Kent District Library

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Be bold: Library Journal’s 2018 Librarian of the Year makes switch to cloudLibrary™

Kent District Library (KDL) operates 19 branches in Western Michigan and serves 400,000 residents. The county is home to Grand Rapids, the Steelcase Corporation, the Frederik Meijer Gardens, and most recently, the 2018 Library Journal Librarian of the Year, Lance Werner.

Werner, the Director of KDL, is no stranger to accolades. In the past two years, he’s also won the 2016 Library Journal Movers and Shakers Award, the 2017 Michigan Library Association’s Librarian of the Year Award and the 2017 Urban Library Council’s Joey Rodger Leadership Award. In fact, since his tenure at KDL began six years ago, Werner and his library have accumulated over a dozen awards for excellence, advocacy and innovation. 

Bold from the beginning

At his very first board meeting as the Director of KDL, Werner walked in and requested half a million dollars to grow the library’s digital collection. 

“I think everyone thought I was insane,” said Werner. 

Of course, he wasn’t insane; he simply saw the writing on the wall. The future was digital and Werner didn’t intend for KDL to be left behind.

The board granted him $400,000. That was 2011. Today, KDL has the largest digital collection in Michigan and the highest per capita digital circulation in the nation. 

“It’s important to us that people meet and interact with libraries on their own terms. We want to be able to go anywhere in the world with our customers and be available for them at any time of the day,” he said. 

Moving Michigan’s largest digital collection from OverDrive to cloudLibrary

“When we started the standalone digital collection at KDL, it seemed like OverDrive was the only game in town,” said Werner. But a few years later, the picture had changed. 

“We were introduced to cloudLibrary and a lightbulb went off. Here’s a platform that’s easier to use and people are far more likely to use it. It’s fantastic. It’s just a far superior platform in our opinion,” he said. 

Unlike some libraries who choose to offer digital content through multiple platforms, KDL decided to transfer its entire collection to cloudLibrary to minimize customer confusion and eliminate the need to maintain duplicate collections on redundant platforms.

In the first month, without even the benefit of an awareness campaign, more than 15,000 people signed up to access the cloudLibrary, and that was just the beginning. 

“It’s been growing and growing, and it’s very exciting to see!” Werner said.  

In particular, KDL is excited about sharing digital resources with other libraries through the cloudLink solution. “We have a very large collection, but not all of our materials are being used at the same time,” said Werner. “If we’re able to partner with folks and have them access some of our unused materials and vice versa, that’s a tremendous benefit to us and to other libraries. It’s going to reduce wait times for our family members” — family is the name KDL gives its users.

Additional benefits to cloudLibrary that Werner cites include the ability to suggest, lend and return digital materials from within the app without ever leaving KDL’s online catalogue. There are no other websites to visit or login credentials to memorize. cloudLibrary integrates seamlessly with bibliotheca’s physical selfCheck™ kiosks, allowing promotion of the digital collection at checkout. The flexibility of bibliotheca’s pay-per-use platform enables expansion of the collection while maximizing the investment in digital content. Ultimately, this all makes it easier to meet the growing demand of users.

Change takes courage and compassion

Implementing such a large change is not without its challenges, but Werner said the time had come and KDL was up to the task. 

“If I were faced with the same set of circumstances 100 times, I’d make the same decision 100 times. cloudLibrary is the solution that is best for the greatest number of our users.” 

Indeed, KDL has been the leader of many initiatives. Last year the library system worked out a deal to provide part-time employees with health benefits outside of traditional insurance. They’ve implemented a four-year student-loan assistance program for employees, conducted disability audits of branches, and developed a lending program for iPads and wifi-hot spots in rural areas. 

libraries and community

libraries in the community

“We’ve done all of these crazy things that are outside of the box, but they’re all worthwhile. We’ve taken criticism for all of them at one time or another, and you know what? We still do it, because it’s needed. We’re never going to get better if we’re too afraid to act on new ideas,” said Werner. 

For the transition to cloudLibrary, KDL utilized materials that bibliotheca provided in combination with their own messaging and staff training designed to make the switch as seamless as possible. The overall project carried a “countdown to cloudLibrary” theme that helped users understand the rationale for the change and what to expect. 

Werner explained, “Other libraries that make the decision to use cloudLibrary can contact us and we’ll share every step of our process and lessons learned. People don’t like to be surprised by changes, so we were very proactive in anticipating user questions and concerns long before the switch began.”

Lance Werner’s vision for Kent District Library 

KDL has a philosophy that is so often repeated it’s practically a mantra: kindness, love, and empathy. 

“We want people to walk into the library and feel like Norm from Cheers, like they are coming home to a group of friends,” said Werner. 

“That’s the magical thing in libraries – the interpersonal relationships that are built by spending time really connecting with people. If you’re essentially operating like a drive-through window of a fast food restaurant, patrons won’t have a deep enough engagement to really share their wants and needs. If they stop coming, you’re left scratching your head and twiddling your thumbs. By nurturing relationships, we gain a clear understanding of what others need and how we can best serve them.”

As many libraries struggle to remain relevant in an increasingly digital world, Werner said the solution is to meet users where they are with what they need. Sometimes what they need most is access. He is working on a plan to open the district’s first 24/7/365 branch using bibliotheca’s open+ solution. open+ is a comprehensive system designed to extend library access. It allows libraries to attract new users with expanded open hours, increase the use of existing community spaces and resources and provide more flexibility with staff hours. 

Learning from each other

Awards and accolades aside, Werner insists that he is just a regular guy. 

“I call myself the Head Banana,” he said. Werner sets the standard for teamwork at KDL, pitching in to help with whatever is necessary. In fact, the staff have recently given him another award to add to his collection; this tongue-in-cheek trophy honors his ability to resolve plumbing emergencies.

This attitude speaks directly to the message Werner thinks is most important for libraries today – there is no room for intellectual elitism. 

“We are the people we serve. We are no better and no worse. We need to treat them like family, and if we can do that, we are 90% of the way to where we need to be,” he said. 

And that other 10%? Werner says libraries get there by listening to each other and learning from one another. 

“By nature, most people are reluctant to change, but when you focus on value and personal relationships, change becomes easy…’fluid’ might be an even better word for it,” Werner explains. “We’re eager to share our experience with other libraries, to help them and also to learn from them, and to be bold together.”

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