The anticipation is intense as residents wait for the speeches to end and the doors to open at each new library resulting from an historic bond measure approved by San José (Calif.) voters in November 2000.

The Branch Library Bond Measure, provided $212 million over ten years dedicated to the construction of six new and fourteen expanded branch libraries.

Community support gave the City of San José a unique opportunity to virtually rebuild the infrastructure of its public library system. Demand for services had long outgrown the capacity of existing facilities; the newest having opened in 1984 when the population was roughly 30% less.

The Library worked closely with staff from the Department of Public Works and architectural consultants to conceptualize the “Library as Third Place.” What kind of spaces, furnishings and equipment (including technology) were required to serve the needs and meet the expectations of library users into the 21st Century?

Key words—discover & learn, explore & enjoy—defined the experience that the Branch Library Development Team wanted each new library to provide. Certain features—an Internet café, community living room with fireplace, technology center, group and quiet study areas, and community room—became part of the standard blueprint.

Each new library projects its own personality; the result of community input and the selected architect’s creative aesthetic. Designing each building to meet a minimum of LEED Silver standards of sustainability ensures that, among other things, the libraries maximize use of natural light creating a bright and open feeling.

Public art adds another dimension. The individual project’s artist solicits community input and synthesizes it along with the history of the area and the role of libraries in the community to achieve a unique expression.

No matter how delightful, a library is more than its physical structure. Staff and collections have a role to play in making the library a community hub.

San Jose residents demonstrate support for library services at the polls, having twice enacted measures that would permit collection of a special tax dedicated to funding library programs and services.

In tandem with renovation of its structures, San José Public Library examined its customer service practices and developed a new service model based on the following principles:

1. Customers First

Direct customer service is our priority. We want to be able to answer questions and find resources as quickly and accurately as possible, so all of our staff are cross-trained. Any staff member in the building can answer 80% of questions, and for the remainder, they’ll call in a reference librarian or account specialist.

SJPL strives to give our customers what they want from libraries: new and popular materials, a comfortable setting where they can enjoy a cup of coffee, and programming that’s both educational and entertaining. Our libraries are not silent and rule-bound; we provide coffee kiosks, comfortable chairs, and wireless access, and we encourage quiet conversation – yes, even on your cell phone.

Community needs drive library programming as well. Using the United Way of Silicon Valley Community Impact Report, we identified six areas with the greatest need for programming: Reading Promotion, Learning and Lifelong Enrichment, Support for Formal Education and Careers, Physical and Emotional Well-Being, Effective Parenting and School Readiness, and Services to New Americans. Through collaborative planning, each SJPL location shares a variety of events, classes, story times, and other programs within these areas for a variety of ages and skill levels.

We see each library program as an opportunity. Programs draw in new and old users for entertainment and education, and each one provides librarians with a captive audience to promote the next event, our recent acquisitions, a new database, or a volunteer opportunity.

2. Teach Customers

Because SJPL believes in life-long learning, we have improved our self-directed library environments, including our website. We encourage users to explore resources they can access from home 24/7, like our databases, catalog, and events calendar. For those without home computers, we have eBranch stations scattered throughout our locations. These are workstations that customers can use to check out our events database, apply for a library card, pay fines, renew items, and place holds in our catalog.

Showing our users how to use the eBranch stations, public printer, and self-check machines on their own results not only in happy, skilled, self-sufficient customers, but in more time for librarians to plan programming, reach out to local schools, and manage collections. Ninety-two percent of our circulation is done at self-checkout machines. With most tasks completed remotely—searching the catalog and placing holds—a nearby holds shelf ensures that customers can drop in at the library and help themselves in only five minutes.

3. Reinvent Environments

In 2000, San José passed a bond measure that has enabled us to build twenty new or rebuilt libraries throughout the city. The first one opened in 2004.  We learn as we go and continually evaluate trends in library buildings and how our customers are using them, so that first branch constructed will look quite different from the last. Our Building Program serves as a resource to other library systems as well as for our architects and engineers.

When customers first enter our new libraries, they step into the Marketplace, an open area featuring high-demand items like entertainment DVDs, music, and brand-new fiction and non-fiction. Instead of staff behind desks, customers are met by greeters who direct them as needed. Distinctive signage characterizes each space, and public art designed for the local community adds a new dimension to each branch experience.

4. Enable Staff

Reinventing processes and policies has provided clarity to twenty-first century library operations our customers demand. We didn’t have all the answers up front, but via a series of pilots and consultation with experts inside and outside of the library field, we found more efficient and effective ways to operate. Our cross-functional teamwork is key as we continue to implement and train staff on updated new materials processing, materials arrangement, and materials check out and check in.

Less time spent on check-in, sorting, and shelving frees our clerical staff to work directly with customers, answering basic reference questions and assisting with accounts, self-check machines, and public computers. This, in turn, enables our librarians to focus on what they do best: creating programs, developing partnerships with schools and other community agencies, and working with library collections.

“Wow, this is like a bookstore, only better!” typifies the impression of first-time visitors. With our customer service principles operating, we aim to make the first impression a lasting one. 

Lorraine Oback & Daisy Porter
San José Public Library is a LJ Index 4-star Library