Community Voices:
A Report on Focus Group Sessions to Explore the Feasibility of
Establishing a Joint Library for Fanwood and Scotch Plains

Prepared by Library Development Solutions
Princeton Junction, NJ
November 2007

Introduction

What does the future hold for library service to the residents of Fanwood and Scotch Plains? Should the communities consider the formation of a joint library to enable the provision of 21st century library service in a 21st century building? What can the Fanwood and Scotch Plains libraries do today and in the next few years to keep pace with the community's expectations for library service? What planning needs to take place to ensure that the libraries meet and exceed each community's expectations?

These are just some of the topics that were explored with residents of Fanwood and Scotch Plains as well as members of each library's board and staff during a series of focus group sessions held in October and November 2007 to learn more about the community's interest in improving library service. The focus groups were also the first public attempt to test the waters with regard to the formation of a joint library. More than 100 people participated in these focused conversations about the library.

The Process

Focus groups are group interviews in which participants are asked a series of open-ended questions to obtain information about their perceptions and attitudes about a particular issue. In this case, we explored their current levels of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with library service in both communities, sought their ideas for creating a perfect library, learned more about their current use of the libraries in Fanwood and Scotch Plains as well as other area libraries, and discussed their willingness to explore and support a new approach to providing library service in both communities.

To recruit participants, library directors Meg Kolaya and Dan Weiss reached out to members of their respective communities by advertising the opportunity to participate in a focus group in the library, in the local press and through direct invitation to individuals and groups.

Individuals were recruited for the following groups:

      Teens
      Older adults
      Business and community leaders
      Parents
      Library users and non-users
      General public
      Library leaders
      Staff
      Library Board of Trustees

With the exception of the business and community leaders group all groups were well attended with participants actively contributing to the discussion and remaining engaged for the entire session. Residents of both communities welcomed the opportunity to participate and were appreciative that they had been asked to attend.

Each focus group session lasted approximately 1˝ to 2 hours. Similar questions were posed to all groups to ensure the gathering of comparable data. Comments from each group were recorded and transcribed to create a record of each meeting.

The focus group topics and questions were developed in consultation with the library directors based on input and feedback from the two library boards. The interview guide was adapted slightly for the teen group to focus more on topics of interest to that particular age group. Topics discussed with each group included:

      The role of the two libraries in contributing to the quality of life in Fanwood and Scotch Plains, with a particular emphasis on the library's role in the community
      A discussion about which libraries they use and why
      A brainstorming exercise to describe their perfect library
      An assessment of the strengths of the Fanwood and Scotch Plains libraries as well as areas in which they could improve
      A discussion about the joint library concept and specifically what excited them and what frightened them about the idea
      The community's willingness to support library service now and in the future
      Community awareness about the libraries and suggestions for improving the libraries' profile and visibility

A complete list of the questions is included in Attachment 1: Focus Group Questions

Timing is Everything

We planned the focus groups for late October and early November to ensure that we met our established project timetable. With the exception of the joint Library Board and staff development session, most of the groups took place two weeks prior to the November election, which would not ordinarily pose a problem.

However, just prior to the first focus group on October 21, the Fanwood Republican Party distributed a campaign flyer that portrayed the joint library project as a "done deal" with a "new library to be constructed on the Fanwood municipal site". The campaign literature put the library issue front and center in Fanwood, which had the effect of drawing many who were opposed to the joint library plan to the focus group sessions to express their concerns. Among those attending were the two Republican candidates for Fanwood Borough Council. The concerns raised by those opposed to the project were focused primarily on the "choice" of the Fanwood municipal campus as the site for a new library. The opposition to the municipal site had to do with a perceived lack of space to accommodate a large library, the historic nature of the site and concerns that the new library would not fit well into the residential surroundings and lack of parking.

The timing of these meetings meant that the facilitator had to "correct" misinformation about the library project at each of the sessions to ensure that everyone was accurately informed about the decision-making that had taken place so far.

While these circumstances were unexpected in fact it turned out to be a positive development in that it provided an opportunity, albeit earlier than expected, to test the waters on the site location for a potential joint library. Based on the feedback received at the focus group meetings it appears that it will be important to investigate an alternate site to the municipal complex given the level of community opposition and the physical constraints posed by the site.

Summary of Key Findings

Libraries Transform Communities There was general agreement among the groups on the important roles that the libraries play in supporting the quality of life in Fanwood and Scotch Plains. Despite the popular media's predictions of the imminent demise of libraries in today's web-based information age, residents of Fanwood and Scotch Plains consider libraries an important part of the community. The two libraries are considered to have an important role to play in the following areas:

      A community gathering place. In today's cyber-based information world people are still seeking places where they can have face-to-face interactions with others in the community. From teens to seniors, all of the groups agreed that the libraries can play an important roles in providing the space needed to facilitate cross-generational interaction. The informal conversations that take place over a cup of coffee to more formal interactions through participating in a library-sponsored program or event to causal interaction with a library staff member contribute to a positive library experience. Increasingly people are seeking stronger connections to the people who live and work in their communities and libraries can be a key player in making those connections.

"Think of the library as a destination - consider a library campus that combines the senior and teen center functions and provides a place where linkages can be made."

"Our library can become the anchor of the community, easily accessible by car or foot."

      A center for lifelong learning. It almost goes without saying but in today's fast-paced world the need for continuous lifelong learning is essential. Libraries play an important role in providing the resources - print, audio or electronic - that enable people of all ages to learn, relearn and retool in order to be productive and contributing members of society.

"Create a place for discussion and deliberation - with many programs and book discussions, almost like an adult school atmosphere."

      A place for solitude and contemplation. There is a certain amount of nostalgia and romance associated with libraries and that was certainly expressed during the focus group discussion but in a way that provided a new spin on the old concept of what libraries are like. Although no one was advocating for a return to the "silence only" days of libraries past there was considerable sentiment expressed for the idea of the creating a sanctuary like space in the library that is conducive to reading, contemplation and a relaxing place outside of the "noise" of everyday life.

      An information hub and technology center. The days of the library as a single source of information are long gone but what remains is the trust associated with information obtained from library resources and staff. Focus group participants agreed that the library will continue to play and important role in this area for the foreseeable future and that it can help improve the technology literacy and the ability to find information on the web for people in the community.

      A source of entertainment. In the old days one would never mention the word library and entertainment in the same sentence but that is not the case in today's world. People who use libraries see them as a source of free entertainment whether that comes in the form of books, audio books, and movies or through wonderful programs that challenge the intellect and engage the senses. Fanwood and Scotch Plains residents see this as an area of great potential for the libraries as well as an aspect of library service that should be widely publicized.

      A center for literacy. Educational research indicates that reading to children at an early age improves their chances for educational success. Fanwood and Scotch Plains residents believe that the library has an essential role to play in promoting a love of reading and supporting pre-literacy and early-literacy among the community's children. Reading programs offered by the libraries support the school's educational curriculum and ensure that children go to school ready to read or retain their reading skills during school breaks. Libraries provide a safe after school haven for children who might otherwise go home to an empty home.

      A source of civic pride. Communities that choose to invest in libraries through improvements in the collection, staffing, programs and services or new buildings see dramatic increases in use and public support. The values embodied in a community's investment in libraries - education, learning, democracy and community building - ultimately become a source of civic pride and one of the many reasons that people choose to live in a community. Fanwood and Scotch Plains residents believe that an investment in creating a 21st century library is one that is worth considering because it will create a focus and identify for the community.

Getting from Here to There - Describe Your Perfect Library

Participants were asked to imagine a perfect library for Fanwood and Scotch Plains. There were no restrictions on their thinking - money was no object, they were not limited to thinking about one or two libraries, and they had free-reign to do whatever they wanted when it came to describing their vision for a perfect library. Participants had a great deal of fun with this exercise but were cautioned that not everything on their list would come to pass.

Recommendations for the perfect library fell into several categories: collections and resources, programs and services, accessibility and convenience, technology, and facility.

Collections and Resources

Collections are the central business of libraries both now and for the foreseeable future. Participants go to the Fanwood and Scotch Plains libraries expecting to find what they want when they want it. Teens seem to be less patient about waiting when it comes to finding the library material they want to read or view. If they can't find it quickly they are more likely to purchase the item at Barnes and Noble or on amazon.com. The comments relating to collection in the perfect library reflect the community's desire to have a library that is large enough to accommodate expanded collections to meet a variety of needs and interests.

      Purchase books in many more languages
      Offer more material to support school projects
      Make sure that there are 5,000 new books to choose from in the new book area
      Offer a great sound and video collection
      Add instructional DVDs
      Purchase books that are relevant to the community and its history
      Buy more copies of newer books, more non-fiction, more periodicals
      Purchase more book club books so people don't have to buy their own title each
      Consider distinct divisions for material genres, the Dewey Decimal System doesn't make sense

"The perfect library would have really complete collections - books, music, classic films, documentaries, and the ability to access media on all topics."

Staffing

There were a few suggestions for staffing related concerns for the perfect library.

      Courteous librarians who greet you at the door
      Hire younger people to work at the library -- teenagers would apply for jobs there is it were a "hipper place"
      Librarians who are always smiling and friendly
      Staff who can help you find information and navigate the web

Programs and Services

We know from the comments shared about other libraries that participants use that programs are the one thing that attract people to other libraries. In a perfect world all of those programs would be conveniently accessible right at the Fanwood and Scotch Plains Library. Participants are hungry for author events and book signings and more adult school type of programming. Teens are seeking a place where they can gather with their peers and find ways to cross social boundaries. Parents are looking for opportunities to enhance their children's school experiences.

"Make our library like the public sector Barnes and Noble."

" The most important thing with teens is to get them in the door, it's all about word of mouth, advertise in the school paper, thru flyers, with English teachers."

      For teens - build a stronger connection among teen social groups by getting teens to cross "lines" with big Harry Potter-like events; book clubs for teens by grade and interest area held in the library café; band night at the library café; movie and trivia nights; establish a teen advisory committee to help plan new programs; plan programs that connect teens to the library, more organized opportunities for teens at the library; create a babysitting clearinghouse and training programs for connecting teens to parents; build stronger relationships with the school libraries; attach extra credit to book club participation modeled after the high school's book beat program; tutoring programs; gaming nights; offer a job clearinghouse for teens.

      For adults - offer full program offerings like the adult school; book readings and signings; multiple program offering times, especially for more popular programs; classes for computer instruction; classes on business startups, how to manage your portfolio, travel; provide resources to support non-English speakers; book club discussions; thought provoking exhibits.

      For families - Lots of story time and kid-focused programs; programs that are offered at times that work for working parents and kids; programs to support the school curriculum; petting animals in the kids area; be open to innovative program ideas - reading therapy dogs; provide a safe environment for kids after school.

Accessibility and Convenience

For the focus group participants, the perfect library makes it easy for people to use the library at times when it fits best with their schedules. Fees and fines and library use policies are all customer-focused and developed with the customer's needs coming first. Technology is used to enhance access to the library.

      The library is open Sundays year round and open later evening hours for the working generation and earlier morning hours so people can stop by on their way to and from work; Sunday evening hours
      Library fees and fines are waived for seniors
      Use technological enhancements to offer online reserves, recommendations on what to read next via email, email alerts when materials are due, a great website; a catalog that is easy to use and closer to amazon.com in look and feel
      Offer outreach and delivery to shut ins
      Provide easy access to public transportation to the library and if that isn't possible provide transportation to the library

Technology

Technology would play an important role in the perfect library with the library staff offering regular instruction to develop the community's technology literacy skills. The library facility would be set up to cluster public computing in a lab environment and equipment would be constantly updated to ensure that library users have access to the most up-to-date hardware and software.

      Make our library a "wow library" with lots of technology and wireless access
      Purchase smart boards and offer hi-tech study rooms
      Offer MACs, PCs, iPods, listening stations, school books that can be downloaded to the iPod
      Provide a portable DVD player and data projector
      Offer laptops for loan
      Install high-end software at the library: photoshop, indesign, frontpage, etc.
      Purchase enough computers to extend access time
      Be on the forefront of technology
      Create a better way to track kids books and get them back when others need them - limit the number you can borrow, implement a call back system, institute email alerts with an opt out option
      Provide information about how people can contribute to the library on the web site

Facility

Although we did not prompt participants specifically about a new and/or expanded library facility many of their comments pertaining to the perfect library relate specifically to modernizing the libraries. Comments ranged from the specific, two story building with dark green carpet on the floors, to the general, an ambiance like Barnes and Noble. Ideas offered reflect trends that have been implemented in other area libraries.

"Create something unique for our community, something that is special just for us. When you look around the area at other libraries you realize that none of them are special or unique. We have a great opportunity to do that here."

" I know what I want. Dark green, 2 inch, plush carpeting, mahogany tables, imitation Tiffany lamps, and wood paneling throughout."

"The perfect library feels like Barnes and Noble, a gathering place with as many people reading as buying books; create the same atmosphere in the library."

      Computers are located away from the books
      Several floors with the teen center away from the other areas
      An area just for seniors, a place where they can watch movies
      Reading area dedicated to book discussions
      Good reference area
      Light, bright and lots of windows
      The library looks like a living room
      A general purpose meeting room with a stage that will accommodate 150 people and all the equipment needed to make it totally functional
      Barnes and Noble with Starbucks, need to make the library more comfortable
      Reading lamps and armchairs that are comfortable and comfortable reading areas
      Study rooms to support group study
      Create a more open feeling, lower the stacks, make books stacks that are more like those in the bookstore, less overwhelming
      Community bulletin board for event postings
      Make sure its a building that fits with the character of the community, older look and feel
      A quiet only zone
      Area for an ongoing book sale and storage for sale book inventory
      LEED building
      Shelf in restroom for personal belongings as well as a baby changing area
      Roof garden or outdoor reading garden
      A welcoming children's library, exciting interactive space where kids can speak and interact with others
      Windows that open
      Space for exhibits and displays
      Local history area
      Free parking and lots of it
      Bike racks
      Separate area for AV so it doesn't distract kids while they are looking for books
      Big squishy chairs where you can just sink in and read
      The first floor should be busy with 200 seat area, kids services with everything you can imagine, a small reading room for adults; 2nd floor should be quiet - reference area, teen librarian, business support area with fax machines, copiers, state of the art equipment, individual small and large meeting areas, conference rooms and study rooms, technology training area
      Computers with preloaded games and headset in an enclosed area
      Kid sized furniture, coloring desks
      Easily accessible driver's side book drop

Use of Other Libraries

Participants were asked about what other libraries in the area they use and the reasons that prompt them to use libraries other than Fanwood and Scotch Plains. Because of the unique reciprocal borrowing agreement among Union County libraries, many residents report using other libraries frequently because of their perceptions that the collections or hours or programs are better or more assessable elsewhere. This is not dissimilar to a "shopping' experience in which people choose specific merchants based on their own shopping preferences and perception that they can find what they want in a specific store. The good news from this discussion was the community's perception that it is easy to use both the Fanwood and Scotch Plains libraries interchangeably since they have been working together.

"I love the Fanwood Library because I can walk there. It's a neighborhood place."

"I use Fanwood and Scotch Plains evenly. I search from home then go to where the book is, it's like having two libraries."

"I'll go to any library that is within a reasonable distance!"

Some of the libraries used most frequently by Fanwood and Scotch Plains residents are:

Clark - for many people who live in the southern part of Scotch Plains Clark is closer than either the Fanwood or Scotch Plains libraries. Several participants indicated that they use Clark because they like the recent improvement to the building and because they believe that that the library has a better selection and more variety of DVDs and audio books that are more conveniently organized.

Cranford - They have a brand new, spectacular library; a great selection of movies; lots of programs for mature adults, and you can always find the books you can't find here

Plainfield - They have a great collection of historical reference materials and for English as a Second Language (ESL) and basic literacy resources and tutoring rooms.

Westfield - Good historic material; out-of-state telephone directories; in-depth collection with a better selection of reading material; better resources for school assignments; pleasant atmosphere and space; great programs offered in conjunction with the adult school; and convenient to go there while children are at their lessons or after school activities.

Springfield - they offer a great books program, movie screenings and a foreign film program. "It's the best library around - it's open on Sundays, offers lectures, foreign films and art exhibits."

The New York Public Library, the New Jersey State Library, and Rutgers for historical research and documents.

New Providence - They have an ongoing book sale.

Berkeley Heights - Because they have a good fine arts and theater collection.

Satisfaction with the Fanwood and Scotch Plains Libraries

Both libraries receive high-marks from their users particularly when it comes to friendliness and approachability of the staff. Fanwood is considered a neighborhood library that is easily accessible by foot while Scotch Plains customers like the availability of parking so close to the library that allows them to combine a visit to the library with other errands. Fanwood residents like the small town feel of their library even though it limits the amount of space for materials and programs. They commented positively about Fanwood's "small, non-overwhelming feeling, its relaxing atmosphere and approachable staff who make it easy to ask questions. Students appreciate the proximity of the Scotch Plains Library to the middle and high school.

Participants love the ability to use either library interchangeably and feel that they get the books that they want in a reasonable amount of time. They feel that the book collection at the Scotch Plains library has been greatly improved in recent years and attribute positive changes at the library to the new director. The ability to renew materials online, the shared online catalog and delivery and returns to either library makes it seem like one library already.

There is Always Room for Improvement

While it may be considered dangerous to ask a group of people to tell you what they don't like when it comes to a library in the case of Fanwood and Scotch Plains the conversation about areas in need of improvement were constructive and informative. Many of the recommended improvements focused on issues relating to the aging library facilities in both towns, for example:

      The Fanwood Library layout is confusing
      The Scotch Plains Library feels like a bunker; it should be more open
      There is the smell of mold and mildew in both buildings
      The Scotch Plains library exterior is outdated, it deters people about being more curious and taking the chance to go in because it feels old and dated
      The heating, ventilation and air conditioning in Scotch Plains is horrible
      Libraries are too noisy these days, the staff needs to tell people to stop making noise with their cells, chewing gum has to stop, etc.
      Neither library is adequate for current needs

" The new people in town want the biggest and best library they can have because it is good for their children."

"I conducted an informal survey among 55 Fanwood residents. 99% of the people want to keep the library exactly where it is, long time residents think you just need to improve the current building."

Other complaints were minor and had to do with equipment and library policy. For example, some participants were frustrated about the lack of self-service, color printers while others questioned the need to charge users for computer printing. Others noted that the newer book titles are sometimes slow to reach the shelves and that enhancements to the catalog would make it easier to use. There were a few suggestions relating to the need for extended morning or evening hours.

One or Two Libraries - Is There a Joint Library in the Future?

Although there was significant discussion about the pros and cons of establishing a joint library most of the people attending the meeting agreed that it was an idea worth exploring further. Residents will ultimately make their decision on whether or not to support the establishment of a joint library based on facts and data that demonstrate improved library service at a cost that seems reasonable and affordable to the average taxpayer. Several people applauded what was characterized as the forward-thinking approach of the mayors and library directors and their willingness to explore the joint library concept. The biggest stumbling block to establishing a joint library and constructing a new, larger building will be finding a site that is agreeable to both communities.

"This is an interesting concept, let's explore it further and see what develops. A good library might keep the seniors in town."

"The libraries don't function as one, only in certain areas now. This would be an advantage."

"I support the idea because of the kids - think about providing services to the children who will be soon adult voters; think about the future. I am sure that Scotch Plains seniors would support that."

Generally speaking most Fanwood participants were not supportive of building a new library at the Fanwood municipal complex. Representatives from the historic preservation interest group pointed out that the Fanwood Library is in a historic district and therefore untouchable. The area around the Municipal Complex is also historic and protected and they warned against "messing with it" in any way. The Carriage House is a local historic landmark.

" I'm not excited about this - bigger doesn't mean better. Spend the money on improving what we have and making it better. Most Fanwood residents don't think a merger would benefit Fanwood residents."

The issues surrounding the establishment of a joint library can't be separated from the geography of the two towns. Based on the focus group discussions, the most critical decision will be where the new library is located. While there was little support for building a new library at the Fanwood municipal complex there was support for looking at a new library at a mutually acceptable, centrally located site like the current Scotch Plains Library location or in the Fanwood business district. There was also some sentiment for establishing a joint library and a branch to serve the residents of south Scotch Plains.

The joint library concept also brings out long-held fears about the total consolidation of both towns with the idea that Fanwood would be swallowed up by Scotch Plains. Participants expressed their concern that if that were to happen that the rescue squad and police wouldn't come as quickly as the currently do. Other participants considered this to be more of a generational fear pointing out that the children and teens in both towns think of Scotch Plains and Fanwood as one town -- they are emotionally connected to their friends regardless of where they live. Others observed that newer residents might not care about the location as much as getting a great library that will benefit them and their children. Some were skeptical about the openness of the process leading up to the establishment of a joint library thinking that all of the "decisions are already made." They urged consideration of other options short of total consolidation into one library such as merging the two systems but keeping the two libraries as they are, reducing overhead and administration and improving the buildings.

"It is an interesting idea - we need to see the numbers, the plans, where it will be, and operating costs - we need DETAILS!"

"Tell us the cost delta between improving the two libraries as they currently exist versus building one all new library."

Participants were surprised when they learned how "little" they spend on supporting library service in Scotch Plains and Fanwood as compared to other municipal services. Based on our calculations, in 2006 the average household contributed $168 for library service in Scotch Plains and $187 in Fanwood. Without exception people viewed this as a bargain. However, participants were reluctant to commit to how much more they would be willing to pay until they know specifically what they will get in return for their increased contribution to the library. They definitely want to know more about the impact of establishing and building a new library on their tax bill and how, if at all, it will increase their property values.

When asked about the capacity to give to a project like a new library some observed that there may be a negative environment in Scotch Plains for fundraising because many residents think the government has not invested in maintaining its infrastructure or has used its money on frivolous things like the miniature golf park. Participants believe that the joint library needs to be a good "value proposition" to succeed in today's political environment. That sentiment was borne out in the results of the most recent statewide election in which voters turned down most propositions relating to the expenditure of state funds. There is an anti-tax sentiment among residents in both towns with a caution to keep the county taxes in mind - "we don't pay only local taxes and the county taxes kill us."

"If you are not forward thinking, you are not thinking about the future for our children, challenge yourself to think about this carefully."

Keeping the Community Informed

We closed the sessions with a discussion about the most effective ways to communicate information about the joint library project to the community in a way that allows them to remain involved and stay informed throughout the process.

Suggestions included:

      Direct mail to each household as the plans and proposal are more fully developed
      Use the local papers and community cable station to keep people informed
      Hold face-to-face meetings throughout the process
      Provide updates on the library and town websites
      Share the focus group and feasibility report
      Survey the community, don't just rely on focus groups
      Use email for the most direct communication; let people opt out if they don't want the information
      Send back pack notices home through the schools

What We Learned

The focus groups confirmed some of what we knew regarding community sentiment about the libraries and the potential for a joint library system. It is clear from the comments that community residents will want a great deal of detailed information to help them make an informed decision about whether or not to support this project. Additional information needed includes:

      Potential sites for a new joint library along with the pros and cons associated with each site
      Data pertaining to current library use such as the number of active borrowers in each community, age distribution of borrowers, and geographic location
      A cost benefit analysis that illustrates the benefits of forming a joint library system versus the cost of retaining two separate systems
      Details about the tax impact of keeping the system as is versus forming a joint library as well as the impact on property values

Based on the focus group discussions, the success of this project will depend on our ability to engage the community in the discussions about forming a joint library in a way that allows them to be part of the decision making process. The process of reaching a decision must be transparent to community residents. This can be achieved through continual communication through a variety of methods.

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