Patrick Losinski, CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, had a gut check moment about eight years ago.
A former leader of Battelle questioned Losinski about the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment for Literacy where children in Central Ohio were scoring poorly. His question was: “If you’re one of the best libraries in the country, how can we be doing so poorly as a community in terms of children’s performance in basic literacy?”
Losinski says that was a launching point for the CML to rethink its role in the community and what its priorities should be in order to better impact its customer base.
Rather than just measuring traditional outputs like how many books are checked out (more than 17 million items per year), the library determined it also needed to leverage its resources and measure how it could positively alter community outcomes.
Everyone has a charge to create value, he says. But when you’re in the middle of doing what has always been successful, it’s hard to understand how you need to think about your whole model differently in order to be relevant for the future.
“I think it’s easy to get lulled into complacency by your success,” Losinski says.
Luckily this gut-check conversation happened around the same time that e-books were emerging — it was another impetus that led the library’s leadership to examine its purpose more closely.
However, Losinski says the whole process wasn’t as linear and sequential as it sounds in hindsight.
“I think one thing that a leader needs to do is to try to understand the relevancy between those dots, if you will,” he says. “How do you connect those dots? How do you connect those experiences and understand how they apply to your organization?
“Because, you know, at some point perhaps, they could have been viewed by us as totally separate occurrences.”
Here’s how the CML and its 860 employees shifted focus to better serve the community with a young minds strategy that encourages learning and literacy in children.
Test it out
In order to go in a new direction, start with pilot projects.
Even before the library switched its focus, Losinski says the staff wanted to try a homework help center at a new branch that opened in Linden.
For years, kids had been telling their parents that they were going to the library to do their homework, so the staff wanted a place for those children to come in, sign in and tell volunteers where they needed help.
That pilot was so overwhelmingly successful, Losinski says over the next several years the library was able to secure donations to designate and equip homework help space in every library through the system.
“So little by little we built up to that effort,” he says.
It’s important to set aside startup funds to test a new idea and see how it works, in order to determine if it’s worth doing a full-scale effort throughout your organization, Losinski says.