Traverse City News and Events

Under New Strategic Plan, TADL Tackles Upgrades To Make Library More Inclusive Space

By Beth Milligan | Jan. 13, 2022

For the first time in more than a decade, Traverse Area District Library (TADL) has a new strategic plan – one driven by community input that will guide library improvements for the next three years. TADL, focusing on four priority areas called Inclusive Space, Purposeful Partnerships, Innovative Engagement, and Targeted Outreach, will start tackling projects under the first two categories this year, an effort that could include everything from updating library entrances, bathrooms, and amenities to be more inclusive to completing a diversity audit of library materials to making sure the TADL website is accessible to screen readers and the visually impaired.

TADL board members voted last June to adopt a new strategic plan, which was created with assistance from the Midwest Collaborative for Library Services and based on one-on-one interviews with 71 community leaders as well as a public survey that generated 386 responses. Instead of just asking stakeholders what they wanted to see from their library, says TADL Director Michele Howard, survey questions asked about what kind of community respondents wanted to live in. “We turned it outward to ask what’s the idea of a best community, and then looked at how a library fits into that vision,” she explains.

Based on feedback, TADL arrived at its four priority areas and definitions for each goal: Inclusive Space (enhance gathering spaces where people can be themselves, encounter one another, and have more access to diverse materials, programs, and services); Purposeful Partnerships (enrich existing and seek out new relationships that enhance and impact quality of life); Innovative Engagement (excite and energize the community by expanding the idea of what a library can be and provide); and Targeted Outreach (deepen TADL’s connection to the community by seeking out new relationships and be a conduit to resources and services).

The strategic plan breaks each of those goals into action steps and objectives that TADL will pursue each year between 2022 and 2024. The plan applies to the main Woodmere branch as well as the Kingsley and East Bay branches; the Interlochen, Peninsula, and Fife Lake libraries operate independently under separate directors and boards. To kick things off in 2022, TADL will be focusing on efforts to make the libraries more inclusive spaces and to strengthen their relationships with outside partners. As an initial step, Howard said Disability Network Northern Michigan came and completed an assessment of the Woodmere building. While TADL generally received high marks on accessibility, the Disability Network flagged several areas for potential improvement.

“The pressure on some of our doors that don’t open automatically makes them too hard to open,” says Howard. “Some of our catalogs are too high to reach. We need to fix some things in the parking lot so that they’re more visible. We’ll be looking at remodeling some of our bathrooms, which haven’t been updated in twenty-some years. We’re looking at different designs to make sure our bathrooms feel safe.” That could include more single-stall restrooms that are gender-neutral and/or accommodating to families or single parents with children. TADL is also reviewing redesigning the front of the building to “create a welcoming entrance that reflects our diverse community.”

In addition to infrastructure updates, TADL is also looking at how inclusivity applies to materials, programming, and the overall library culture. Other potential projects include creating quiet hours for people who are neurodiverse or have sensory needs, replacing display cases with touch panel digital signage, creating more inclusive community displays, exploring more diverse hiring tactics, purchasing flexible and accessible furniture, and updating the TADL website to be accessible to the visually impaired and include racial and social equity pages to create an “inclusive web space.” Howard says TADL staff have undergone and will continue to undergo diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training, and that the library aims to hold at least four DEI events annually. TADL also plans to do a “diversity audit,” a specific exercise undertaken by libraries to assess their collections and how representative they are of different audiences. 

Part of the challenge of being inclusive and balancing the needs of a wide range of patron groups is figuring out how to proceed when those different groups come into conflict. For example, many individuals experiencing homelessness in Traverse City – lacking a viable daytime alternative – come to the Woodmere branch to stay warm during the winter. In recent months, that has led to a significant escalation in behavioral incidents at the library, to the point TADL recently had to hire security guards, who are now at the library daily between noon and six. Howard wants individuals experiencing homelessness to feel welcome at TADL, but also must weigh safety considerations for other patrons. “It’s not homelessness that’s the problem, it’s addiction,” she says. “That’s where the problems occur. We’re pulled in many directions as a library…and we just want everyone to be safe. We’ve been really impressed with the guards we have right now and their ability to find the right line of empathy.”

The library can also act as a potential “neutral” safe space that allows people from different political backgrounds to interact peaceably – a rare area of common ground in an increasingly partisan environment. That position allows TADL to host forums, expert presentations, and other forms of programming without assumptions of bias that can attach to other venues. TADL’s strategic plan calls for expanding that type of programming and bringing in more community groups to engage with the space. “The library has always been there for people looking for that safe space, and hopefully we can expand on that and continue that traction where people can come and explore new ideas safely,” Howard says.

TADL will also focus on improving other partnerships this year. Potential action steps include hosting a nonprofit fair, improving tribal outreach, developing cross-marketing opportunities with other community groups, and strengthening connections with schools, as with a recent program that put a library card into the hands of every Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) student

More work awaits in 2023 and 2024, when TADL will focus on engagement and outreach efforts that could include hosting open mic and outdoor music events, investing in technology like virtual reality and gaming programming, hiring an outreach coordinator, setting up library booths at local events, reaching out to vulnerable populations like migrant workers and the homebound, developing a skills-sharing series, and enhancing personalized library services. “This first year just lays the foundation,” Howard says. She notes that at least one outreach effort will hopefully start in 2022: The launch of the library’s long-awaited bookmobile, which will bring books, mobile hot spots, and other resources to rural and other underserved areas. Like everything else, the bookmobile has been victim to a “supply chain issue,” says Howard, but she expects this year “will be the year we finally get it up and running. We’re really excited about that and seeing how we can reach out to new groups, or bring us to them, so they can experience the joy and services the library can bring.”

Pictured: Right, TADL Director Michele Howard; left, the TADL Woodmere branch.

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