After Kelvin Watson’s family finished watching the 1984 miniseries Master of the Game, the St. Louis, Missouri, native marched right to the nearest library, checked out the Sydney Sheldon novel it was based on, and read that 400-page book cover to cover. He was 8 years old.
“I felt very accomplished. That thing was bigger than me!” says Watson, who vividly remembers the experience 42 years later. “Reading that book made me recognize that what you check out from the library can transport you to the places you read about—I was transported to the diamond mines of Africa—and it didn’t deter me from checking out other books after that.”
Watson remained a voracious reader through middle school, college, and officer training. He served as a commissioned officer in the Army and worked in leadership roles in sales and marketing, for Ingram Book Group and Borders Group, Inc., before pivoting to a decorated career in public library service. Eighteen months ago, he transitioned from director of e-content services and strategy at Queens Library in New York City to the highest administrative position at the 11th-largest public library in the nation: director of Broward County Libraries in southern Florida.
“The theme we’ve embraced over the past year and a half is ‘inviting the uninvited,’ ” says Watson, who is one of two recently named directors at large of the Public Library Association. “The greatest value we can give the community is continuing to launch initiatives for everybody, even those who can’t, for whatever reason, make it to our physical locations.
“What that has meant to Broward County is turning the library into a place that is both physical and digital,” he says of the 36-branch system, which serves approximately 1.9 million Floridians. “Most people are now equipped with a cellphone, so, essentially, the library is wherever you want the library to be.”
This fall the library can be found at 10 new Broward County locations—including a coffee shop, a health care center, and the Pompano Beach City Hall—courtesy of Pop Up Library, a pilot program forged in partnership with Baker & Taylor, a Charlotte-based distributor of books and entertainment. The system is one of the first in the nation to offer full access to its e-book collection, via Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360 platform, through a device that functions like a hotspot and doesn’t require additional staff to run.
Just plug in Pop Up Library and “you immediately are able to gain access to our Axis 360 database of e-books, and you can start getting access to those library materials without the need for a library card,” Watson says. “It’s mobile, so we can choose and move the locations. The way I envision it, we now have 10 new [digital] locations to add to the number of [brick-and-mortar] locations we have. We’re bringing more awareness of the library and extending our reach in the community.”
Broward County is already experiencing great success with a similar program launched last year: Community Share provides e-collection access to students in Broward County Public Schools, allowing them to view library resources during the school day, right at their desks, with digital library cards the key to a kingdom of knowledge. 30,000 students are registered, and they’re already looking to expand the program, which has the added benefit of strengthening the relationship between the library and school district, Watson says.
“Baker & Taylor are excellent partners for us because they continue to innovate,” he says. “It’s good to have partners that are adapting to our changing needs and the needs of the communities we serve. They’re always responsive, willing to hear from the customers, willing to listen to their customers, and I appreciate that.”
Always striving with an eye toward the next accomplishment, Watson and his team have big plans to bring Broward County customers the maximum value a modern library can provide, no matter who—or where—they are.
“As a library system, we’re constantly evolving, we’re adapting,” Watson says. “That’s what the library has to do, just like any other organization or company that serves the public.
“We’ve done projects like working with our buses,” he says, “advertising the library and also connecting people to our electronic resources on the bus, because the buses are equipped with Wi-Fi. We did a similar thing with our parks. It’s always warm here in South Florida, so we have a lot of those outside gyms. We launched a pilot last fall for people to connect to music while they walk the trails or exercise.
“You have to stay relevant,” he says. “There are so many other things that people could be doing versus going to the library. I’m trying to make sure they’re always coming back.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and co-host of the Fully Booked podcast.