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Potter Magic: Guiding Libraries in Pandemic Times
Angela Yuriko Smith

From AngelaWhen we moved to the Kansas City area one of the first places I visited was the closest library—the North Independence Branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library system. I was so impressed I began to wheedle my way into the MCPL family, first as a customer, then a volunteer and finally as a part-time employee. 

The MCPL system consists of over 30 branches and serves over 750,000 people. That’s a lot of free, unbiased information. Many people don’t realize it, but public libraries are the last truly democratic institution in the United States. 

As the pandemic hit and good leadership became vital to counteract panic and misinformation I couldn’t help but wonder who is at the helm of this sprawling system, literally keeping the books? So I asked. Meet Steve Potter, Library Director and CEO of the Mid-Continent Public Library system and author of The Purpose Based Library.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be the director and CEO of one of the most successful library systems in the United States?

There are lots of twists and turns to my personal history. However, the short version is that while I was a senior at UMKC, I had a part-time job processing books at the library and was thinking about pursuing a Ph.D. in history. The Assistant Director at the library pulled me aside and pointed out that it might be a good idea if I diversified my skillset.

That way if I needed to take a break while working on my dissertation or something like that, I would have something marketable to fall back on. So, I enrolled at the library school at the University of Missouri, and within two weeks, I realized I was in the right place. I loved helping people find answers and helping people achieve their goals.

I think the fact that I serve as the CEO of a very successful library has much to do with the incredible people working at MCPL and the times in which we find ourselves. The past 30-40 years in public librarianship have been some of the most dynamic times in the history of the profession. I’ve appreciated having the opportunity to serve and to react to the changing needs of the public by providing resources and services that are also continually changing and improving. This gave me, and continues to give me, opportunities that my predecessors didn’t have.

You co-authored The Purpose Based Library in 2015. How do the ideas you covered then apply to libraries today, especially given the global pandemic we find ourselves in?

I think the answer to the question is found in the subtitle to The Purpose-Based Library, which is: “Finding your path to survival, success, and growth.” I had many discussions with my colleagues in March and discovered that in a matter of a few short weeks, some library budgets were being reduced by 10 percent, 20 percent, or even more. If that doesn’t put a library in “survival mode,” I’m not sure what does! Consequently, I’d say we are back to “step one” in becoming a purpose-based library.

The Purpose-Based Library was written following the “Great Recession” with the premise that to provide new services, a library needs to operate more efficiently or effectively and use those resources to start new programs. But how does one know what services to start? 

As we discuss in the book, and practice each day at MCPL, our answer is that a library must identify its community’s needs and find “library-appropriate responses” to meet those and help the community thrive. These are concepts we discussed in The Purpose-Based Library and these steps and processes will be critical in the coming months.

MCPL has won multiple awards for excellence in serving the community. What do you think a library’s role is in a community?

Libraries reflect the communities they serve. In a district as large as ours, there are diverse and sometimes conflicting community needs. Here is the key—I believe the role of any library is to determine the needs of the community (not the needs of the library). We ask the question repeatedly, “What does the community need to be successful?

Once you know what the community needs, then you ask the question, “What is the library-appropriate response to help the community meet that goal?” There isn’t one answer, because it depends on what a specific community needs.

But I think the point that people really need to understand is that a 21st century library is not a warehouse to distribute information and data. That was the role of a 20th century library. The internet and shipping costs make distribution of information fairly ubiquitous. 

So, for our library, our public has been clear that they would like us to foster collaboration, to help build community, and to advance the needs of the public by supporting efforts around school readiness, small business development, and creating a “third space.”

MCPL promotes early and teen literacy with a variety of programs. How important is literacy to a society?

Supporting literacy is a very traditional library role. Every type of literacy is built on the foundation of traditional literacy. As we know, until third grade, children are learning to read. After third grade, children are reading to learn. If children do not have a strong foundation in reading skills and comprehension, they will constantly struggle to stay caught up. It’s like trying to swim against the current. Is this a personal issue or an issue with which the whole community needs to concern itself? It is the latter.

Oftentimes, people who have challenges with other forms of literacy later in life (financial, health, information, computer, etc.) never established a strong foundation in traditional literacy. A building is only as strong as its footings and foundation, and without a strong foundation in traditional literacy, it’s much more challenging to master other forms of literacy and learning. That’s why we invest so much in these efforts.

Some might ask, isn’t this the role of public education? Perhaps, but I believe that the library’s role is to support its community needs, and basic literacy skills are just too important and too big a part of a community’s future success to be left to one institution alone. The library has always helped fill the gaps—whether it is helping a child “catch up” on their studies over the summer or helping children gain skills to successfully enter school, this is the role of the public library.

The library caters to as many genres as possible. What need do you think speculative fiction (horror, science fiction and fantasy) fills for fans of this genre?

This is a difficult question for me because I generally don’t read fiction. I tend to enjoy my speculative fiction in visual formats. But I think the importance of these genres are to allow us to think creatively and to really ponder beyond our personal limitations or beyond what we personally know. Opinions and perceptions are often influenced considerably by what we know. 

As today’s many philosophers like to say, “It is what it is.” Well, what if it isn’t? Speculative fiction allows us to consider the same human problems and conditions but within a different environment or a different set of parameters. This approach matters because we can see beyond our own limitations to rethink conventional wisdom and cultural norms. Sometimes we need to stand on tradition. But sometimes tradition needs to step aside, and speculative fiction can help readers visualize that.

How do you see the role of MCPL and libraries, in general, evolving after the current crisis?

This is a very hard question. In my 30 years as a library professional, I’ve never seen or studied a library response in an economic downturn caused by a health crisis where NOT gathering in places like a library is the prescription. The business of public libraries tends to be counter-cyclical. This means that when the economy turns down, people discover that they have less disposable income and rediscover the value of the public library. This is what has happened time after time. Again, what happens when the economy turns, and the response is NOT to share resources because it could spread illness?

We have been sending questionnaires to our customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are discovering a lot. For instance, 26 percent of library users say their awareness of library services has increased during the pandemic. Nearly 22 percent of customers say they want to attend virtual library programs (although only 2 percent have done so). With the hard pivot to digital services, 73 percent are satisfied or very satisfied with the resources and services offered by our library. I think all of these suggest that the library can and does provide necessary and needed services even when we can’t open the doors.

Another finding from our survey is that 40 percent of users (the highest response for this question) say the greatest thing that they need from libraries is opportunities for social interaction. I appreciate this last response because it suggests that, even in a time of pandemic, our decision to create attractive spaces that serve as a “third space” was the right strategic priority. Clearly, our spaces are sorely missed and will be used once we are able to open our physical locations safely.

One thing I’ve said to many people is that, following the pandemic, I’m wondering if those library customers who said they “love to smell and touch books” will be as anxious to do so knowing the risk. We will see. The main takeaway is that our habits have been broken. People have tried new things. We have to determine if there is an opportunity to keep providing those new services now that people have tried them and maybe even like them.

THE PRIVATE POTTER

If you could be any speculative fiction character, who would it be and why?

One of my favorite hats has, “never tell me the odds” embroidered on it, so…

What is the scariest story/book you’ve ever read and what elements were the most frightening?

When I was young, I went through a phase where I was reading Poe. I know I lost more than a few nights of sleep between the “Tell Tale Heart” and the “Cask of Amontillado.” Both instilled a lingering case of taphophobia to this day.

What kind of reader were you as a child? How have your reading tastes evolved as an adult?

Interestingly, I don’t think my tastes have evolved much. As I’m composing this, I’m sitting near one of my five bookcases. In one case are some of the books I’ve had for as long as I can remember, including my eight-volume set on the U.S. presidents. Then as now, I read a lot of history and biographies when I have time to read for fun. Truthfully, most of what I read now is work-related.

What book do you read repeatedly as a favorite and how many times have you read it? Why is it your favorite?

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Of course, I read it while I was in school, but I’ve re-read it several times over the years. If I were to guess, I think I may have read it 10 or 12 times. It has a great opening line (“Marley was dead, to begin with.”). It has contemplation, speculation, and ultimately redemption. It is a great story about the human condition, and as I grow older and have more things in my past that I wish were different, it appeals to me in different ways each time I read it.

Copyright © 2020 by Angela Yuriko Smith