When Government and Business Get It Really Right -- Together

06/14/2011 11:58 am ET | Updated Aug 14, 2011
  • Steve Leveen Harvard Fellow, Advanced Leadership Initiative; Chairman and co-founder, Levenger

In a downtown office building in Phoenix last month, five librarians answering questions from two visiting CEOs admitted to stealing from businesses. They confessed to violating basic tenets of their profession. And under questioning, they confirmed that other librarians around the country were emulating them, particularly after their alleged misdeeds in Maricopa County, Arizona, won them an Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation.

The librarians were led by the avuncular Harry R. Courtright, Maricopa County Library District (MCLD) director and county librarian. It was in his office, around a conference table with its seventh-story view of downtown Phoenix that we met.

I was one of the CEOs, representing the board of the National Book Foundation, there to check in with past winners of the Innovations prize. The other CEO was Laura Roberts, whose company makes eco-friendly chemical products for other companies worldwide and is a leader in Conscious Capitalism.

Our mission was to find out how the librarians had managed to pull off their Innovation.

Much ado about Dewey

"We began by listening to our customers," said Courtright.

Customers? Already I was doing a double-take.

"Yes," Courtright smiled, "that's how we refer to the people we serve. We receive a portion of their tax money, so they are our customers."

What they heard their customers tell them, in physical suggestion boxes in the library branches and virtual ones on the Library District's website, was that 85 percent of customers arrive at the library with no particular title in mind. They want to browse.

Trouble is, the century-old Dewey Decimal System doesn't make browsing that easy.

"We decided the library world had a problem," said Courtright. "Librarians get hung up on the Dewey system, but the general public doesn't understand or care about it."

The Dewey Decimal System doesn't have a number, for example, for books on weddings. So a customer coming in to get help planning a wedding has to look under flowers 745.926, and wedding cakes 641.8653, and maybe etiquette 395.22.

But customers planning a wedding just want to go to a wedding section.

So the librarian leadership in MCLD thought the unthinkable. What if they threw out Dewey? This professional blasphemy ruffled feathers. Some librarians accused leadership of dumbing down libraries.

"It's a matter of professional pride," explained Courtright. "We librarians can sometimes develop an almost dare-you-to-find-it attitude toward a hapless public."

Doing more with Dewey-less

But the librarian leadership was fired with derring-do, and they decided to go ahead with their plan to do away with Dewey. Gently.

"When we had the chance to fit out the new Perry Branch Library in Gilbert, we decided to try to do it without Dewey, and we wanted to see how far we could rethink the whole library experience," said Courtright.

The building in Gilbert, a suburb of Phoenix, had been designed for a traditional library. Courtright and his cohorts were undeterred.

"We studied retail stores and adopted the way bookstores organize books according to subject areas. And just as retailers know that eye-level merchandise is what customers see and buy most, we put our focus there," said Courtright.

"We are thieves," explained Jim Govern, branch development administrator. "From Barnes & Noble we stole the idea of comfortable seating. From Nordstrom we stole their wide-open aisles. From Costco we stole the idea of fewer SKUs but higher turns."

I knew that librarians keep careful track of their inventory and circulation. But as a merchant, I was impressed to hear the Maricopa outliers talk about book lending in terms of stock-keeping units (SKUs) and how frequently you turn over your inventory.

The Dewey-less Perry Library"It's not about how many books you have, but how desirable they are to customers," said Courtright. "The new design of the library and the freshness of our collection allowed us to deliver better service with fewer items."

The Perry Branch was slated to hold 75,000 books. By the time the library thieves got through putting into action the ideas they stole from retail, the branch housed a mere 45,000 books.

Shush gets shushed

That was just the beginning.

The old library model had separate desks -- Circulation, Reference, Children's. The Dewey-less Perry Library has one big desk in the center called Customer Service.

While some of the librarians sit behind the desk, others engage in even more derring-do. They roam.

"We have roving librarians who walk around looking for customers who seem confused and ask, 'May I help you with something?' It's a completely different attitude from the shushing librarian of the past," said Courtright.

And here's the math that every beleaguered budget officer longs to hear:

"We find that we can serve more people with a smaller staff, keeping our costs lower."

Technology helps, too. With new self-check-out and check-in machines, customers can perform these clerical functions themselves, saving librarians for more meaningful interactions with customers.

Lower shelves, higher customer satisfaction

When Courtright's group outfitted their Dewey-less library, they bought fixtures not from library-supply companies but from retail-supply companies. They made the shelves lower and put more of the books facing out, optimized for browsing, rather than spine out, typical for high-density libraries.

"When we opened we didn't know how customers would react, so we sent extra staff over there on opening day just in case. By lunchtime, we sent them home," said Courtright.

Turns out that customers were quickly comfortable, even if librarians were not.

After their initial success, the MCLD librarians began rolling out the redesign to other branches.

"We were nervous about our Robson Branch, which mainly serves seniors," said Courtright. "We thought they wouldn't like change. When we re-opened, the high shelves were gone, along with about half the books. We set out comfortable chairs and better signage and more books face out, at eye level. One customer said, 'Where did all the extra room come from?'"

Once again, circulation and customer satisfaction went up.

The Innovations in Reading Prize helped them gain legitimacy for breaking the rules, said Cindy Kolaczynski, the Library District's deputy director. "It helped convince some of our own librarians who were unsure that the re-designs were the right thing. And the publicity attracted other librarians from around the country to visit Arizona to figure out how to change their own libraries."

Innovating from the ground up

The first Dewey-less libraries were converted conventional libraries, but soon the librarians had a chance to design a building from scratch in the far reaches of their district, out at the edge of the Sonoran Desert and the White Tank Mountains.

The librarians teamed up with the Maricopa Parks and Recreation Department to locate a nature center inside -- and outside, along walking paths. They brought in the local firm of DWL Architects+Planners to help further rethink what a library could be.

The White Tank Library is a green buildingThe result is known as the White Tank Library & Nature Center. The design embraces green technology and received the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Going green in the burning desert is something of a hat trick, given normal air-conditioning requirements. The library's roof is blanketed with solar panels. Deep roof overhangs and structural fins in the architecture deliver both panoramic views and protection from the savage heat and blinding sunlight.

Fully 27 percent of the library's energy is supplied on site. When facility energy demand is low, this place for quiet contemplation supplies energy back to the grid.

An oasis of wisdom

CEO Laura Roberts, who uses the principles of Conscious Capitalism to help business leaders think more broadly, praised the librarians.

"I love that our librarians stole some ideas from businesses," she said. "Businesses can steal some ideas from good government, too. Business leaders might think of service the way it's taken to heart by our best emergency-response and military outfits -- service to our country, service to the world."

For myself, I wish I could sit for a while in the White Tank Library and contemplate the refreshing oasis of wisdom it represents. Far from the Washington din over government waste and corporate malfeasance, I'd like to sit, appreciating the view, and relish for a moment this example of things going very right in a small but beautiful piece of the Arizona desert.