By Barbara Pickell
- The Clearwater Public Library has been working closely with the Economic Development organizations in your area. Can you tell us about some of your initiatives?
Developing partnerships in the downtown Clearwater area has been a focus for the Library during the past few years. The greatest areas of emphasis are fostering entrepreneurship and small business development with an emphasis on tech startups. The library is a founding member of an organization called Clearwater Business Spark, a group of partners including the Chamber of Commerce; the Pinellas County Small Business Development Center; TAFFIE, a local private incubator; and the City’s Economic Development Department. The mission of this group is to support and attract high tech startups to Clearwater as part of the redevelopment of the downtown area in a public/private partnership.
Since the Main Clearwater Library is in the downtown area, it is uniquely situated to partner in this project. The library’s mission and traditional activities were a good match for the direction of the group. It provides public access to an extensive computer network, Wi-Fi, seating and work space, a print and electronic collection supporting business related activities, classes in technology and one-on-one assistance. To align more closely with the City’s vision, the library added more technology like iMac computers, 3D printers and a multimedia recording studio. It was determined that the library’s most natural fit in the organization was at the entry level. Anyone, no matter what their initial knowledge level, could come to the library for help with everything from setting up email accounts and writing business plans to learning how to market with social media. With some of their basic skills in place, they could be referred to other partners such as the business incubator for more intensive help.
- Are there other organizations the Clearwater Library System partners with on Economic Development activities?
The library has also developed an interlocal agreement with the Downtown Clearwater CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) to help support the Innovation Studio for Business and Technology and the Discovery Studio of Creative Learning, two maker space areas on the 2nd & 3rd floors of the Main Library. Those funds help support staff and operating costs for the STEM related maker activities and spaces.
The library has also worked with the Community Development Board, the Downtown Redevelopment Board and the Clearwater City Council to host meetings that foster communication and planning between groups. The library worked with the Chamber of Commerce on their Business You educational program. It has hosted planning sessions for the Bluff redevelopment planning process, Imagine Clearwater; for the public participation in the Boating and North Marina planning processes; and for the City’s Charter Review Committee. It has provided an informational session on business resources for TAFFIE, the private business incubator group.
- What motivated the development of these new partnerships and the focused direction toward Economic Development?
Three different initiatives really came together to help the library develop this focus. First, in 2013 the City developed its new Strategic Vision. It emphasized two areas, developing the economy and providing cost effective community services.
In 2014, the City brought in the Urban Land Institute to develop a plan to revitalize the downtown area. The plan emphasized making downtown Clearwater into a destination space and economic development around a Tech District targeting entrepreneurs and small business development. The library got one line in that proposal, “Boost the Library.”
At this same time, the maker space trend was taking off in the library world, and much of that centered around hands on, interactive training on high tech devices such as 3D printers. It really was these three elements coming together that caused the library administration to re-assess the strategic direction of the library. The parent organization, the City of Clearwater, had stated that developing the economy was paramount. As part of the ULI report, the library developed a two-pronged approach to boosting the library, to work to become more of a destination space and to support entrepreneurship with an emphasis on technology in line with the city focus. And the maker activities provided a method of doing both.
- What changes have you made to the library facilities and programs to support these efforts?
The most critical changes have been the four floors of maker Studios. The 1st floor Creation Studio for Arts & Design is providing extremely popular programming in everything from sewing to Sumi-e art. The 4th floor Heritage Studio of Community Memory is just being developed now and supports another part of the City vision, preserving community history. The 2nd floor Discovery Studio introduces children and teens to STEAM activities, including coding and robotics, developing the workforce of tomorrow. The 3rd floor Innovation Studio focuses on business and technology. It includes the multimedia recording studio for audio and video production and editing, as well as several 3D printers, a laser cutter, drones, telescopes and a wide variety of other STEM related items.
One of the biggest changes, however, is the alignment of programming along the lines of business and technology. Selling on Etsy and EBay programs have been booked solid through multiple presentations. Drop in labs have helped many members of the public design and create 3D objects for enjoyment or to address a specific need. The Chamber identified a need for their members, who did not really understand social media, let along understand how to market using social media, that the library has been able to fill. The opening of the multimedia lab has led to a number of programs on photography, lighting and editing. Workplace Pinellas regularly has a table in the library. Partnerships with the arts community brought in Creative Pinellas to offer an Arts in Education program where artists can meet potential program sponsors, because art, too, is a business. Clearwater youth teams have won several awards in countywide robotics competitions and robotics camps during the summer have partnered with Recreation Centers in low-income areas of the community to bring robotics to children who would not otherwise have access. Just as the maker Studios permeate the building, business and technology related programming permeates every aspect of library service now.
- How do you see this affecting the library in the future?
One change has already been extremely noticeable. People are spending more time in the library. When families used to attend a story time, pick out some books and then leave, they now linger in the activity areas. Library tables now seem constantly full of people using the library as an alternative work space. Meetings and events sponsored by partner organizations are bringing people into the library who have not visited before.
The other part of that change is that the library is now at the table with more organizations and initiatives than before. When the Economic Development Department decided to focus on an underserved section of the community, the library was one of the first organizations approached to partner with that initiative. It is the first choice of locations when the Planning Department wants to do large public meetings. The Mayor, City Council and City Manager are more aware of the library resources than ever before.
The other obvious change is the physical environment. Although books remain the staple for service, different types of programming and activity areas, such as the maker Studios, are now a part of the library and will remain so. The question now being asked is, how can the library accommodate a co-worker area? Yesterday’s library will not work for tomorrow and the staff needs will change with the changing services.
- What are the lessons you have learned?
There are a number of important lessons libraries need to keep in mind. I think the first lesson is to listen to your community. I felt deep sadness and regret when the City’s Strategic Vision didn’t have an emphasis on Quality of Life services, as if the library had been de-valued. It wasn’t until I could look at it from a different angle and realize the library had been given an opportunity to serve the community in a different way that possibilities became apparent. Libraries must change, not only in what they do but in how they see themselves, to remain relevant. We must look beyond what we have traditionally done to find ways to serve our community.
Another important lesson is one that all librarians probably already know, that politicians, business leaders and the public in general has no idea what the library can do to help them. We have to be the ones knocking on their doors. We have to be the ones looking for the opportunities and crafting the message. Partnerships and community outreach are not optional activities that take a back seat to desk coverage, they have to be the primary focus as the library evolves.
And on a very practical note, funding isn’t necessarily a block to change. Sometimes funding follows function. A $90,000 infusion of funds provided in support of the ULI report and a $100,000 annual grant from the CRA supported the initial creation and ongoing operation of two maker Studios. The other two Studios received support added into the budget because the decision makers were now aware of and supportive of the maker Studios. Be prepared to find your key into bigger partnerships and projects and build the support. Not everything can happen fast, but much can happen if you are creative and determined.