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Progressive Voice: Arlington’s Library System Is a Model for Progressive, Continual Improvement

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Laura Saul Edwards

From the time I began reading, the image of libraries that came to mind was of a building warehousing books that I checked out and tried returning on time to avoid fines. Thumbing through card catalogues and scrolling through microfiche film joined the memory bank in high school and college.

This outdated view of libraries is as much a historical relic as the Library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt. The Arlington Public Library is more than a mere circulating book collection. It is an indispensable part of Arlington’s infrastructure with a diverse menu of services — and a leading example of data-driven, continual improvement that is a cornerstone of progressive governance.

A reason Arlington stands out among other communities is that our generally well-educated and well-off population places a high value on libraries. Arlington’s 2018 Community Satisfaction Survey reported an overall satisfaction rate with library services of 91% versus 74% elsewhere.

However, this high satisfaction does not mean the library can rest on its laurels. Continual improvement depends upon using data to develop budgets and policies that will make the library even more effective and responsive to public needs.

According to County Board member Katie Cristol, the satisfaction survey is helpful in this regard because it “sheds insight into the relative value that residents place on disparate functions of the government.”

For example, recent survey results revealed dissatisfaction with the rate at which the library was acquiring books. Arlington residents said they wanted more e-books and shorter wait times for borrowing titles. This information led to a $300,000 increase in the library’s acquisition budget, including e-books.

Data has driven other changes with library services. Feedback showed library usage was sometimes limited by distance, operating hours and transportation. This resulted in the launch of a library van that will begin operating next winter. Earlier data helped establish “The Alcove,” a month-long pop-up branch in 2018, made possible in partnership with the Rosslyn Business Improvement District (BID). In these cases, data played an integral role in making the library accessible to serve more patrons.

Data, public engagement and planning have also served over time to transform library facilities into joint use facilities. Walk into any branch of the library and you will find students meeting with tutors, job seekers using computers, advisory groups conducting business, story time for young children, after-hours study time for students, and lectures from visiting authors. Patrons attend dance parties with live music in the “Groovin’ on the Pike” program, and make quilts and complete woodshop projects in the new Makerspace program.

In addition, the library is a hub for safety net services and sustainability. Classes on health topics and the delivery of health services abound, as do gardens, recycling and the promotion of home energy efficiency with battery and light bulb-testing kits to check out.

Amid this progress, it cannot be overlooked that some residents see room for more changes. They want improvements in computer and technology classes, wait times for materials, programming for all age groups, and in the depth and range in the e-book, audio and digital magazine collections. Knowing these concerns helps the library with allocating its $15 million budget to improve services.

Diane Kresh, director of Arlington’s Department of Library Services, says data is sometimes ignored, pointing to a proposal to eliminate overdue fines for children’s materials to prevent these fees from posing a barrier to students. The request was denied one year, but Kresh confirmed the library would continue pursuing this goal.

Kresh acknowledged the library must also “dig more and understand more” about issues in the survey results that were not so good, such as “hours open” in certain locations and “the library does not have programs that interest me,” where dissatisfaction is clustered in specific neighborhoods.

As important as data can be, the most progressive feature of Arlington’s library system is its staff, according to Kresh. “They put a ton of heart into serving our patrons, making their love of what they do the most progressive element of our library system.”

We are fortunate in Arlington. Data and a lot of love and expertise have intersected to produce a model for continuous improvement that is one of the most progressive features of life in our community.

Laura Saul Edwards has lived in Arlington County since 1994. She serves on the School Board’s Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Projects (FAC) and is an APS 2012 Honored Citizen.

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