Library Focus Groups Conclude With More Criticisms And Concerns

The C.H. Booth Library’s new director completed this past week a series of three public forums billed as “Vision Quest” and designed to help the library chart a course for the future. His audience at the two final sessions on Saturday morning and Tuesday evening, however, focused more directly on the director himself and their concerns over recent and imminent changes at the library since his arrival on July 1.

At an occasionally contentious 90-minute session on Saturday, August 24, a number of library patrons, unhappy with changes already made, urged Shawn Fields, the library’s new director, to slow the pace of change at the town’s iconic Main Street library since his appointment as its administrator.    

About 35 residents attended the session conducted in the library’s public meeting room. Library officials need to be coordinated in terms of the goals they will pursue for the institution during the coming three years, Mr Fields said, adding a “vision statement” must be formulated to express those goals.

Many of the residents attending acknowledged that the role of public libraries is changing in response to a changing world. Those residents stressed that what has made Booth Library unique is the effort made by library staff members to help the patrons. Consequently, they urged that changes not come too rapidly.

 “I don’t make any unilateral decisions, ever,” Mr Fields said, explaining that he consults with staff members before making changes. The goals of the library will be formulated during the next several months through consultation with the public, he said.

Resident Kenneth Lerman urged that Mr Fields study local demographics, including population changes, as well as changes in technology in developing a vision statement. Mr Fields agreed on the importance of demographic patterns, adding that it is unclear whether the 12/14 shooting incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School would result in an increase or decease in local population.

Resident Joan Nash asked why library staff members did not attend the August 24 forum. Mr Fields responded that staffers already had provided their views to him on the library’s future.

Ms Nash asked whether Mr Fields had consulted with a professional counselor regarding the “severe trauma” effects that people may be experiencing in the 12/14 aftermath. The director responded that his wife is a professional counselor, adding that he is familiar with such matters.

 “It’s been a really, really challenging year,” Mr Fields said of the 12/14 incident, with staff’s emotional needs to be taken into consideration.

Addressing recent personnel changes at the library, one man told Mr Fields that he should wait another six months before making any major changes. Mr Fields declined to discuss specific personnel changes that have been made.



Resident Sydney Eddison told Mr Fields, “This library does what it does very well,” she said, stressing that the library staff does a “wonderful job” in serving the patrons. “It makes me so angry to have some young person sweep in” and make big changes, she said. “This library is good as is. You’re very lucky to be here,” she added. Ms Eddison’s comment was met with some applause.

William Lavery, a member emeritus of the library board, told Mr Fields, “I would open the library on Sundays again.” Mr Lavery also urged that reference librarians be positioned on the third floor where certain reference materials are kept. He also urged that Mr Fields sit down and talk to Andrea Zimmermann, a recently departed reference librarian, to resolve some differences.

 “This is the ‘town’ library,” Mr Lavery stressed, noting the institution’s relationship to the town government.

 “One of my most important jobs is securing funding,” Mr Fields said, noting that a strategic plan for the library would clearly state the institution’s goals.

Resident Denise Kaiser said that the library’s annual used book sale is a fundraiser that “can raise only so much money.” Ms Kaiser said she would attend Legislative Council meetings, if needed, to seek public funding for the library.

Resident Laura Lerman received a negative answer when quizzing Mr Fields as to whether any library staff layoffs or firings are planned.

In describing his ideas for the library’s future, Mr Fields suggested that more public meetings spaces be created, and that security issues need to be addressed.

The library also should have an increased presence on the Internet, he said, and circulate e-readers.

Circling back to previous concerns, Ms Nash cautioned Mr Fields that “it’s easy to destroy trust,” adding that she thinks that the library staff does not support him as director. That trust was damaged recently when a library position was eliminated, she said.

At a resident’s urging, Mr Fields described his professional background, explaining his work experience.

As the session concluded, a resident told Mr Fields that it was good to have the forum because it resulted in better understanding among those present.


Part Three: Getting To The Point

At the third forum on Tuesday evening, August 27, Mr Fields again found himself and proposed changes to library policy and personnel targeted by disgruntled members of the public.

Approximately 40 people gathered in the meeting room of the library for the final meeting Vision Quest series, with Mr Fields hoping to solicit public opinion regarding the somewhat distant future of the local library. Subject matter, instead, focused largely on the present, with many of those present on Tuesday evening seeking clarification on policy and personnel issues that were raised in the two previous focus group events.

Newtown author Justin Scott got right to the point, saying “One beautiful way to repair the damage is to ask Andrea Zimmermann to come back in her old position.”

Ms Zimmermann, a reference librarian for 15 years, recently declined a job offer made in lieu of the elimination of her position at the library.

Mr Scott’s statement was greeted with enthusiastic applause, as had been remarks by resident Dianne Orlando a short while before. She reflected on her multileveled attachments to the C.H. Booth Library, as well as her admiration for the many staff members — Ms Zimmermann in particular.

“Without Andrea Zimmerman, my Kindle would still be sitting in the corner, unused.  She, out of the four people in the Reference Department that I have asked for help, was the one who made a difference. Andrea Zimmermann, never a hesitation about a question, about anything.  Never a ‘No, I can’t help you.’  Andrea Zimmermann, who for years, shuttled hand-picked books to Masonicare’s residents for their reading pleasure. Andrea Zimmermann: accomplished author, font of knowledge — current and historic, local and worldwide.  Need I say more?” read Ms Orlando.

Even before addressing the issues many had come to discuss  — rumored changes to the reference department layout and staff issues — Mr Fields found himself defending his knowledge of the library and town, his policy making, his interactions with staff and the public, and even his credentials.


A Strategic Plan

 At the start of the final session, Mr Fields again explained the need to know the public’s vision of the library of the future, in order to create a strategic plan.

“We don’t have a strategic plan,” he stressed, and added that department heads, the board of trustees, and himself would be involved in setting goals. The board sets the mission statement, and Mr Fields said he did not foresee changing that.

The mood of the meeting changed quickly as Mr Scott questioned the new director’s wisdom in “clearing out staff” now, if he is seeking input for 15 years in the future.

That issue was deflected, and as in previous meetings, when he explained he is not at liberty to discuss personnel issues. What changes he has made have been to put the library in compliance with labor laws, particularly in regards to job descriptions and appropriate pay rates. Department heads, said Mr Fields, have been reorganized for more equitable distribution of duties. Any changes that have been made have been to head off problems should the State Labor Department come in [to check library policies]. As he had told Saturday’s group, Mr Fields again noted that disparities in staff payment needed to be looked at.

Mr Scott remained adamant that huge changes have already occurred that he finds “troubling.” He went on to quote 19th century industrialist Andrew Carnegie: “Perhaps the most tragic thing about mankind is that we are all dreaming about some magical garden over the horizon, instead of enjoying the roses that are right outside today.”

“You’ve stepped into a place filled with roses and gone into it with a weed whacker,” Mr Scott concluded.

Cindy Carlson asked Mr Fields to explain what he has done to “take stock in what we have,” and allay the fears being raised in and outside of the meeting.

As he explained to the August 15 and August 24 focus groups, Mr Fields said that he has met as a group and individually with staff members. He has met with the board of trustees and Friends of the C.H. Booth Library, some community leaders, and citizens in the library.

He has also been researching costs of some ideas put forth by staff members, as well as looking into expenses for building repairs that must be undertaken.


An Agenda?

Still under the microscope of some in attendance, Mr Fields responded to an audience suggestion that he has an agenda that does not leave him open to suggestions, and an attitude of “my way or the highway.”

“If I was making unilateral decisions, I would not even be having these meetings,” Mr Fields said.

What has been made clear to him, he continued, is that people are passionate about the library, that they love the library, staff, and programming.

Resident Bonnie Miller, a member of Friends of the C.H. Booth Library, raised concerns that the director is making decisions when receiving conflicting input. Rather, she suggested, being in a community with a history of finding solutions through public input, could there be an option for putting plans out to the community?

Amber Edwards took issue with the response that in any decision “stakeholders” are involved, asking, “Who are stakeholders, if not the patrons? Are you familiar with how this library was built?” It was not just a few board members and “stakeholders,” she said, answering her own question.

When questioned about security issues referred to in the Saturday meeting, Mr Fields said that security was one area in which he did not want to be specific, but that building and staff security, as well as an emergency preparedness plan, were of importance. “We really have no plan right now,” he said, and added that he planned to meet with the police chief, emergency preparedness personnel, and the fire chief to address those concerns. How security cameras are currently monitored and cash is handled are other concerns to be addressed, said Mr Fields.

Still focused on the immediate plans for the library, both Sue Kassirer and Rudy Magnan said that having used the reference department extensively, they found it to be a quiet and optimal place in which to work.

“Your priority has to be the people who come here,” urged Mr Magnan.


Tablets Vs Desks

Libraries have fads, noted Mr Fields, and with technology forcing reference librarians to give verbal lessons and traveling into the stacks with patrons, it creates a need to look at noise levels and how physical attributes can change. A handheld tablet, he suggested, may be an alternative to the traditional desk. “The nature of service is always changing,” he said. Libraries have stayed the same, but the mode of delivery has changed, he told the group, making it necessary for staff and the public to adapt to changes.

As an example, Mr Fields told how in his previous directorship at the Huntington Library, moving computers into a configuration around an octagonal table had increased usage.

“Develop a consensus [on changes] and your job will be easier,” Mr Magnan directed, “and accept what people are saying is a valid point of view. You don’t own this place.”

“We’re just stewards of the space,” agreed Mr Fields.

Other members of the audience questioned Mr Fields priorities, his interaction with staff, and the development of new job descriptions.

“You say you consulted with staff in developing job descriptions,” inquired Jack Harrison, “but I heard you put [the job descriptions] together and they were given out. I don’t know anyone who felt they were sat down and taken through what their responsibilities were and would be.”

“We presented them with a job description and gave them the sheet to study,” Mr Fields clarified, and asked staff for comments on the job description. He reiterated he was not at liberty to discuss individual personnel issues.

Newtown native Sandy Schill, president of Flagpole Photographers Camera Club, with experience in the corporate world, she said, pointed out to the public that it is not common practice for employees to set the terms of job descriptions. She voiced concerns that new policies might conflict with the Camera Club’s meetings in the library that often run past closing time. She also cautioned the director that he needs to earn the trust of the townspeople.

“There are a lot of people who love the library for various reasons. Our town has suffered… we’re very protective. I don’t envy your position, and I wish you well for all of us,” said Ms Schill.


“Library Is A Jewel”

Offering input for down the line, Ms Schill asked that reference and other sections be updated, a suggestion supported by Ginny Carey — after she had criticized the speed with which she feared Mr Fields was taking to implement change. “I’m appalled. This town is a jewel. This library is a jewel,” she said, before adding that losing Ms Zimmermann was a huge and possibly insurmountable issue. “I don’t known how that’s something you can get beyond,” she told him.

Jean Kreizinger put forth a suggestion that Mr Fields write a case study for himself, “of what happened in Newtown when you came. It would be good for you, professionally,” she advised.

Sandwiched in between more demands that he rethink his leadership style and any swift changes to the physical or staff of the library, were a few other ideas moving beyond the moment: programming to suit ‘tweens and teens and a program connecting sixth graders and library history.

“This is a gathering place,” Ms Orlando finally reminded the new director. “It is a place to grow and change appropriately — not in the summer and not abruptly,” she said.

Following the sessions, Mr Fields said he would take the advice that was given in seeking a course as the library moves into the future.

In brief remarks after the August 27 session, library board president Martha Robilotti, in attendance that evening, said “All he’s been doing is talking. He hasn’t made any changes,” and she added that she was unable to comment on personnel.

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