What’s been your biggest accomplishment as chief for the past five years?
Collaborating more with other community groups and establishing partnerships—we’ve really taken it to a new level. I’ve worked closely with United Way, Boys & Girls Clubs, the school district and the City of Las Vegas. We’ve brought the district a higher profile. The other is steering the district through the shoals during the Great Recession—we had to cut back, lay some people off and yet we were able to maintain seven-day-a-week service, which is essential in a 24/7 three-shift economy.
Any regret over the five years?
The whole issue of raising the fees on meeting room and theater rentals. They hadn’t been raised in 19 years. … We were trying to get a level of cost recovery; we were only making 20 cents on every dollar that it cost us to provide those services. The board decided to go for 100 percent cost recovery, which made the fees go quite high. Even though we had a public process, it was way after we established those fees that a new group appeared, which was very active and very good in their use of social media. Ultimately we worked out a compromise. In hindsight, I probably should have helped the board see that maybe we needed to come to a compromise sooner than we did.
We’ve professionalized the whole management of our theaters and performing arts spaces. We have far more than any other library in the country. It finally occurred to us instead of librarians trying to do this, how about hiring somebody who has a theater management background who can do analysis and really look at what’s the best use of these venues? Just the lamp in the projector at the Windmill auditorium costs $10,000. There’s a big investment there, and we’ve been pretty much giving it away. We looked around and saw what other people were charging, and we were the lowest. And even with the increase, we were still the lowest. The city’s going through this now with their ball fields and getting the same kind of pushback. It’s tough finding that balance.
Must you still defend the library’s very existence in the digital age?
We all use Google searches, and you get millions of responses. The librarian can help guide people to exactly what they’re looking for with stupendous online databases. It always has to be one-on-one—you can talk about it, but until a librarian sits down with somebody and shows what we can do, the penny doesn’t quite drop. I think libraries have to continue to evolve to be comfortable spaces with the kinds of services, collections and amenities that people are looking for.
What are they looking for?
A theme in public librarianship right now is we’re moving from transactions to transformations. Every hourly job in this country requires an online application. The very people who don’t have a job and probably cannot afford broadband at home anymore are the very ones who are stuck. So we’ve set up [computers] for people preparing résumés, looking for and applying for jobs, taking classes. … We’re a lot more than just the circulation of materials. We’ve got the physical DVDs and CDs you can check out, as well as great programs for streaming. On Freegle, you can download six tunes a week and keep them—they don’t expire. Through Hoopla, you can download videos—those do expire. We’ve got e-books and audio books. … We’re probably going to use the Mesquite Library as our laboratory to experiment with checking out laptops or tablets. It’s a big thing to roll out a new service at 25 locations, instead of prototyping it, seeing what works and what doesn’t work, and then roll it out bit by bit in other locations.
How do you get outside the bubble to see how your work affects end-users?
At the Windmill Library every day I get to see the kids and moms and the dads who are at the library for story time or people getting help. I peek into the computer room, and my favorite day is Monday when both the Mormon missionaries and Buddhist monks are in there using the computers. It just epitomizes the diversity of our community. … I’ve gotten to give out certificates for our English as Second Language learners and workforce-preparation students—it’s a tremendous joy. We really do touch people with our services and make a difference in their lives.
Why can’t I check out a popular book on the day of publication on my e-reader?
The big publishers are making e-books more available to libraries, but the issue is still in flux. … Publishers are worried that the same thing will happen to them that happened to the music industry. They have the rights; they don’t have to sell them to us; and it is very frustrating. And it’s different for every publisher. Publisher A may not sell it to me at all. Publisher B may sell it to me, but only after it’s been out six or eight months. Publisher C may sell it to me after six months, but even though I’ve purchased it at a very hefty fee—much more than a hardcover—I can only have it for 26 circulations and then it disappears, and I have to buy it again. … Libraries are oftentimes the places of discovery: I might check out a cookbook or a management book and decide, yeah, I want to own this.
You visited the White House in May to accept the 2014 National Medal for Museum and Library Service on behalf of the district. What was that like?
It was a joy to go with [community member] Avree Walker, who’s been very active in West Las Vegas and the performing and visual arts camp [sponsored by] the library and the city’s community center. We got to meet Mrs. Obama, and it was a thrill getting that kind of recognition for the district, because people don’t put reading and Las Vegas together. For the top 15 libraries in the country in terms of population served, we’re first in circulation per capita, first in circulation per registered borrower and first in materials expenditure per registered borrower. … My goal was always to have more kids in summer reading programs than there were strippers in Las Vegas. It comes and goes, depending on which convention is in town.
How did you decide what to cut and what to retain during the Great Recession?
We had to be realistic about whom we’re serving. We had the highest foreclosure rate in the country, the highest unemployment rate, the highest personal bankruptcy rate, the lowest high school graduation rate and a very diverse population. We had to use that as a guide for our collections and our programming. We cut back on memberships, conference attendance and security contracts. We went from 72 to 60 hours of service a week. We went to floating collections: If you check a book out at Rainbow but returned it at Windmill, it stays at Windmill. That’s much better than moving stuff around the system all the time, and it gives you a good sense of what people are asking for. Not mailing Library District Highlights or overdue notices or bills [saved money]. We had voluntary buyout for those close to retirement, and through attrition, layoffs and Voluntary Early Separation Plans, we eliminated 93 positions. We’d had gone years with openings in the business office, HR, IT, general services, all the support functions.
What’s the status of the former Lied Discovery Children’s Museum space in the Downtown library?
We’re working with the City of Las Vegas to put together a memorandum of understanding. They own the land the building is on, and they can say yay and nay to whatever tenant goes in there. The Natural History Museum has been interested in the whole building, and the library district has been interested in a piece of land the city has in East Las Vegas that would be a perfect place for a branch in a more residential area. We’re getting appraisals of both the land and the building.
How are libraries serving those who miss browsing brick-and-mortar bookstores?
We’re doing a lot more merchandising. Less is more. We encourage staff to weed, which means remove materials or cut duplicate materials out. We need more space in the stacks for face-out displays not just as you come into the building but as you’re going down the row. It’s silly, but it’s effective—colors. Here are all blue books; here are all green books. It’s that serendipity. If I see this display and I’m intrigued by it or think it’s kind of clever, I might pick up something. … Innovation is the name of the game. So trying to provide the kinds of seating and the kinds of work surfaces people enjoy in other realms is something we’re taking a look at.
Any last book to recommend?
Rock Breaks Scissors: A Practical Guide to Outguessing and Outwitting Almost Everybody (Little, Brown and Company) by William Poundstone. We think things are random, but they’re not. Forensic accountants or the IRS, they can tell if people are cheating on their taxes by exaggerating their expenses, because people have a tendency to choose numbers that begin with lower digits rather than higher digits. If they see patterns like that, they’ll look into it further.