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From dream to ribbon

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  • A construction story: In 1996, during the construction of the $5.5 million Hershey Public Library, this chair, called the Perry chair, a comfortable meeting room stacking chair costing about $120, brought the library’s established building committee to its knees, ruined relationships between town leaders and the library Friends, and left the director with a lot of work and potential risk. What happened, and why? What happened was a lack of clarity about the decision authority and roles of the players involved. I’m here today to help you avoid your own version of “PerryGate” in this segment of the program called “Roles and Responsibilities.”
  • I will talk about the players involved in a library construction or renovation project, and their responsibilities. Let’s start with some general comments. Everyone wants to be in on your large, expensive, visible and fun library building project. Staff, trustees, Friends of the Library, elected officials, and donors all want to be part of the excitement. What part do these people play in your building project, and how do you manage their participation? You should begin by identifying all the major stakeholders, and then determine how they will participate in the decision-making and project management process.
  • Typically, a building committee is formed that has representatives from your major stakeholder groups: trustees, key staff, sometimes the Friends, sometimes elected officials, along with the building consultant (during planning stages) and the architect and construction firms (during building). Whether or not you have a formal committee, establish - When and how can each stakeholder give input? Who has the final say on decisions? How will communications and information be shared? Who attend the necessary meetings? Note: It is typical for the architecture or construction firm to assign someone to take construction meeting minutes who them emails them to all as needed. Now let’s talk about each of the major players and their roles.
  • Building Consultant Looks at your library, translates staff and public needs into a coherent written plan with descriptions of what is needed. Listens to staff and trustees, provides warnings and guidance as needed, such as info on weight-bearing loads of multi storied libraries. Good resource for standards and best practices. i.e. is it better to have bins or shelves for picture books?
  • Provides reality check for ambitions vs. pricing. (children’s garden….) Steps away after report is finished, does not attend construction meetings. Resource for those who critique or question building program plan, such as “why do you need a humidifier/that much seating/all those outlets”, etc.
  • Architect Translates building consultant’s report into a building plan. Listens to staff. Works closely with building committee. Willing to compromise based on limitations of lot or funding. What a shame, their artistry is sometimes compromised by funding, site, disagreements or bad taste. Problems when architect chosen without a screening process, friend of elected official or board member, etc.
  • Library or Higher Education Trustees Support the vision and need for the project, that the building is practical, accessible, forward-thinking, and sustainable through participation in planning meetings. Oversee financing. Issue construction RFP and select qualified bidder. Do not necessarily attend construction meetings, unless bringing special expertise to building committee. Story – “aesthetic integrity committee” – director didn’t have energy or time to fight their micromanagement of placement of lamps, etc., eventually faded away.
  • Trustees Be prepared for people who challenge the library project. Have an elevator speech with stats and needs. Most people don’t understand that libraries are complex institutions that meet academic, community education and social needs. Better for them to speak as citizens, than the staff.
  • Elected Officials They are not the enemy. Try to see their world. If the building is too costly, they will be criticized and possibly not re –elected. Hershey and Schlow were visible and controversial projects. At Hershey, a referendum for a new library AND rec center failed, but the supervisors proceeded with the library despite a minority of residents objecting to the project. A month or so after Hershey opened, someone shot through the majority of glass panels in this lobby in the dead of night. They never found the person who did it; it was covered by insurance but it was a blow to all of us involved and to this day we think it was someone who wanted to make a statement against the project. Do they buy into the vision, the project? What is their financial commitment and what are their expectations? Library is a personal monument. It’s easy for them to see a building as their “crowning achievement” or long-lasting legacy. ($75,000 Generator story).
  • Donors Larger the gift, the more potential input they have. A good donor will defer to others’ expertise and not micromanage decisions. However, those at the naming level, or room naming level, sometimes want to be very involved and the scope of their involvement must be defined at the start. Communicate clearly about expectations, decisions, and progress.
  • Friends Support project vision and goals. Clarify their use of space in the building, if they have any. Assign specific fundraising and communication tasks; they can “build excitement” for the project. Example: Holt Memorial Library is owned and was built by Friends.
  • Library Staff Get them involved in building program plan and details of their work areas. Keep them grounded in the reality of their project and have them rank their wish list. Ask janitors about bathroom and plumbing fixtures they need. Have them rotate through construction meetings, as guest. Let them run the library while you run the construction or renovation project.
  • Library Director Building/renovating is a huge undertaking, and it will occupy 75% of your time, or more, until about 6 months after completion. Read, talk, visit. Although you may feel intimidated that you don’t know a lot about construction, YOUR ROLE IS AS THE LIBRARY EXPERT and primary spokesman for the staff. You and your staff make decisions about functional elements of the library – only you know the proper humidity for book collections; the number of electrical outlets needed; the kind of security system you need. Specify the items you wish to be consulted on, and those requiring your approval. Don’t delegate to the construction team the selection of “small” items such as door panic bars and bathroom fixtures; they end up meaning a lot after construction. Be able to articulate your vision and needs clearly. Over-communicate and document that communication in every direction. Know what items you are willing to compromise, and what battles you will fight to the bloody end. Perry Chairs and Generator weren’t worth it. Soundproofing in meeting room and firewall in book checkin room with bookdrop was.
  • The various players will have conflict and dissent through the process. Again, who has the final say? In the case of the Perry Chair, here’s what happened: It had been established that the building committee would select furnishings. The committee included a township supervisor, Friends, trustees, and carefully selected library users. They field-tested chairs and other furnishings and were careful and methodical in their research and selections. The building committee presented their request to the supervisors for 175 Perry Chairs like the one here, and for 25 with ARMS for the convenience of people like nursing mothers or those who needed an arm rest for whatever reason. Well, anything over $5,000 had to be presented to the Board of Supervisors for a vote of approval, per the municipal purchasing code. The Perry Chairs were the first furniture item to be put forth for approval, and I presented the request with the documentation and description. Instead of a routine approval, the supervisors had a lengthy and prolonged debate about whether or not the chairs with arms were needed, and only approved the purchase of the 175. The building committee saw this in the newspaper the next day and they all resigned in frustration and dismay. That left me, the director, with no assistance in selection furnishings – a dangerous proposition, because all the risk of bad taste or failure fell on my shoulders until it was determined that the library board would assist.
  • Give all your helping hands a role, and you library will certainly be a theatrical presence in your community.
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