Library Leadership

19. Starting an Initiative: How to Invest and Create Commitment with Sari Feldman

Have you ever wanted to create a new initiative in your library, but weren’t sure where to start? How can we make our plans fit the needs of our community, get investment, create involvement throughout our organization, and make it all pay off?

On this show, we talk with Sari Feldman, Executive Director of Cuyahoga County Public Library. Under her leadership, the system received the highest overall score among America’s largest metropolitan library systems in Library Journal’s Index of Public Library Service for many years running. Sari served as Past President for both the American Library Association and the Public Library Association.

She shares the ways in which she started a meaningful initiative for her community called, the Reconnect with Reading Campaign. It’s a successful example we all can use as we kick off initiatives of our own. It will also speak to the readers-heart in each of us. Thank you for tuning in.

Full Transcript

Nate Vineyard:                    [00:00:00]

This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University, where library leaders are created – with program sites in Kansas, Utah, Oregon, Colorado, and South Dakota. And, by the Park City Library making film and podcasting possible with green screen, and sound recording resources.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:00:24]

Have you ever wanted to create a new initiative in your library but weren’t sure where to start? How can we make our plans fit the needs of our community, get investment, create involvement throughout our organization, and make it all pay off?

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:00:39]

On this show, we talk with Sari Feldman, Executive Director of Cuyahoga County Public Library. Under her leadership, the system received the highest overall score among America’s largest metropolitan library systems in Library Journal’s, Index of Public Library Service for many years running. Sari served as past president for both the American Library Association and the Public Library Association. She shares the ways in which she started a meaningful initiative for her community called, the Reconnect with Reading Campaign. It’s a successful example we can all use as we kick off initiatives of our own. It will also speak to the reader’s heart in each of us. Thank you for tuning in.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:01:27]

Thank you for being on the show, Sari.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:01:29]

Thank you so much for having me.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:01:31]

So, your commitment to the library profession and leadership inspires us all. So, thank you for your important work.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:01:38]

I’m impassioned about this profession. The work is always a pleasure.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:01:46]

Isn’t it? I think we all feel that way. Today we are going to talk about a reading initiative in your library system called Reconnect with Reading. I know this was implemented based on research about important positive outcomes correlated with frequent reading. Can you tell us about that?

Sari Feldman:                      [00:02:05]

Sure. In 2007 the National Endowment for the Arts started a regular study on the state of literacy in America. At that time they identified that there was a decline in the number of American adults reading literature and reading for pleasure. We decided to take a look at Cuyahoga County Public Library Service District and what our own community thought about reading and the pleasure of reading.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:02:46]

We also were concerned about the fact that the report revealed the strong correlation between frequent reading, and professional and academic success, civic engagement, and physical health. Since we believe that libraries are a center of community life, where we provide individual opportunity and community progress, we needed to make sure that we were still creating readers and supporting readers.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:03:18]

Definitely, so why was this particularly important in your own community?

Sari Feldman:                      [00:03:23]

In Cuyahoga County, we actually have a fairly low level of education attainment. We are below the national average in the number of people who graduate from high school and well below the national average in the number of people who go on to college.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:03:43]

So, we thought that by encouraging reading and ensuring that people are both skilled at reading, but also want to read, find value in the activity of reading, that we could start to move the dial on education in Cuyahoga County. We really began to emphasize books and reading as a library brand. It fit with me personally, because I’m a reader.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:04:19]

I’m a reader too. I love books and we want to share that with our communities. It sounds like in your community this is a huge initiative that was very important to the people you serve. So, in implementing this program can you describe the leadership and the impetus behind the Reconnect with Reading campaign?

Sari Feldman:                      [00:04:38]

We used data, the national poll, and then the comparison in Cuyahoga County to really explain to our board the value of this initiative. They made a significant investment by allowing us to contract with Nancy Pearl, America’s, the librarian’s librarian.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:05:06]

That’s right.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:05:08]

…to come to Cuyahoga County one week a month and to actually train our staff on this Reconnected Reading Initiative. She came to us one week a month for ten months and she embedded the skills of Leaders Advisory into our staff competencies and made that something very important about the way we serve customers.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:05:36]

Through that effort, we began to develop certain programs. We have a Facebook discussion after hours. We do online readers’ advisory. We increased our Book Club offerings, and we also became a place where we were known to bring authors. Today we will have between 75 and 100 authors -national and local authors, come to the library for events. We have a staff member who the majority of his job is actually dedicated to working with New York publishers to bring those authors to our community. We work very collaborative with not only publishers but with other libraries, local colleges, universities, bookstores, and community organizations to really deliver on these author events. It’s been something that the public has both come to expect and also to be absolutely thrilled to participate in at the library.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:06:51]

We recently hosted Mitch Albom and Jodi Picoult to name two people who had events that were available for the public to attend. I want to mention also that we are very attentive not just to the pleasure of reading, but the skill of reading. We actually have tutoring for children who are at risk of failing what in Ohio, is the third-grade reading test. And, we have an adult basic literacy program that then flows into our GED program for adults in this community who really never learned to read or never became skilled at the act of reading.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:07:41]

Literacy and the skill of reading are so fundamental for all of us. And, I think that’s just incredibly important work. Congratulations on implementing all of those things.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:07:51]

Thanks. It’s just that it’s a natural evolution for us because we’re a very busy library system. We see ourselves now as places of learning and we think reading is the most basic of all the learning that needs to happen in libraries.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:08:23]

In managing change and leading an initiative like this, there’s a great deal of leadership and commitment across all levels of an organization that needs to take place. So, how did you make this happen, and what can you recommend for libraries and librarians who want to kickstart similar initiatives?

Sari Feldman:                      [00:08:42]

So, I was very present. People knew I loved to read and I personally attended trainings, I participated in our staff book club. Everyone in Cuyahoga County Public Library reads the same book, and that was a staff initiative. Our first one was Citizen Vince by Jess Walter. Then, I began to actually promote what I was reading. I went on public radio and talked about what I was reading. I sent emails and wrote in the staff newsletter about what I was reading, not in ego to say, Well I’m the director of the library and I do all this reading. But, to be that face of the library of a reading place. It attracted a great deal of attention. It was incredibly successful. Then the board, as I said, invested in bringing Nancy Pearl to the library system, and invested in this staff position that we now have that enables us to connect with New York top publishers.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:10:09]

We also did a very visible marketing campaign that included billboards, and posters. and palm cards. Actually, we wrapped city buses with our Connected Reading message. That was just so visible that we were investing in our message about reading.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:10:38]

That sounds like fabulous leadership.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:10:41]

I want to say that the leadership comes when you know you personally invest. Also, we were able to lead our board to make a financial investment in the campaign.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:10:57]

Absolutely, it sounds like it went through all levels of the organization: staff initiatives; promotion; communication; board investment visibility; and a real investment top-to-bottom, side-to-side which is great. How has your commitment to this initiative paid off?

Sari Feldman:                      [00:11:15]

I’m very proud that reading is still 60% of our circulation. We talk about circulation of materials is reading, listening, viewing, and playing because we have a toy library. Reading can be of all kind, but it has been a very strong part of our service.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:11:42]

I think we also have fantastic outcomes from our instruction in the library. About 80% of the students who participate in our 1-2-3 Read tutoring program, get on grade level at the library. We know that attendance for our author programs has expanded exponentially. People come to expect and participate in those events.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:12:15]

And, finally, our foundation has grown so much stronger because of our public image, the public presence that reading plays. I found that donors are really inspired by the idea that even as libraries change and transform, and technology has become an important piece of the service delivery, that we still maintain that core value around books and reading. Because of that, we’ve found that some of the most philanthropic people in Cuyahoga County are willing to contribute to the library.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:13:04]

Those are amazing outcomes and as a book lover myself, of course, I am thrilled when our core values can be represented so clearly as a reader. Do you have any favorite leadership books or resources you’d like to share, and why?

Sari Feldman:                      [00:13:18]

Well, I have to say I’m not necessarily a person who reads a lot of nonfiction. But, I do think that Jim Collin’s books Good to Great, and in particular Good to Great for the Social Sector, that’s kind of a must read for people in our profession. Because he puts a model forward that is accessible for libraries to deliver, so we won’t be overwhelmed by our own organization or bureaucracy, but instead, we can recognize how every individual can make a contribution to moving that flywheel to changing the culture.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:14:08]

I love what you said before about how our initiative permeated every level of the organization because we make small changes. We were, in the past, in the sense that we said, Talking about books was a job for librarians. But, talking about books is a job for everyone who works in the library. We took away that barrier of people recommending a book at checkout or people recommending a book while they were shelving books. If a member of the public asks you for a suggestion and you can make a suggestion from our collections, by all means, do it. I think that our attitude, that was much more open and positive, really helps staff to get excited about this initiative.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:15:16]

If we look at the trend toward the public actually reviewing on Amazon and Goodreads, how can we say that only experts can be involved in recommending? I take lots of recommendations from people who work at the library, but I also take recommendations from my best friends, because they know me. We have a much more inclusive practice around readers of libraries than we’ve had in the past.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:15:55]

I really love that inclusion and I think all librarians want to share this message. You definitely speak to my reader’s heart and my librarian’s heart. So, thank you.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:16:06]

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Sari Feldman:                      [00:16:07]

I am a very eclectic reader, and I just read Lethal White, which is the J. K. Rowling book, writing as Robert Galbraith. I’m about halfway through She Would Be King, I think I’m pronouncing it correctly, by Wayétu Moore, and is a book about the creation of Liberia. I love to read established authors, and new authors, and authors that I might potentially meet.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:16:42]

We just were very, very lucky to have John Grisham come to Cuyahoga County Public Library for one of our author’s fundraising events. Meeting him had always been on my bucket list because he’s one of the most popular U.S. authors of all time. I wanted to, maybe, better understand the secret sauce that creates a John Grisham. I knew also that members of our foundation and our community would be so excited to meet him as well.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:17:32]

We’re always trying to think of new ways of connecting with readers. I might just take another minute, I’ll tell you that when we were replacing our branches, one of the ideas that we had was to put a writing center into one of our new buildings. In 2015, we opened a branch that has the William N. Skirball Writers’ Center. We have a space, and staff that support aspiring, and professional writers in pursuit of their craft.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:18:24]

Interestingly enough, we’ve discovered that through that initiative we’re creating and encouraging readers. Now we have a Writer in Residence as part of that. We’ve just announced our third Writer in Residence, David Giffels. He’s a nonfiction memoirist.  That person will have office hours at the library, teach classes, and we’ll obviously encourage writing. But, at the end of the day, they encourage reading. I think the more libraries are connected to a larger community of people who love literature, who are committed to literature, the better positioned we are to foster that environment of reading.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:19:17]

Definitely inspiring, not only reading, but writing, and truly engaging with the written word is wonderful. I want to come. I want to come to your library and be a part of all this.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:19:28]

We also put a Memory Lab into that library and we are helping people to digitize their old movies or their audiotapes. What we’ve discovered is that we have a growing group of people reading and writing personal memoirs, as part of their process. One of our Writers in Residence is a poet. Dave Lucas, who’s now the poet laureate of Ohio. He collected podcasts of local writers reading their work and created a collection for us during his residency.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:20:11]

So, there’s so much that’s happening. It always comes back to the written word, but there is so much that can be happening and taking advantage of the new technologies. We never deny the excitement and the value, but we want to make sure that at the core of Cuyahoga County Public Library is reading.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:20:37]

Certainly, there’s so much in libraries. It’s a great time to be in the profession, because of all the resources and the ways in which our communities can engage in libraries, absolutely exciting.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:20:49]

That’s the way I feel, but I think I’ve been saying that throughout my career, never been a better time to be alive.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:20:57]

…never been a better time. Sari, in closing what does being a librarian mean to you personally?

Sari Feldman:                      [00:21:04]

I think I said before the idea that we create individual opportunity and community progress. I love the fact that we are an institution with open doors that meet people at those doors, and welcome each individual into our environment or through our website and create the opportunity that that person needs.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:21:40]

We have tools, and resources, and books, and information that can solve peoples’ problems, and help them get ahead, entertain them. But, it is up to the individual. We couldn’t be a more customer-focused institution. Every day I’m reminded of how important libraries are to our communities.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:22:12]

Libraries as open and welcoming places for everyone, it’s a great way to see the profession. Sari Feldman, thank you for all you do to set the tone in our library world. You’re an amazing and inspiring leader, and I am so grateful you joined me on the show today.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:22:29]

Thank you so much for inviting me. I hope we meet in person sometime soon.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:22:33]

We will. I definitely want to come and see everything you’re doing, it’s outstanding.

Sari Feldman:                      [00:22:38]

Thank you very much.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:22:39]

Thanks, Sari. We’ll talk to you soon.

Adrian Herrick Juarez:      [00:22:43]

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adrian Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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