One of Steve Potter’s earliest tastes of independence was a weekly walk to the local library in the working-class suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, where he was born and raised.
Potter remembers that he was a cargo shorts–wearing child who trekked three to four blocks to “a library…to read books while my sister was in dance lessons.” His local library, the North Independence Branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library system, was located in an abandoned A&P grocery store across the street from the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum. “It’s actually pretty cool now,” he says of the 45,000 square foot library, which was renovated in 2010.
Potter has the Summer Reading Program certificates to prove his childhood sojourns, framed and prominently displayed in the office of Mid-Continent Public Library’s director and CEO—the position he’s held for the last eight years. The boy who loved whiling away time in the North Independence Branch is now the man who runs it, along with 30 additional stand-alone branches, serving 800,000 people, spanning three greater Kansas City counties and 14,000 square miles.
One of Mid-Continent’s most exciting new enterprises is a world-class occupational training program made possible through their ongoing relationship with Baker & Taylor, who recently partnered with educational content creator Penn Foster to offer “competency-based, career-aligned” course work and certifications. Mid-Continent will be one of the first systems in America to offer online skills building to adult patrons through Axis 360, the digital media circulation platform created by Baker & Taylor, the Charlotte, North Carolina-based distributor of books and entertainment products.
“This new initiative is a big deal,” Potter says—the first time Penn Foster’s quality course work will be available online, at patrons’ convenience, for free. It’s intended to be a boon to working adults navigating the gig economy, merging incomes from multiple jobs. By refreshing high school basics and acquiring desirable 21st-century skills, community members will be equipped to transition to singular employment in one of Kansas City’s modern growth industries.
“We challenged Penn Foster to help us find a pink-collar certification and a blue-collar certification,” Potter says, “particularly around construction, because in Kansas City those jobs are in high demand.” But the assistance won’t end there: Mid-Continent plans to partner with local employers to give newly certified candidates preferential consideration when jobs become available. “Once they’ve had all of their soft skills and basic educational skills refreshed, why wouldn’t someone like that go to the top of the line when a construction firm is looking to hire someone new? That’s our goal.”
“We’ve got libraries that have every inner-city problem, libraries where there are more cows than people, and everything in between,” Potter says of Mid-Continent’s wide-ranging outposts. A diversity of facilities—urban, suburban, exurban, and rural branches—makes the system a unique proving ground for bold new initiatives in library services.
“When we try something at Mid-Continent, when we do it right, there are opportunities for all types of libraries to glean [pertinent results],” he says. “It’s driven us to be a little more entrepreneurial, to try new services that maybe other places wouldn’t want to try, because it allows us to share with people all over the United States.”
In addition to holding Mid-Continent’s highest executive position, Potter is the co-author, with John Huber, of The Purpose-Based Library: Finding Your Path to Survival, Success, and Growth (2015), a modern manifesto promoting innovations that empower modern libraries to better serve their communities despite shrinking resources.
“One of the things John and I talk about in the book is process improvement to free up capacity to do more meaningful, community-impacting library activities,” he says. “Part of that streamlining process is something we’ve worked on with Jim Smith of Baker & Taylor and some other folks [who are] willing to think outside the box.
“They’re not just asking libraries, ‘Hey, would you buy this book from us?’ ” he says. “They really do try to add a lot of value to what it is we do.”
And Potter’s job, as director and CEO, is to add as much value to library patrons’ lives as possible.
“My first week in library school, I realized it was a perfect fit,” he says. “As a librarian, I can be involved in helping people get over the hurdles in their lives.” A patron might need to find an answer to a homework question or need help with a foreign language because they’re going abroad or need to know what to do because their mother is moving into a nursing home. “Whatever it is, [I’m] the type of person who can help them find the information they need to get over that next hurdle, to live a better life.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and co-host of the Fully Booked podcast. Images courtesy of Mid-Continent Public Library system.