There was no public library in the small Catskill Mountains town where Sari Feldman grew up. And the closest one, 16 miles away in Ellenville, New York, wouldn’t loan her the books she craved as a precocious preteen reader.
“They had children’s restrictions,” Feldman says of a policy prohibiting those under the age of 12 from borrowing adult materials. Novels like Gone with the Wind—even Cheaper by the Dozen—were off-limits to 11-year-olds; so she needed her sister, who was four years older, to use her unrestricted card to check them out.
“My sister tortured me,” she remembers. “Unless I did all her chores—make her bed, set the table, wash the dishes—she would not borrow from the adult room for me. I was her handmaiden.”
Feldman celebrated the liberation of her 12th birthday by spending the entire day reading exactly what she wished (Peyton Place by Grace Metalious), and she’s been choosing her own titles ever since. Furthermore, she’s built an illustrious career empowering countless others to do the same.
Since 2003, Feldman has served as executive director of Cuyahoga County Public Library, one of the busiest, most successful libraries in the country.
“When I discovered this profession, I was the luckiest woman ever,” says Feldman, a past president of both the Public Library Association (2009-2010) and the American Library Association (2015-2016). “It’s given me so much. It’s truly an honor to be a librarian and to lead the Cuyahoga County Public Library at this time in my life.”
The 27-branch system, serving a population of 620,000 in northern Ohio, routinely ranks as the U.S. public library with the highest circulation per capita in the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ annual Public Libraries Survey. According to Library Journal’s2017 Index of Public Library Service, they are first in circulation and library visits, second in public computer use, third in eCirculation, ninth in program attendance, and the overall highest-scoring library (out of 7,409 U.S. public libraries) for the eighth consecutive year.
“Reading is our No. 1 priority,” Feldman says. “We talk about our circulation as ‘read, watch, listen, and play,’ because we have a large circulating toy library—in fact, the largest public circulating toy library in America—but ‘read’ is over 60 percent of our circulation. We’re very proud of that. If we’re saying we stand behind reading as a priority, we’re demonstrating that it is the right priority for the community.” In 2017, CCPL circulated an astonishing 15,284,394 items, and they’re already beginning to see increases for 2018. A big part of that success, Feldman says, has to do with the mindful presentation of an abundance of popular and attractive materials, available in all branches at all times.
Working with vendors who share their priorities is another. That’s among the reasons why CCPL chooses Baker & Taylor, a Charlotte-based distributor of books and entertainment, to deliver the high volume of quality items they require.
“We talk about strategies we have for improving service, access to collections, the feel of our material collection,” she says of working with Baker & Taylor, “so that people will really embrace the types of things that we’re buying and will discover them within our physical space. They want to support our effort to be successful. They don’t want to just sell us books...they want to know that those books are then going to be in the hands of customers.”
CCPL works with Baker & Taylor on a high-volume merchandising plan they’ve internally branded “Prime Picks.” Using Baker & Taylor’s high-powered collection-building tools, like collectionHQ and Evidence-Based Selection Planning, librarians can easily select a host of bestsellers, in fiction and nonfiction, for prominent display. When voracious readers walk into a branch, the problem isn’t finding something exciting to read, it’s narrowing down all the choices. Physical holds lists have decreased as circulation continues to climb.
“Prime Picks” is just one of many examples of the highly collaborative, creative relationship between library and vendor, Feldman says. Together, they’ve partnered on everything from new uses for technology to furniture design, with Baker & Taylor often sending representatives to support and celebrate new initiatives in person.
“One of the things I learned as the president of the American Library Association, where I had the great good fortune to represent U.S. libraries nationally and globally, is that the relationship libraries have with vendors in the U.S. is uniquely American,” Feldman says. “Nowhere else in the world do libraries and vendors work together to create something that’s bigger and better than either could do on their own.
“Baker & Taylor are invested in libraries,” she says. “They believe in libraries, they support the core values of libraries, and they are making a difference in what will happen to libraries in the future.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and co-host of the Fully Booked podcast.