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Point to your librarian with pride
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Several years ago Phoenix launched a program called "Points of Pride." West Valley Treasures began in 2002. In both cases, the goal was to identify specific things local citizens were particularly proud to have in their community.

I use the word "things" very purposefully here. The various "points" and "treasures" were all physical - buildings, parks, institutions, that kind of thing. But I think the folks who launched these programs missed something. They don't have to always be physical. Sometimes they're people, and I've got a case in point.

Toni Garvey is director of the Phoenix Public Library system.

She's also the United States' 2004 Librarian of the Year.

There are a lot of librarians in this country. To be named No. 1 among that profession is no small honor, and Toni has earned it. Admittedly her timing was great. She took over the Phoenix system just before the Burton Barr Central Library was completed. That gave her a great canvas with which to work, but what has earned her the honor from the Library Journal is not the building. It's what has happened inside it and at the other branch libraries in the Phoenix system under Toni's watch.

I've had the privilege of working with Toni and her staff for eight-plus years as part of the Phoenix Public Library Foundation, an early addition to the library system under her administration. I've had a ringside seat. There have been dozens of programs and innovations, but a couple will serve to demonstrate why she is deserving of this national recognition.

One is Teen Central at Burton Barr. Teenagers are one of the toughest groups for libraries to serve. They've outgrown the children's section, and their interests and needs are tough to pin down. But more and more of that age group have been finding their way into public libraries after school and on weekends. Libraries are safe places with room to hang out. They provide computers and Internet access. The challenge was how to serve that age group in a way that would both be appropriate and truly engage them.

Teen Central was the experiment, and it has been incredibly successful. The space, on Burton Barr's fourth floor, is set aside for the teens who use that library. They're in charge. They, through the Teen Council, set and enforce the rules. They manage the space. There is an adult librarian presence, but it's at arm's length.

The collection in Teen Central is geared towards its users. That includes the books, magazines, music and everything else. It's designed to feel more like a club than a library, and it works. More than 400 teens use the space daily.

The Urban Libraries Council gave the program one of its highest awards two years ago. Libraries from all over the country have visited with the intent of replicating the idea. And teen centers are being installed in the other branches in the Phoenix system.

The other example I'll cite is at one of the branch libraries. Harmon Library serves the community immediately south of downtown Phoenix. It's not the most affluent part of town, and many of the residents are Spanish-language dominant. When Toni got to Phoenix, the Harmon staff was almost exclusively English-only speaking. The library was underutilized, at least in part, because the staff couldn't connect with their constituents.

Today, with input from a community council, staff reassignments and language training for others, Harmon is now one of the most active branch libraries in Phoenix, and that language training has been extended throughout the Phoenix library system.

As Toni told the Library Journal, the buildings and collections are wonderful, but what the Phoenix system is really all about is serving the people who use it. She continues to make that focus on library users the central mandate of her administration.

Phoenix probably won't put up a sign on Central Avenue outside of main  library listing Toni as one of our Points of Pride, but maybe it should.

David Howell is a 17-year Valley resident. He and his wife live in Phoenix. Howell can be reached at dandjhowell@aol.com. The views expressed are those of the author.


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