No one knew what to expect when Andrea Berstler arrived in January 2012 to serve as director of the Wicomico Public Libraries.
The library system, back then, was still reeling from a community debate about whether the county should move (and thereby grow) the main branch in Downtown Salisbury. Neither the library’s staff nor its fervent supporters were accustomed to such political attention; the realization that the institution would remain Downtown disappointed some people and heartened others.
But, once Berstler burst on to the Salisbury scene and took hold in her position, all of the move-the-library talk stopped.
Instead, the community conversation became: “Wow! Look at what this new director is doing to improve our library!”
A Philadelphia-area native, Andrea Berstler has worked in libraries since 1999. She in no way matches the librarian stereo-type, and instead presides like an entrepreneur running a start-up company. She is filled with ideas about how and why libraries will and must evolve.
She has so rapidly become entrenched in the community that the she was named 2015 Rotarian of the Year by the Rotary Club of Wicomico County for her “Service Above Self.”
Berstler, with her can-do persona, business acumen and ability to understand all sides of an issue, has quickly become an important community leader, helping to place the institution at the center of the community — not just in its historic way, but in a way that will help the community for decades to come.
Q. When you think about institutions that have faced a lot of change, newspapers are the first thing I think of, but libraries are right there at No. 2. How has your profession/mission/service changed?
A. There have been a number of changes, but our core mission has not changed.
Libraries were created to provide equal access to information for everyone. What has changed is delivery vehicle for that information.
Years ago, information was stored in minds and on scrolls and tablets, so ancient libraries kept scrolls and tablets and story tellers traveled throughout the county. That changed with the advent of books, so libraries collected books. Now information is online, in books and in minds, so we provide internet access, loan books and work with local experts available to teach.
It’s all about the information.
On the other hand, our profession has changed dramatically. No longer do we simply sit behind a desk and wait for someone with a question to visit us. We are much more outward focused, keeping an eye on the community, working to be as responsive a resource as we can be for our community members.
Q. Tell me about “Every Hero Has A Story” and “Catch The Book Thief.”
A. Summer Reading programs are always a lot of fun, but there is a purpose to our fun. Students suffer from what it referred to as educational “Summer Slide.” They lose skills and information over the summer break.
Tests prove that students who read over the summer diminish the impact of summer slide. There is a great video on YouTube that explains the impact of summer slide. (https://youtu.be/Ahhj3wxxkdM)
We work to make Summer Reading fun and to include all the family in the reading experience. “Every Hero Has a Story” is our children’s summer reading theme. We encourage children to participate in activities, workshops and fun events that allow them to use their imagination and read. “Catch the Book Thief” is our adult program.
We know that even people who use the library don’t know all that we offer, so our adult staff members created this scavenger hunt to help those who visit us experience the wide scope of what we have for them on a daily basis. This also encourages them to model good reading habits to the younger folks in their lives.
Q. What do you say to people who think a library is a dusty, quiet place where people say “Shhhhh”?
A. I laugh. Our staff members are often the loudest people in the building, especially in the children’s area.
We do have quiet spaces, but the library is a dynamic place where people discover new things. Discovery can be messy and noisy. We encourage conversation and provide a space for community interaction and fun.
Q. How did you choose this profession?
A. It really chose me. I was an educator, teaching 3-5 grades in a small, rural school. Reading was always a big part of my life and I used it as the basis for much of my curriculum as teacher.
Life being what it is, I left teaching to spent time with my own children. As they grew, I wanted to get back into the working world, but teaching positions were hard to come by, so I took a part-time job in the local library.
It was as if I had found my second home. Four years later I was hired as the director, I went back to college and got my first Master’s degree in Library Science. Several years after that I took a job in a bigger library and learned much more. We moved to Salisbury four years ago, and I went back for a second MLS. I can say that it is truly where I belong.
Q. Your “Light Of Literacy Awards” were another big hit this year. Can you talk about the winners and what the recognition means?
A. As most of us know, there are some remarkable individuals in our community. As I began to learn about some of these people, I was amazed by what they did, out of the spotlight.
A library in Pennsylvania held a similar event and it seemed to fit here, so we modified it a bit and voila – Light of Literacy. For the winners, as well as the nominees, we provide a stage where their work can be celebrated and acknowledged and hopefully, copied and supported.
Each year it seems there is one winner who stands out. The first year it was a group of five young men from Parkside High School who spent time weekly reading to young students who needed male role models. These guys were real rock stars.
The second year it was the local graphic novel and comic designers from PBL comics. They reminded us that no matter the format, reading should be fun. One of this year’s winners was overwhelmed to receive this honor that he brought his whole family in so they could join him in celebrating this award, it made the day very special indeed.
Q. The spring and fall book sales are big events. When is the fall event?
A. The Fall Book Sale will be Friday – Sunday, Nov. 20-22. This is an event of our Friends of the Library group. They have been wonderfully supportive of the Library.
They are also holding a Holiday Vendor Fair that Saturday, Nov 21. It’s a great holiday shopping opportunity for unique gifts. Last year I bought some Pampered Chef gizmos, a couple of flavored teas and a handmade sign.
I want to say a word about our Friends group. This is one of the most supportive, engaged and visionary groups I have had the pleasure to work with in a long time.
Each one is like a cheerleader for the library, encouraging and supporting our work. They raise funds for special projects, work on the Light of Literacy Awards, volunteer at the book sales, and work in the bookstore. They volunteer their time and energy to making this library a success and we simply would not be the organization we are without them.
It is a great way for people to give back to the library and the community.
Q. The array of workshops you all offer is pretty surprising and would seem to be really helpful (Tech Time For Grandparents) to a lot of folks – talk about that.
A. The goal of our programs is to educate, entertain and inform. This fits with our mission of supporting education, enriching lives and building communities. When possible, we find programs that support at least two of those goals.
Other than that and the limitations of our space and budget, we love finding new, surprising programs that make people stop and say,” The Library is doing that?!”
We have had cooking classes, knitting and crochet groups, a beer brewing class, a talk with a former White House chef, and various music concerts. Currently a trivia contest night is in the works
The diversity and quality of our programs is due to the dedication of the staff. They enjoy their work and they are very good at what they do. The staff members live here, work here and many are bringing up their families here.
They offer the programs they find interesting and ones that they believe their friends and neighbors would find interesting. We are always open to considering new things.
Q. Wicomico seems unique in that it only has three branches. (Worcester, for example, has a branch in each of its towns.) But you have a bookmobile. Talk about those challenges and how it all works.
A. Every library system is unique, just as each community is unique. Our library is undersized. We serve a population of over 100,000 people in spaces designed to serve just over 50,000 people. It’s true, this presents challenges.
The Bookmobile is one of our greatest assets. It is the last Bookmobile on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It visits schools, day cares and adult centers four days a week and accounts for nearly 15 percent of all items loaned by the library.
I would truly love to see it back to its six days a week schedule, which would allow us to visit all the Title 1 schools plus the various day care and adult centers already on the schedule.
We have studied these challenges and considered what would be best way to provide services to a population that is as diverse as ours and is spread across a wide geographic area. The best model to use for such a community is to build several small libraries (similar to what Worcester has) the library could provide for the information needs of the community more efficiently and effectively than we can now, or than we could by simply increasing the size of our central library in Downtown Salisbury.
If we could put this plan into motion, it would mean the possibility for improved library service for Pittsville and new library service for Hebron and Fruitland and for the east side of Salisbury. In total, we would have seven community libraries, each one able to focus on the information needs of that community.
We have presented such a plan to the county, but have not yet received support to move forward with this project.
Q. I understand that more than half of the county’s residents have a library card, and that’s a pretty impressive statistic.
A. According to our most current statistics, just over 45 percent of the population has a library card, and we are very proud of that amount. Over the next year, we will be working with the Wicomico County Board of Education to try to get library cards in the hands of every school child in the county. This is part of the National ConnectED Library Challenge. (http://www.imls.gov/about/connected_library_challenge.aspx)
Several national organizations are teaming up to encourage programs that put library cards in the hands of all school students. By working with the formal education community, we hope to provide those support services needed by students so they can successfully complete their school work.
The effort to provide library cards for every student is part of our outreach to schools.
The centerpiece of this work is our new Homework Help Center which will launch in the Downtown Library in mid-September. The Homework Help Center will provide a supportive work environment for school aged children to complete their homework. We will have all the school supplies they need, access to computers and printers as well as books, all at their fingertips.
Currently we are looking for a new staff member to be our Volunteer Coordinator for this project and for volunteers who want to come spend a couple of hours working with these children, helping them do their homework. We plan on having the Center open Monday through Thursday after school as well as Saturday and Sunday.
Q. One of your predecessors had a big issue with the city charging library employees for parking. It was interpreted as the city not being properly supportive of the library. Has any of that been rectified?
A. We have begun talks with the city administration to address this issue. It has a long way to go.
There was a lot of discussion about this when the library considered moving from Downtown to the Beaglin Park Drive area.
What I think is important to remember is that a library has a very positive impact on both the quality of life and the economy of a Downtown. This is true for almost all urban libraries. A recent study done for the Philadelphia Free Library showed that homes within a quarter-mile of a library had an average increase in value of 7.7 percent or $9,600, due simply to location.
That meant that the city of Philadelphia collected $18.5 million in additional property taxes from homes close to libraries. That is income that Philadelphia would have lost without the library.
Wicomico Public Libraries bring a lot of positives to Downtown Salisbury. It provides free educational workshops, open computer and internet access, business and nonprofit support, accessible meeting spaces, as well as over $24,000,000 in annual economic impact.
This library brings a positive influx of resources, services and activities and a Return on Investment of $10.50 for every $1 invested in our organization.
What we want, from both the City and the County, is acknowledgment of our contributions and of our status as a necessary and vital educational organization. And some additional funding wouldn’t hurt.
Q. Should the main branch remain as a part of Downtown, or should it be relocated to one of the city’s high-growth areas?
A. I would never support abandoning the Downtown. I do support adding local branches. I believe that the Downtown and the Library are so interrelated that one cannot thrive without the other. But
there is a need for libraries in local communities, similar to the branch we have in Pittsville, only slightly bigger.
Q. You’ve run a very rural library near Reading, Pa., as well as a larger library similar to the Salisbury facility — how are those workloads and responsibilities different?
A. As director of that small, rural library I was a very “hands on.” This was necessary due to the small staff, but also because that community was where I lived, this my library. I had known many of those people for years. They were my neighbors and friends, their kids went to school with our kids and we saw them often.
I did almost everything in that building, and enjoyed it very much. The larger library was a branch of an even bigger library system. I leaned a great deal about being an administrator, about running a larger library and about the power of cooperation and the dangers of being too isolated. Here, I have both.
Our branches, especially Pittsville, are small, very small. And I love going to visit them, stopping by to see what’s going on, how they are doing and regaining that contact with the community. With the Downtown Library, I find I am doing more of the work as the library’s representative to the community, which I enjoy. There is a lot of partnership building and strategic planning.
But since I live downtown, this is my library, these people are now our friends and neighbors and the people we see on a weekly basis.
Q. How do you see libraries evolving?
A. How much time do you have?
Libraries evolve continually. They adapt and grow as part of their normal cycle. It is nothing new, except that the evolution has occurred so quickly that we can see it on an almost monthly basis.
And please, never state that libraries are no longer needed because “everything is free and on the internet” unless you have an hour to listen to why making that statement identifies you as someone whose education was lacking and who truly needs a visit to the library.
Q. What more does Wicomico’s library system need to do to position itself strategically?
A. To be rather frank, what we need is financial support and more space.
After the program to build a large central library was tabled, the staff was discouraged; many of their great ideas were also tabled. When we changed direction and began developing the program to add branches, the Downtown Library was put at the end of the project list.
They were challenged to “build the new library in the old building.” It is what we have worked to do for the last three years.
Every staff position was evaluated, several were rewritten and a couple of positions were moved from one department to the other. A new strategic plan was developed and every policy was rewritten to reflect our new outlook.
This strategic plan was the catalyst for the new programs, the renovated space and the focus on adding digital and online resources. The plan and the programs and services it helped encourage were so successful that we were awarded the 2014 Maryland Library Association’s President’s Award for quality in customer service.
We have become extremely efficient and are making great use of the resources we have at hand, but you can only make things stretch so far.
When you look at per capita funding, we are currently the poorest funded library in the state. The state average for library funding is $44 per person, yet we are at $24 per person. The library took a 40 percent cut in county funding between 2009 and 2010, and while some of that funding has come back, 30 percent of it has not, plus in those five years, everything became more expensive.
Governments like to state that they support education, but they forget the library is education. Libraries are the people’s university; we are one of the few community services that is open for everyone, on an equal basis.
Anyone can walk through the doors of the library, and instantly have access to everything. At this point there is little more we can do without both a funding increase and additional space.
Q. You’re known professionally for your views that libraries should be run like businesses. Talk about that.
A. It is my view that the best way for non-profits to be transparent, accountable and efficient, is to take a cue from the for-profit entities in our community. We should be prepared to discuss our businesses as the for-profits business owners do, to share their concerns and to look strategically at the long term outlook for our industry.
I can talk about the “warm fuzzies” of libraries; how people remember visiting them as children, how they remember their first library card, and that is nostalgic and very endearing, but at the end of the day, what stakeholders want to know is did we do the best we could with what we had to work with and what was the impact of that work? In a for-profit business, much of that impact is measured in profit margins and dividends. For non-profits, it is measured in economic impact, community investment and the overall reputation of the organization, its “social net worth.”
It is my goal to demonstrate that we have significant net worth in this community, that we positively impact the overall educational community, that we contribute to the quality of life in this county and that the library is a necessary educational organization. I believe that message carries much better when it is conveyed through traditional business measurements.
Q. Tell me about the Education and Entrepreneur Center.
A. The Education and Entrepreneur Center began as an idea about two years ago. When we learned that the Eastern Shore Regional Library was leaving the space in our building, discussions began on how to best use for that space. We had been in discussions with Wor-Wic (Community College) about the Adult Basic Education program.
We had been hosting Chesapeake Community College’s classes downtown for the last few years, and now that the program was moving back to Wor-Wic, we wanted to offer them the same room. This additional space allowed us to provide them a true home for the program. About one-third of the space was converted into a classroom and offices for this program.
The Community Foundation provided funds to outfit the space including tables, chairs and a projector. They estimate that over 800 people will use this space to prepare for their high school diploma testing.
Next to the classroom, the Regional Library gifted us with their computer lab. This space holds 16 PC’s equipped for teaching software, online resources and practice testing. Currently, we are holding a QuickBooks class in conjunction with Maryland Capital Enterprises and Wor-Wic holds practice testing session for their students. We hope that others will contact us, as this space can be used by outside groups.
The remaining section of the space was renovated and is for local entrepreneurs to collaborate, network and hold training and other events. The Entrepreneur Center was created from a grant from Wicomico County’s Economic Development Fund.
Dave Ryan from the Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development office and I worked for about a year to develop the plan and get this started. There is support for this project from the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, SWED, SU’s School of Business and Wor-Wic.
We are working with local leaders to plan workshops in support of the SU entrepreneur contests, provide some basic startup and business training and create a place where collaboration can produce results. Currently we are working to bring the Kauffman Foundation’s 1 Million Cups program to Salisbury. (http://www.1millioncups.com/)
Again – most of these things do not fit within the stereotypical “library.”
We are truly focused on identifying all the needs within our community and then focusing on meeting the ones that fall within our mission and that we have resources to address.
Q. I know my interaction with librarians, as a child, shaped my reading habits, my social priorities, even the profession I chose. Do librarians realize their potential role in shaping our community youth?
A. I think that we do, however it is easy to forget. Librarians, like teachers and other mentors, can encourage or discourage a child’s choices and influence their behavior.
We have a number of children who come up “through the ranks” of Storytimes and teen programs and some who have moved on to work at the library. Recently we received word of one of our young people who moved here from another county when very young. She was overjoyed that we allowed her to have a library card and to check books out for free.
Her parents did not speak English, but she could come here and the librarians would help her find all kinds of books to read and would never make her feel different or like an outsider. She is now an adult, and has moved away, but she has shared that she has a special place for Wicomico Public Library. She describes the staff as her first friends in America.
This kind of impact is not reserved just for children. I have found that interactions with librarians can influence how one views the world. Librarians are, by nature, curious creatures, never allowing a question to go unanswered and always wanting to make sure the information they are studying is accurate, up to date and can be proved. This approach means we get to take a step back and consider things from a number of perspectives.
Librarians are not quiet, timid or shy. In fact, two of my favorite quotes about librarians are from author Neil Gaiman: “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”
And from sci-fi writer Spider Robinson “Librarians are the secret masters of the world. They control information. Don’t ever piss one off.”
I think that sums it up.
Q. You moved here from Central Pennsylvania? What do you think of the Lower Shore and Salisbury?
A. Having been born a “Navy brat,” I am very used to moving. We have, however, found that in this place we feel very much at home. I think we’ll stick around. We like it.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org