The year 2020 got off to a pretty good start for the Sonoma County Library. We were halfway through a fiscal year, with the biggest budget ever. We were celebrating the success of a winter author series that drew 300-400 people a night to our libraries, our sales tax revenue was growing, our staff was growing, we were making solid progress on a new Roseland Library and we were planning upgrades to every branch in the system. We were looking at steady and solid expansion, a healthy mix of legacy services and new ideas.
We were unprepared for the sledgehammer of a pandemic.
To be fair, no one else was prepared, either. In mid-March, we closed all branches to the public and sent our staff home.
For the first few weeks, fewer than two dozen staff members were at work. The finance and facilities teams were at full strength, and most of IT and all the management team transitioned to working from home.
As we adjusted — and continue to adjust — to the idea that many of these changes are long term, we began to get our feet under us again. Library people are service people, and we devised programming and services to match this moment. Now, virtually all our staff are back at work.
But too many people are left out of the shift to “distance-everything,” so we’re adapting to reach more people each week. Along with thousands of libraries, we are forced to reimagine ourselves and our services, and enter a continuous cycle of reinvention.
Our budget has been on a roller coaster ride, with terrifying drops and surprising climbs, but uncertainty rules. Every expert we hear predicts that next year will be worse, economically.
And, let’s not forget floods and fires! How do we face our current and future challenges and do the best we possibly can for our communities, when our budget is insecure and our staff are under stress?
We start by challenging our own assumptions, such as:
We no longer have 14 branches of the Sonoma County Library. Instead, we have 14 places to store library materials, filled with good technology and great people, where we can meet our patrons outside on the sidewalk and give them a bag of books.
Is that a satisfactory long-term business and service model? I don’t think so. We have to think of a future service model that is not tied solely, or even predominantly, to our physical locations. We have to think of library as a verb, not a noun. And, we must have the will and heart to adapt to climate change, and to become an antiracist organization.
Over the rest of 2020, the Sonoma County Library will turn outward and seek to truly understand what our communities need from us. It’s going to be hard and it’s not going to be cheap, but we owe it to our communities, our taxpayers and ourselves to find out.
It will require a blend of high-tech and high-touch. We have to look at our technology spending and meet this unprecedented demand for service. And, we have to let our people do what they do best, providing exemplary and caring service that changes people’s lives.
We have to become library evangelists. Good business plans take note of the competition, and there is plenty of competition right now. How do we keep our free services in front of the people who want and need them? Then, after we’ve found the will and the resources to transform our services, we have to find more resources that enable us to tell our story.
Most of all, I want the Sonoma County Library to shake off the idea that what we do next is less than what we did once. Library people adapt, and we’re facing a lot of adaptation at once, at a high rate of speed. I want us to look back on this time and see all the amazing things we did to become a true 21st century library, a beloved institution that can flex and change and adapt to anything, an organization that meets our communities — wherever they are and whomever they are.
Ann Hammond is the Sonoma County Library Director