“When you enter a library, they pretty much all look the same,” said Forest Park Adult Services librarian Sarah Beth Warshauer. “It’s when you start to look around and see all the little things going on, you notice that each one is a reflection of their community.”

For the past year, the Forest Park Public Library has been undergoing a quiet transformation. With the help of the library board, the library set out in late 2011 to create a strategic plan and the changes are evident. Ninety-plus children use the library after school for homework club. Warshauer’s creative programming has brought in experts giving demonstrations on everything from creating container gardens to making dim sum.

The plan focuses on five initiatives: Encouraging creativity and community, helping students succeed in school, creating young readers, promoting job and career development and building digital literacy.

Pat Wagner of Pattern Research, a library consultancy, says that libraries are prodded by the state to have a strategic plan if they want to be eligible for state and federal grants. Plus, it gets everyone on the same page.

“A library strategic plan is basically a contract written between library board, the director, staff and the community,” Wagner said. “[A library is] promising to do these things with your money. It makes for great transparency, holds people accountable and sets priorities.”

Warshauer and Director Rodger Brayden agree: the plan focuses their efforts and resources so they can more effectively help the Forest Parkers they serve. With a six-month program of help from a library consultant and support of the board, the Forest Park library has already jumped into implementing the plan. Physically, the library has repurposed little-used office space into dedicated classrooms, allowing groups like the ESL Café to have space.

Expanded programming

The first big changes have been in Warshauer’s department, library programming. Warshauer has brought in musical performances, cooking demonstrations, etiquette experts, and historical re-enactors. Performers have portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln and Agatha Christie, Chicago Wolves hockey star Zach Miskovic has dropped by. Musicians have performed music of the Titanic era, Irish folk and Chinese classical pieces.

“This was a part of the process that we could start right away,” Warshauer said. The idea is to make the library — usually the Austin Room on the lower level — a cultural gathering place for Forest Park. Warshauer has even made sure there are light refreshments after every program. “People stay and chat afterwards if there are cookies. That’s what we want,” she said.

Helping school children

The use of the library by school children and teenagers is another way that the library is stretching its mission. In a town with many working parents, students have found a safe, quiet place to socialize and work on homework in the library’s lower level.

Quality staff helps, notably children’s librarians Susan Kunkle and Regina Townsend.

The children’s department provides a healthy snack, and a quiet place to complete homework, access tutoring, find materials and even socialize.

Kunkle said the library recently decided to stretch the homework-hour from 3 to 5 p.m. – a change that requires large numbers of children to keep quiet for longer. Kunkle said Forest Park Elementary District 91’s community outreach with the PBIS behavior education is paying off at the library.

“PBIS, as it’s been shaped for libraries is a major piece of the puzzle,” Kunkle said. She acknowledged that students needed “transition time” after school, but kids know the library expects lower voices until 5 p.m.

“You can be social, but you’re here for homework support,” Kunkle said.

Brayden said part of the program’s success is “those kids have trust in the adults in charge [of the children’s services].”

Donna Fletcher, a library consultant who worked with Forest Park to set up focus groups, said homework space for children in a town like Forest Park is a good reflection of the needs of the community.

“That has been the mantra of the Public Library Association,” Fletcher said. “It all starts with what the community needs are. Libraries really need to think about the community and where the voids are.” In towns like Forest Park with many working parents, students need safe activities that can help them with school work, Fletcher said.

The library is also reaching out to D91 to make sure teachers and administrators know that the library is available to help. Youth Services Librarian Donna Morocco regularly attends every school board meeting.

Last weekend, Kunkle hosted a Family Activity Expo to give parents a chance to see different activities for children over the summer, including park district programs and scouts.

Teens and tweens

The library’s Teen Territory is managed with the help of a teen/tween advisory board. Video games, comfy seating and teen-relevant activities make the library a welcoming place for middle and high-schoolers.

“We’re finding out a lot more about what we need to do to meet teenagers’ needs. They like to work collaboratively, Kunkle said.

Wagner says that libraries have taken a new look at teenagers.

“There’s a self-serving part of this, because those teenagers are going to be voters soon,” Wagner said.

Visitors from neighboring libraries in Berwyn, North Riverside and Maywood have come to observe Teen Territory as an example of success in reaching teens, Brayden said.

Kunkle said she has also started a focus on STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) programming for students at the library to give children science exposure in fun demonstrations outside of school.

Early literacy

Kunkle has also been working on the library’s early literacy campaign, to welcome the youngest children into the library. Read aloud activities for the tiniest patrons are being offered. The library has also offered a Kindergarten Boot Camp, for preschool children to practice skills they’ll need to begin kindergarten, such as sorting, listening to stories, learning about rhythm and focused activities.

Kunkle is also luring new parents with two recent “baby-showers” and a baby gear swap.

“It’s never too soon to get kids into the library,” she said. The library’s successful Read to a Dog program and “kids reading to kids” for the Forest Park Gives Back day have helped reluctant and hesitant readers, Kunkle said.

Kunkle said her mantra is “One thousand books before kindergarten, you’re never too young for story time. For children who are zero-to-three we try to encourage habitual reading aloud at home. It’s never too early to begin literacy skills.”

Job and career development

The economic recession has caused adult usage of US libraries to jump, said Wagner, the library consultant.

“Libraries usage figures have gone up 500 percent since the recession started,” Wagner said. “Unlike in the private sector, a library doesn’t make more money when more people use it. Instead it spreads resources thinner.”

“Patrons are asking ‘How can I find a job? How do I do this? How do I do that?’ and librarians don’t necessarily have the expertise to answer those questions,” she added.

The Forest Park library, like many others in the country, is responding to these challenges by partnering with groups that already have experience and resources for job hunters and resume builders.

Brayden and the other librarians say the job-services piece of the strategic plan is still “in Beta testing,” but right now, the library is partnering with Goodwill Industries – which has also retooled its mission to provide job-seeking resources.

“We’re trying to build a foundation to find resources, even if we’re not economists,” said Warshauer.

“We’re finding partners in the community who are job help experts and working with them,” Brayden said.

Digital literacy

Libraries were among the early adopters of technology in the US, said Wagner. “Often it was libraries who got computers in municipalities first, before, say city hall.”

But yet, the Forest Park library, along with others nationally, doesn’t fill a needed goal in the community to teach computer literacy.

“Computer skills needs are not being met by traditional computer classes,” Brayden said. Also still in “Beta” stage, Forest Park hopes to roll out teaching activities that can help patrons develop computer skills. These, Brayden said, will bundle program skills together instead of just offering classes on Microsoft Excel or Internet safety.

“We’re looking at something like, Plan a Big Vacation class that lets you create a spreadsheet for ticket prices, or a Make Flyers for your Business class.”

The library hopes to turn “familiarity [with different programs] into fluency and bad habits into good habits,” Warshauer said. The library has computer volunteers on-hand to help when patrons get stuck, and that frees up other librarians.

Free to make mistakes

The new strategic plan helps librarians in Forest Park make changes that make the library more responsive to the community. But the new program also gives the staff room to experiment, Warshauer said.

“We have the freedom to try new things, and if they don’t work, we’ll try something else,” she said.

Brayden agreed, “My goal is to hire good people and leave them alone to do their job,” he said. “We have really been drawing on each other’s brain power. We want to build the kind of place that people want to be in.”

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

2 replies on “Forest Park Library reinvents itself with community input”