Stark Library's Tena Wilson Heads to Cleveland with a Concept of Libraries Way Beyond Books

Jan 8, 2018

The head of the Stark County District Library, who has overseen some of the biggest changes among library systems in Ohio, has been named the new chief operating officer of the Cleveland Public Library. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze talked with Tena Wilson about why libraries must move beyond books.

For Wilson, being a librarian is a second career. The first was in private business, helping to outfit mobile units for everything from medical imaging to vet clinics. And bookmobiles, which, she said, is how she came to appreciate the egalitarian nature of libraries.

“You walk in the door of a public library, you could be a CEO or homeless or someone looking for a job or a parent, and the library serves everyone.

Wilson said the Stark County staff, board and library system itself was ready to adapt to the changes that were being forced by outside forces.

Smart phones and reference desks

“About 62 percent of residents have a smart phone. … Most people turn to their phone when they have a question. There was a day when they would call the library reference desk. So as things like that have changed, this library was just so ready to figure out how those things should inform the way the library should be changing.”

She said the board was most ready to use data to drive decisions, to try to figure out “who used the library and how, and then try things. No one was going to die. They were willing to try things.”

Doing away with fines

That included waiving fines on overdue materials because “fines were just a barrier. They really weren’t an incentive.”

It also included setting up a bike-sharing program, with bike use free to people with library cards. The district library is still in the process of setting up interactive play spaces in all children’s areas of libraries “because children learn through play.”

But at the same time, Wilson said the library sends eight staffers out to work with children in their homes the year before they’ll start kindergarten. Together with the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton and Early Childhood Education Center, it’s called SPARK, and Wilson maintained that “every child whose been through SPARK outperforms their peers.”

So what about books?

“Every book has to earn its place on a shelf. We totally embrace being a popular public library. We’re not a research library, …  so we only keep on the shelves the things that people use.”

The library “deselected” about 25 percent of collection. That meant fewer shelves, which meant more room for people to gather, people to meet, people to take classes.”

Checkouts, Wilson said, climbed by a third. “So we kind of proved, it’s not how many books you have in the library that matters. It’s how many of the right books you have.”

But she says the decisions are guided by more than just popularity. “If a library says these books haven’t been read for five years, we always count on the librarian to look at those books and say, ‘We need these books on the shelf. It cyclical. It’s going to roll around. At some point, some seventh grader’s going to need this book because it’s required reading.”

The Smart Store

Wilson said the Stark library has other surprises for those who haven’t been in a library for awhile. But it all comes back to a foundation: sharing resources.

“It’s a library of things. … Things like bike smart and borrowing a WIFI hot spot or an electronic device, an electric meter for your plugs at home, or an air quality monitor or a vehicle diagnostic tool. Things that it would be a huge investment if you had to buy it for your home.

“But why buy it. It’s the whole concept that libraries have used since the beginning. … Why not just buy it collectively with your taxes and then everyone borrow it. The library of things is growing and I think that would surprise people.”

Tena Wilson has run the Stark County District Library since 2012 and is now heading to the Cleveland Public Library as deputy director. Stark County says it will do a national search for her successor.

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