David Jennings, the longtime director of the Akron-Summit County Public Library, is officially retiring next week.
In his nearly four decades with the library, Jennings has played a pivotal role in the creation of the downtown library and the system’s 18 satellite branches. During that time he’s overseen the transition from card catalogues to digital downloads, and new roles in the community, such as providing a maker space.
I caught up recently with Jennings and talked about all the changes he’s seen…
We began our tour in the ground floor of the library which houses a makerspace and mini-tech center. It's a huge leap from where libraries were when Jennings began his career.
“When I started here in 1981, someone had to call here to see if we owned something," says Jennings, "and "we would check the large card catalog."
Now, he says, as an example of how things have evolved from a technology standpoint, "that person can look that up at 2 o’clock in the morning on their phone and place a hold on it and have it arrive at their local branch a day or two later."
Jennings thinks it's important that people still come to the library for books, and more.
“One of the challenges of libraries moving forward is to continue to have compelling in-person experiences," he says, "because people need that and want that in their community."
But it's also an online repository, "That’s a tall order to do both of those things,” says Jennings.
Walking around the libraries tech center is more like entering a clean well lit manufacturing facility than a book repository.
Jennings says the two audio recording studios are in constant use. There’re also video studios with a green screen and camera setups. A media transfer station, a light booth for photographing products, 3-D printers.
“We have a vinyl printer cutter to make banners. Non-profits or a small business can make one, and the only charges are for the materials.”
“We also have a laser engraver which can engrave on any surface.”
“What we’re trying to do here is to give people access to equipment and resources that they wouldn’t have on their own.
Back on the main floor Jennings points to the video collection.
“We still have VHS tapes. There are many people in the community that continue to borrow those.”
A modern public library like Akron’s needs to have any format that anyone would want, from VHS to digital downloads.
“We have eBooks, downloadable audio, you can get that with your library app - people want to get access to information and recreation material in a whole variety of ways, and we need to provide as much of that as we can.”
And it’s expensive.
Jennings guided the Akron-Summit County Library through a seven-year fiscal storm that began with the Great Recession of 2008 as state funding dried up and income from property taxes evaporated. A successful levy campaign in 2015 breathed new life into the library, and one of the first things Jennings did was upgrade the wi-fi.
“We have desktop computers throughout our system at every location; we also have free wi-fi. The combination of desktop logins and wi-fi connections – we had over 1 million of those in our system last year.”
But with all the technological advancements, Jennings says he’s most proud of how the library has evolved in it’s role in civic engagement.
“We are more engaged in our community not only in Akron, but in all of the communities we serve than we ever have been before.”
“The public library is a unique institution. We’re perceived as neutral, so we’re a really good collaborative partner because no one thinks we’re going to steal their cheese.
"We can ... make a contribution through our facilities in 18 communities, with sites for meetings; we have lots of different ways to get information out to people. We also have talented staff to participate in committees and task forces. So whether it’s early childhood education, the arts, earned income tax credit, skills-based hiring – trying to find ways to hook people up with jobs seekers -- there are all kinds of ways that we can raise our hand and make a contribution.”
Akron-Summit County Public Library Director David Jennings retires next week after a 37- year career.
He says a new director could be named as soon as April.