By JENNIFER NESBITT
ThisWeek Community News
Friday August 23, 2013 8:05 AM
When Executive Director Don Barlow came to the Westerville Public Library in 1988, the library was one third the size it is now. So was its circulation and number of cardholders.
Barlow celebrated his 25th anniversary of leading the Westerville library Aug. 15.
The staff took him to lunch, likely to Skyline Chili for a chili dog, he joked, and a case of Diet Coke from the library board of trustees sat as a present on his desk.
In addition to overseeing the library’s growth — the library building at 126 S. State St. now is 100,000 square feet, circulates nearly 2.3 million pieces of material annually and has 106,000 cardholders — Barlow also had to see the library through the dramatic changes in technology that have taken place in the last 25 years.
In 1994, the library became the first in the country to offer self-checkout machines, which it still uses today.
“We had them before Kroger,” Barlow said.
In 1995, the library went live with its webpage and served as the Internet service provider to much of the community, including the city, school district and chamber of commerce.
Then in 1997, the library pioneered what it dubbed the “Library Channel.” Librarians sifted through webpages, determining and listing what was credible. The channel was used by more than 300 libraries nationwide, but sadly, Barlow said, the innovative program eventually became obsolete.
“It was cutting edge; then Google got better,” Barlow said, with a laugh.
The library’s technology initiatives have continued, with the library participating in programs such as OhioLINK, which provides access to research and databases from colleges and institutions around the state.
The library also offers extensive web tools within its building and via its website.
Barlow said he only sees technology expanding with the library, and he said his eyes are set next on providing content for mobile devices, such as allowing magazine articles to be able to be downloaded directly to tablets.
Technology, Barlow said, is all about providing library patrons with convenience.
“Certainly, today, convenience is important,” Barlow said. “People don’t use Google because it’s accurate; they use it because it’s convenient.”
Convenience comes in simpler forms, too, Barlow said, such as the library’s drive-through pick-up window, something he said is an unusual feature for a library.
“We’re still one of the few libraries with a drive-through. We go to a conference, and librarians say no library should be without a drive-through,” Barlow said.
Since Barlow joined the library, he said the library has focused hard on bringing to the community materials and programs that people want to see and use.
“The emphasis was always on having a great collection, even if you had a lot that people didn’t use,” Barlow said. “Our emphasis is to put on the shelf what the customers want.”
When Barlow began, a large part of the focus was on expanding the library facility, which was clearly too small for the community.
The expansion took nearly 10 years to bring about, Barlow said, by the time the library made plans and secured funds. However, he said he lists the expansion as one of the accomplishments he’s most proud of during his tenure.
The library space remains adequate, Barlow said, though now the focus has turned to finding more parking for patrons.
“I think we’re where we need to be,” Barlow said. “We need more parking. That’s sort of our biggest issue.”
Another point of pride for Barlow is the way the library gets out into the community, delivering materials to all of Westerville’s schools and providing programs for people of all ages in the community.
“It’s taking our library out into the community rather than waiting for people to come” to us, Barlow said.
Under Barlow’s leadership, the library also has earned accolades as one of the best in the country, for the last 10 years being named in the top 10 libraries of its size in the United States.
Barlow modestly credits the library’s success to a well-read and supportive community.
“It’s a high reading community,” Barlow said. “I am constantly surprised at how many people use the library.”
Barlow came to Westerville after serving as executive director of the Alexandria Public Library in Mt. Vernon, Ind.
A native of northern Kentucky and a University of Kentucky alumnus, Barlow said he was looking to locate closer to home and knew the Columbus area well because he had visited friends here.
A few years ago, he interviewed for the director post of the Lexington Public Library system. He cited ties to his home state in investigating the change.
Now, Barlow said, he can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“I’d love to be here another 25 years,” Barlow said. “I don’t have any plans on leaving.”