Dionne Mack-Harvin

Dionne Mack-Harvin

Dionne Mack-Harvin has been on the job less than nine months, but already it's a long conversation to learn all she has done to improve and expand El Paso's public libraries.

And she's done it without using any more taxpayer money.

Mack-Harvin, director of the El Paso Public Library system, doesn't come across as the type one would find curled up on a windowsill with a book.

If libraries were a sports team, she'd be captain of the cheerleaders - one who also has a gift for managing multi-million-dollar budgets and thousands of employees.

She came from Brooklyn, where she ended "shushing" in its libraries, and where she kept tabs on a system that had a $100-million budget and served 2.5 million people.

She views libraries as lively community centers, not dusty repositories of printed material where teens are told to be quiet. Of course, she's also a big fan of having designated areas for those who need a quiet place to study.

She doesn't talk about residents or visitors; instead, they are customers. She also sprinkles her conversation with words like "value" and talks of "markets."

To Mack-Harvin, libraries serve as a bridge to information, whether it comes from a book or from the Internet through an iPad.

Most recently, the Texas Legislature eliminated virtually all of its support for public libraries in Texas, and cut the El Paso system's entire program budget.

Mack-Harvin is confident that she can not only restore that $100,000, but also expand programming at libraries by increasing private support through the library system's new foundation. Local libraries are almost entirely funded by the City of El Paso.

She has the experience, having been the chief fundraiser at the Brooklyn Public Library system, where she says she raised roughly $5 million.

Mack-Harvin, who is 39 and has a son in fourth grade, began her career at Brooklyn Public Library in 1996 when she was 23. She quickly rose to the position of director, becoming the first African-American woman to head a major public library system in New York State.

While she's spent most of her life in the Big Apple, Mack-Harvin was born in South Carolina. She earned a bachelor's degree in history and African-American studies from the State University of New York College at Brockport, and master's degrees in Africana studies and library science from the University at Albany.

Mack-Harvin sat down with El Paso Inc. at the Main Library in Downtown and talked about why libraries are still relevant, improving literacy, and why taxpayers can no longer be expected to foot the entire bill for libraries.

Q: For decades, library branches in El Paso have been closed on Monday, and past efforts to change that have failed. How did you do it and without using any more taxpayer dollars to boot?

When I came to El Paso, our hours of service were very limited, and one of the things that I learned from my work in Brooklyn was consistent hours, when and where people want them, will get people in the door.

I reduced hours here at the Main Library. It used to be open 60 hours a week, and it required a lot of staff to make that level of service possible. When I came in I realized, looking at our statistics, the Main Library was not a primary destination for many El Pasoans.

People like to visit the library in their neighborhood, and we've made investments to have our branches strategically placed throughout the community.

Many branches opened at 9, 10, 11, 12 or 1 o'clock, which really cut out the opportunity for those who may work a late shift or go to a late class to visit the library.

It also made programs for kids difficult. You don't want to have a program for kids after 12 o'clock because they're tired. You've got to get them before naptime, because we are aiming for 0 to 5-year-olds.

Q: Was staffing changed?

We transferred 32 people. So we reduced the staffing in this building by 44 percent and transferred people out to our branch locations. On average, neighborhood libraries have increased hours by 22 percent and the system's hours have increased by 20 percent.

Not only did we add Monday hours, but we added morning hours that have allowed us to have some consistency. For instance, any Tuesday morning at 11 o'clock, there is a story time happening at every branch.

Q: Have you received any feedback on the new hours?

We are only into about day 10 of our new hours, but I haven't heard anything negative.

Q: In the past, surveys have shown El Paso to be one of the least literate cities in the U.S. Their conclusions have been based, at least in part, on the lack of library resources available here. Is that being reversed?

When you start to look at those literacy numbers and you look at the amount of people who are functionally illiterate, the thing that libraries can do is start from the beginning. And that is part of why I launched El Paso Ready to Read here. We may not be able to touch every adult, but we can certainly impact the next generation.

There are more than 100,000 El Pasoans who are age 0 to 18 and more than 50,000 El Pasoans who are age 0 to 5. So how do we make sure that those 0 to 5-year-olds are entering school ready to read and that those parents who may be low literacy find a comfort level with helping their kids be successful in school?

While we will continue to offer adult education classes and ESL (English as a Second Language) classes and look for ways to impact the adult population through workforce development, it is critical to make sure that their children have what they need to be successful.

Because we are a border city and we will always have an influx of new Americans, it is going to be very difficult to have a measurable impact on some of those numbers in one decade.

I certainly saw that in Brooklyn. It is a hub for new immigrants; so you may have an impact on one group and they may be moving along in terms of getting basic skill sets, but then you have new people.

My focus has been on that piece, in addition to the adult pieces, because that's when you are going to see the measurable changes. It will be our next generation.

Q: What is El Paso Ready to Read?

There's actually a national program called Every Child Ready to Read that was implemented by the Public Library Association and the American Library Association about eight years ago.

So we are really piggybacking on a program that is well proven and has worked very well with multiple populations. My staff is now using that model to impact early childhood education in each of our locations.

Beyond just books, they are giving parents tips in terms of how to read to children. Then we will do parenting workshops to help them understand some of the basic things they can do to help ensure their children are ready to learn to read when they go to school.

Q: When was that launched?

Two weeks ago.

Q: What is your top priority now?

One of the things that's going to be first and foremost on my agenda is to look for private funding for public libraries. Brooklyn was a non-profit. I was chief fundraiser there and raised around $5 million in program funding.

The whole model of expecting taxpayer dollars to pay for all of the programs and services is long gone. So one of the things that is going to be a challenge is helping people who have the ability to give realize that their public library should be someplace they should consider. There are tremendous opportunities in terms of programs in these wonderful spaces.

I no longer have a program budget because that was all cut by the state this fiscal year. My dream for El Paso is pretty huge, and I think our customers will find value in the types of programs we could bring that don't require much money.

Q: How much was cut by the state?

One hundred thousand dollars. That was all the money for programs like our cultural series or our summer reading program.

Q: You said you have a huge dream for El Paso. What are some of the elements of that dream?

We could have our own El Paso education institute here. We have ESL classes that are fully subscribed. We know we have challenges in terms of people wanting to learn English so they can be successful in life and earn a livable wage. I don't have instructors or the infrastructure for that. So that is just one of my basic things I want to get done in the short term.

I want to make sure our young children have access to all the technology, so I have begun to write grants to make sure I can add a whole tech time to my early childhood education program.

Much of these are not things that other library systems haven't done and done very well - the models are there. Now, we certainly have a need for them in El Paso.

I am redoing my literacy center downstairs to be expanded to talk about education. It's important that we are starting to have a conversation with our kids very early, talking about the possibilities for higher education.

Q: There's of course the image of the librarian telling people to be quiet, but I understand you gained some notoriety by ending "shushing" at Brooklyn Public Library.

The role of libraries really changed with the dependence on technology in the early 1990s. We started looking at ourselves as being a bridge to technology, looking at ourselves as being information providers rather than just providing access to printed material.

We need to make sure our communities have full access to information regardless of the vessel the information is being provided in. That could be through an art program, that could be through a lecture series, that could be through a print book, that could be through databases we have available, that could be through your iPod.

As we started looking at the role of technology in what we were doing, we also started looking at ourselves as being more of a community space, because we we're attracting many, many different types of people that we weren't attracting before.

As with any other industry, it is really important to know your clientele, to be agile, it is important to change to continually meet those needs. Like Brooklyn, El Paso Public Library is more than 100 years old. Imagine if we were doing what we did the first days this library was open.

Q: How are the libraries in El Paso doing in that regard?

There are some challenges in terms of connectivity here in El Paso that we are trying to overcome this year. That was one of the things that I found most surprising coming from New York. There, you go absolutely everywhere and can get on somebody's Wi-Fi system with whatever device you have.

There is a tremendous need for that access for our customers and it really spans a whole range of socio-economic backgrounds. Our computer centers in El Paso are almost always full; there are waits sometimes. But the City of El Paso has made a tremendous investment over the last few years in terms of providing that access to the public.

Q: What specifically?

An $8.4-million broadband technology opportunity grant, supported by the recovery act, was awarded to the City of El Paso a year ago, and we are establishing 93 computing centers throughout the city.

That includes the libraries, parks and recreation, the Boys and Girls Club, the La Fe centers, workforce development, and the housing authority. And the city is also building a whole microwave network that allows us to have affordable connections.

That's been a pretty amazing project to be a part of as I have stepped into this position. By the end of the year every library will have Wi-Fi access, including our partners that I mentioned. We will have 1,400 new computers. I also have 60 trainers who are like a SWAT team, training people on basic computer skills or the Internet.

Q: So how is El Paso doing on the ‘"shushing" front?

You know, I don't think I've seen any library here that has been quiet. Our staff is doing a wonderful job engaging people and children. El Paso is young in a way that New York was not.

We had a lot of seniors, so moving away from the shushing thing came with some resistance in New York but, when you come here, many library users are young families with multiple children. We want them to interact and engage with their kids and with the programs. In the summer, we will have 100 people come in for story time.

But one of the things that has been really nice about the way El Paso has focused on its libraries is that more than half have been constructed since 2004. They've been built with quiet reading areas that really allow people who are looking for some quiet space to have that in addition to the vibrant children's areas and meeting rooms for teens to engage in.

We have seen tremendous growth on the Westside, by 14 percent. While our Dorris Van Doren branch is well sized, not necessarily my Irving Schwartz branch, which is one of our older ones. It serves about 100,000 people and is bustling.

When you add more buildings you are adding operating costs and many libraries have become pretty stretched.

Q: You oversaw a library system that had a $100-million operating budget. How does that compare to El Paso?

When I was there, the Brooklyn Public Libraries served 2.5 million people through 60 buildings; we have 12 locations here. Our budget here is $8.5 million.

Q: What is the budget for books?

Our book budget is around $1.2 million. That includes our downloadable e-books and any databases you may find online. The city also added $400,000 this fiscal year for additional books and other materials for loan.

When you look at El Paso prior to this improvement. we were spending $1 per person; the national average is $5.34. It's tremendous that the city found a way to expand that to $1.67.

City Council, the city manager and others understood the importance of regrowing the book budget because it had been a lot higher before 2008, when the city really had to start tightening its belt. It is a really exciting time for me to see the hours of service and the programs and the dollars for our book collections really come together in a way that can really speak to our communities in terms of service, moving forward this fiscal year.

Q: How many books are in the El Paso library collection?

We have 849,000 books. If you use an average of $12 per book, I'll be able to add 33,000 new books this year.

Q: Given the Internet, some have gone so far as to say that libraries are obsolete, and now even Amazon is rumored to launch a cheap book renting service through the Kindle soon. Is there a role for libraries in the Internet age?

One of the things that is always important to remind people of is the demographic of El Paso, and I had to do the same thing in Brooklyn. Brooklyn had a 24-percent poverty rate. El Paso's is about 20 percent.

Yes, some people have Kindles, there are early adopters, but if you don't have Wi-Fi at home or have the resources to buy that $100 device or multiple books because you have a family of five, you really would have no other way to be able to be connected to that information outside of your public library.

One of the things that was most exciting for me when I began my library career was that, through public libraries, you have an opportunity to really get this snapshot of everything that is happening in communities. People come into libraries as this safe trusting space and they share so much of themselves in terms of their goals and what was happing with them and you got to see their children grow up.

I still receive Christmas cards from the two kids who I did "Itsy Bitsy Spider" with on my first day 16 years ago.

Q: Are more El Pasoans using libraries?

The libraries here are bustling. There are some challenges in terms of access, but I think we have addressed many of those like the hours of service.

Q: Are there treasures in the collection?

We have a wonderful collection of materials in our Border Heritage Collection. We have the Aultman photo collection. I've got to take you down - it's really fascinating stuff to see. When you walk through the photo history of El Paso and all the documents that we have, it is pretty amazing. You see Downtown with horse-drawn carriages.

Q: After living for 28 years in New York, moving to El Paso must be quite a change. What brought you here?

For me, I never realized the stress level of constantly being in a city that never sleeps. This job has allowed me to have a renewed energy for the work that I do. I just bought a house, and I love it. I grew up in South Carolina in a very small town with 36,000 people, so being in a medium-sized town that is suburban and family oriented is not alien to me. It is almost like coming back to my roots.

In many ways it's almost been like a vacation to come to El Paso and refocus on the things I am passionate about and connect with a whole new group of people.

My son is certainly enjoying his time here. He has been in school for a couple weeks and he loves his teachers, he loves the outdoor time, he loves his class.

It really is going to be something he can grow with and will give him what I want to see as a balance between his New York life experience and what El Paso brings in terms of building a person who really has strong family values and roots.