Patrick Losinski, Chief Executive Officer of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, is the 2012 Individual Champion of Children award winner. Dr. Nancy Nestor-Baker sat down with Pat to talk about everything from the Ready to Read Corps, to what he read as a child, to his vision for education in the city of Columbus.
What is at the root of the library's work in helping children and enriching children’s lives? Where did that start?
Historically, the libraries have had a big footprint in children’s services — that’s a hallmark of what we do in Columbus. In every public library I’ve been associated with, children’s services are a big piece of connecting with the schools. In Columbus, we started to understand some of the educational challenges of our community, particularly around kindergarten readiness scores and graduation rates. And we said, "Wait a minute, how can we have such a wonderful library in this community and yet see some of these results in our community? Maybe we need to look inward; perhaps we have to own these community outcomes as well. I think that has really driven our work in terms of the Ready to Read Corps.
(Note: Ready to Read Corps is a first-of-its-kind initiative that takes the library into at-risk communities to teach parents and caregivers of children ages 0 to 5 how to be their child's first teacher and prepare their children for kindergarten.)
We have six teams of two staff members — it's all outreach, none of it really happens in our libraries — locating and going to parents where they are, learning if they are open to the services, and understanding that this is not about just creating an experience for the child; this is about preparing that child for not only kindergarten but for successful 4th grade graduation and a successful career. It starts at that basic level, and if we can’t deliver in the early childhood area, then in many cases these children don’t have a good future in front of them. Because of that, it’s been easy for us to get involved and easy for us to stoke the passion and make sure all of our team members feel this is important; that this is what the library ought to be doing. The community understands that we ought to be doing this work, as well.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in getting Ready to Read off the ground?
We took the national public libraries' curriculum model of Every Child Ready to Read and asked, "Ok, how can we bring that into an outreach environment? How can we apply it in a way that would really get traction with our users?" We knew it was a good idea, but we needed to figure out how to take it to the streets and learn from it. Initially, we thought we would just get people to come to sessions. Then, over time, we learned that wouldn't work: These are customers who have so many other things going on in their lives that we have to catch them where they are. From there, it’s been constantly adapting, using what works, learning, sharing that information, networking with the community. And we also made sure to tell the story internally. As the program grew, people within the organization said, "we get it, we understand it; we are all behind you." From the get-go, we knew it was a good idea. But we always have to ask ourselves, "how do you keep moving it out, how do you grow it, how do you continue to tell the story?"
Are other major metropolitan areas engaged in similar efforts?
We see similar initiatives, but I don’t know if I’ve seen one quite like our Ready to Read program that is so fully outreach-based and embedded in the community. I think that’s unique. There are libraries that have people who do outreach work, bookmobiles, visits to daycares, and other initiatives. But I think we are pretty unique in targeting at-risk parents where they are and meeting them in the neighborhoods. We seem to get a lot of inquiries and a lot of media attention lately, so that tells us that it might be a bit unique.
What do you see in the library's future?
The biggest opportunity for us is to continue to weave our work into the community. We are involved in the Learn4Life initiative, which is looking at community based outcomes. So, how can the efforts of the library positively influence the trajectory of these outcomes in the community? That’s radically different from how people thought of libraries in the past. Libraries of the past were about transactions. How many books did you check out? How many visitors did you host? How many children signed up for summer reading club? Today, we are asking different questions. Have we improved the percentage of children who are ready to learn at the kindergarten level? Have we helped with the high school graduation rate through our homework help centers in all locations? That’s a very different landscape, much more difficult — I won’t say that it's not more challenging — but it’s what really drives us: If we can figure this out, if we can talk about how the library is making those differences, not just in a casual way but in a way that we can actually prove, I think that’s not only gold for this library system, it’s gold for public libraries everywhere.
Why did you decide to work in libraries?
Early on in my career, I had an internship that was not really library work, but it was headquartered in a library. It was actually an internship with a cable access television station; the studio happened to be in a public library. I was a library user as a kid and as a college student, but that internship was over a sustained period of time where I actually was in a public library and watched what was going on. One day, I made an appointment to talk to the library director about what he did for a living and about his educational training. I didn’t know there was a Master's in Library Science; that was all news to me. It sat in my head for a number of years and I kept thinking it might be something I would like to do. It was really about service; I felt it would be really fulfilling work to be helping as many people as you do through the library, across all subjects, interests, and demographics. I just had the sense that this was something pretty special. Almost 30 years later, I can say that my feeling was correct, because it’s been a great career.
Were you a library user as a child?
My mother said I read a lot. In our family, we were not regular library users: I did not grow up in a town or city; I was out in the country, seven miles away from town. But one thing I remember very specifically about my library use: During the summer months they had a program called mailbox library. I think it was a federal grant funded program that mailed a catalog to your home, and it had pictures and annotations of library books — essentially the book jacket — and in the back of the catalog, there was a postcard that you would rip out, and you could circle the number of the books that you were interested in, and drop the postcard in the mail, postage paid.
The books would arrive within a week or so, and there was an envelope to send them back, and it was free of charge. I know it had an impact on me. I think one of the reasons I’m sitting here today is because that program was available to me. I wouldn’t have had that access to those books were it not for a public library. So when we are doing our work, and I think of disadvantaged or at-risk kids, I think that we might provide them with that level of impact; might propel them down the path of a successful life. It’s powerful, very powerful. Whether or not I’m drawing too much from my own experience, I don’t know, but mine is not just a good story — it’s a real story, and the impact on me was real.
What were your favorite types of books, back when you were getting those books by mail?
As a kid, I was immersed in sports biographies. I was really into sports. I remember Hank Aaron was my hero, so anything I could get on Hank Aaron, I would read and reread over and over again. But surprisingly, I read more fiction as a kid than I do today. One of the reasons fiction was always interesting to me was that it took me to a very different place. I remember a book — it was a Newbury winner, an award winning book for teens. The title was "It’s Like this, Cat," and it was about a teenager in New York, which was so much of a different lifestyle than rural Wisconsin. Reading has a way of transcending and taking you to a very different place. So I was hooked on those kinds of books as a kid. I also loved maps. I was mesmerized by maps, and I would look at the size of other countries and try to envision what was there. But aside from reading, I was pretty involved in sports as well!
What do you think we, as a community, need to do to help young people become readers?
I would say not only readers, but successful over all. Reading and literacy are key to that success. I’m so struck by all the efforts that are going on nationwide to try to solve some of the educational challenges, particularly in urban settings where we have so many people, so many donors, so many civic advocates, so many business leaders, so many educational professionals, and people like me who have been trained in this area. I think we would all agree that, at some level, we are not making the grade, even though there are an awful lot of talented people to address this issue. So, what have we not done yet? There must be something in the structure, in the physics, that we have not yet identified that is causing us to underachieve. I’m so encouraged by Columbus, because we have Learn4Life. We have this rich community of resources. I don’t know if it’s a Midwestern thing, but we are just naturally collaborative. I’ve worked in communities where people don’t come together like they do in Columbus.
My dream for Columbus is: What if we were the first urban center that really solved this issue, from Pre-K right up to college entrance? What if Columbus was the place that figured that out, and had results that no one had? Frankly, it would resolve all of our economic development issues, because people would be visiting us in droves to copy our success. We know the North Carolina research triangle is known for what they do. What if we were that equivalent when it came to education? That is the broad, bold, visionary thinking that makes me get up every morning, because I want to try; because we in Columbus might be the ones who actually figure it out. I know there are efforts all around the country. But we have something special going on here, with momentum that has begun around the Bold Goals with United Way, the willingness of our business leaders to step forward and help; a lot of funders are at the table. We are trying to look at this from a collective impact approach, and that’s powerful.
This is a remarkable place.
It is, and it's a place that loves its libraries. My goodness! I’ve been a library director in four different communities. I would like to think I’ve gotten better at each one, but, honestly, I’ve never before worked in a community like this one, where, across the board, people are so supportive of the library.
Why are our libraries here so successful?
I know that success builds on success and we’ve been successful here for a long time, dating all the way back — we have been here 138 years or so. My predecessor was one of the first library directors to refer to library users as customers instead of patrons. And I know for many people, that’s only a word difference, but let me tell you, it's huge. People here pride themselves on excellent customer service. They try to live that every day. We certainly value it at the highest level of administration, but our people here live it; they are very passionate, and I think the community sees it. This is not like a typical agency. People come here and they say, "wow, people are really engaged, and very interested in my needs, and they really want to help me." I think that is the key to the success here.
What misconceptions do people have about libraries?
I think that everyone that has come to work for us from outside of a library has said, "I had no idea of the breadth of services offered by a library." If you were to ask people what they thought of when you mention the word library, 95 out of 100 would say "books" and "checking out books." That is still what we do — that’s 15 million items. We had 2 ½ million reservations last year to use a computer; these are people that do not live in a Blackberry/ iPad/ Kindle world. They rely on the library as their point of access to the digital world, the digital economy. If you have a computer at home, remote in the car, laptop in your office, you don’t think in those terms, but many people rely on the library for those kinds of services.
The library has a place in the community; people understand it. I don’t think we articulate its value as well as we should. Our sweet spot is the fact that people trust libraries; libraries are non-partisan, non-denominational; people of all ages, races, and economic levels feel very comfortable in the library. We are able to bring people in as a common space in the community. Where do you come where everyone feels welcomed? The library. Eight and a half million annual visitors get it. I'm not sure we talk enough about it as one of our chief assets. Maybe the outside world does not know we are downloading 200-300 thousand e-books per year from our website. That's still not much compared to the 15 million items that are checked out, but our whole model is evolving over time. I think libraries are proud of the fact they stayed very innovative, in the forefront; maybe not the bleeding edge, but the leading edge of what is happening in society.
So, as you think of the future, the next decade or two for libraries, what are the biggest challenges facing this library system and others?
A decade is a long time in this business. Think of the internet arriving not even two decades ago; it’s hard for me to look out that far. I think certain things will stand the test of time, and one of them is that we access information in a democracy. Now, how we access that information, what containers we will access it from, what devices we will use 20 years from now, I can’t tell. I feel good looking out five years, ten years. We can already see we are moving away from attached computers to hand held devices. That will be new to us. We have 1500 computers that the public uses, but how do we check those out? And I know preparing a kid for a successful life is not a fad, so we will be in that business forever. I just got the stats for our Homework Help Center: 60,000 visits from kids who came in for homework help at the centers. So I think you will see libraries much more involved in and integrated into the educational fabric of our community. At issue is how we prepare to compete with the rest of the world who has not stayed at the same level. We, perhaps, have stayed at the same level or regressed, but the rest of the world is taking quantum leaps forward. We are going to need much more than the school system to help. Our community is going to have to own it. I think the library is going to be a key player in that activity.
If you could wave a magic wand, how would you envision that relationship with schools and the library?
First of all, it's remarkably strong today; it’s not as though we have great difficulty. I think the schools recognize the importance of a library. The challenge we have from a school and library side is that our population is mobile. Libraries and schools have a responsibility to protect the confidentiality of both students and library users. We have to do that moving forward. Could we do it in a way that allows us to share information so we can better understand how a child is progressing through a system? How can we do that without violating our principles of confidentiality? Perhaps it’s not important that the school understands the specific titles the child reads, but it might really be helpful to know that that he or she is reading during the summer months. How do we create some systems that allow us to know the difference the Ready to Read program made as a child goes through school? How do we share the information from the library’s point of view? By the time kids get to 5th grade, they may have been in seven schools, so if the service was delivered in Linden but the child is now out of the school district, how do we know we made a difference? We have to have some systems in place and data to help us understand.
The good news is that people are talking about it, the tools are getting better and better, and people are getting more sophisticated in terms of analyzing the information. If you analyze information, you can set strategies together. We have great respect with and for the school systems. The library staff feels supported and welcomed every time we approach them. We know the challenges they face, which is why we started things like Homework Help Centers. Our Summer Reading Program is working with people from OSU's College of Education and Human Ecology on these questions: Are we really making a difference, are we helping to retain reading levels? Gosh, if we can show an uptick in reading levels during the summer due to library involvement, it could transform what public libraries and schools do nationwide, and I think Columbus is in the forefront.
Any final thoughts?
I’m really honored to receive the Champion of Children award. Having been here 10 years, I’ve seen how many people are behind it. To think that people would honor me for this in a community that is so devoted to helping kids succeed is very humbling, and just a great honor. But it can’t be said enough that the real Champions of Children in this organization are our children’s librarians and staff who are out in those neighborhoods, who are working with the preschool story time, bookmobile and daycare visits. They are amazing in terms of their commitment to this community and the passion they have for kids. They make the connection — it is the connection that is so strong, and that’s where they make a difference. I got the award, but they are my champions.