provide service. Here, we are doing something every day, multiple times a day, from story times for all ages – hitting every stage of literacy development – to annual events that are so popular like the summer reading program and the sleepover, to providing programs that are volunteer led.”

Urquhart has also identified areas at the library that should be improved. One of the most obvious she observed was staff morale.

“We were going through a time of uncertainty,” she said of the transition period before a new director was hired. “There were people who had been there so long, and they were very un-used to change. And then they had turnover with the director, then there was an interim director, who they expected to change.”

Among Urquhart’s first actions as library director was bringing together a four-person staff engagement team that works to unify employees and boost job satisfaction.

“When staff are happy, engaged and feel respected, and take pride in their work, they will treat their patrons with kindness [and] positivity,” Urquhart said. They will go that extra mile.”

Partnerships and shared services

Among Urquhart’s primary charges has also been to address the Camas library’s partnership with the Fort Vancouver Regional Library. Currently, through a shared services agreement, Camas patrons have access to FVRL library catalog software and computer reservations systems, and reciprocal borrowing privileges.

“All of these benefits Fort Vancouver pays for, and Camas pays nothing,” Urquhart said. “It’s been a pretty sweet deal all of these years. But it’s not really a deal, per se, because there is currently no contract in place.”

Negotiations with FVRL are underway.

“This is not an atypical partnership,” Urquhart explained. “Many libraries are part of some sort of consortium. They pay their share, based usually on the population of their city. [The Camas-FVRL arrangement] is a little atypical, [because] there’s only two of us in this group – it’s usually more than two – and the fact that it’s set up to have an imbalance of power.”

As part of the evolving negotiation process, she has requested that through the end of 2017 a contract be put into place so that Camas pays FVRL to continue to use the catalog system, and deliveries between branches can continue.

According to Urquhart, the Camas library could survive and even thrive without its connection to FVRL.

“The majority of our patrons come into the Camas library and take a book off of the shelves,” she said. “Even though they have the opportunity (for inter-library loan and delivery), they don’t often use it. If we end up splitting with [FVRL], I think we’ll be OK.”

She admitted, however, that the Camas library branching out completely on its own would be a massive endeavor.

“Us buying a catalog system, it won’t be as expensive as Fort Vancouver’s because it’s always priced based on the size of the community,” Urquhart said. “But it will be a major undertaking, because a migration like that will probably take the better part of one to two years.”

An in-house catalog system would allow the city to provide better service, and have more control over that service and the information that is available through it.

Urquhart is also proposing a change to the staffing structure, to better address library and patron needs.

“We needed to focus our efforts,” she said. “Instead of everybody doing a little bit of everything, we needed people to have expertise, focused work. It was clear we needed an organizational restructure.”

That includes eliminating the assistant director position that has been vacant since May 2016, and adding a collections and technology manager job. The person hired for the new position would serve as a liaison between Camas and FVRL, and be an expert in materials and the library’s collections and systems.

Other items on Urquhart’s agenda include incrementally replacing portions of the library’s collection that are outdated; improving wireless access for patrons; expanding the library’s reach outside of its Fourth Avenue building; modernizing the library’s logo, tagline, and website and crafting a new mission statement.

“We are kind of having an identity crisis, and I think some good marketing will help with that,” she said.

Later during the planning conference, each city department leader outlined the financial challenges they face as they plan for the future.

Urquhart indicated that obtaining funding from a variety of sources – from fundraising to budget allocations — will be a key component to Camas library’s development in the coming years.

“In so many ways, Camas is a world-class city, and it’s what we should strive for,” she said. “The library is not a world-class library, but I want to make it one. I’m going to hustle like you haven’t seen before to work with companies and individuals to get some money outside of the city.

“But there are going to be times where I think it makes more sense to come to council and ask for it to be in the budget – in the next five to 10 years – because we need it for sustainability long-term,” Urquhart continued. “….We want the library to be on-par with everything else in the city.”