Singing the unsung heroes who make libraries successful

Noah Lenstra with Emily Orischak /
Two women standing in front of a stage, one of them holding an award
Jennifer Johnson (left) expressed gratitude to the Fleetwood Area
Public Library for providing a welcoming place for her daughter
Tori to volunteer.

Community partnerships play an important role in creating successful libraries, and Berks County Public Library in Pennsylvania is no exception. Each year, the library honors individuals and groups in the community who demonstrate outstanding leadership, innovation, and dedication to library service in the community.

In March 2024, I interviewed Emily Orischak, Community Relations Coordinator, Berks County Public Libraries, to learn more about the library system’s 21 years of running an awards celebration.

Creating and growing recognition

Noah: I see this year's awards mark the twenty-first year that the library has honored leadership and service excellence in Berks county. Can you talk a bit about how the initial idea for the awards and ceremony came about?

Emily: Our first official award was the “Public Relations Award,” which was presented to a member of the System Advisory Board back in 1991 who was instrumental in the newsletter our Friends group put out. The award was called the “Henny” and it was inspired a fable that favored the loud proclamation of a hen over that of her counterpart, the goose. The award was presented to a library who was very adamant about their public relations efforts, in proclaiming their library’s achievements.

The Berks County Public Libraries Awards Celebration ceremony didn’t start until 2003, and it was very limited at first, growing over the years based on library input. Recent additions include awards for Outstanding Library Staff Member and Outstanding Volunteer.

The idea behind the awards is that there are lots of moving pieces in terms of what makes library service successful—many unsung heroes—and other elements that need to be recognized.

Noah: Could you tell me how the winners are decided?

Emily: It’s technically our System Advisory Board’s awards: Members of our seven-panel board review and select winners which are announced at the ceremony, but many behind-the-scenes actions are required to prepare for the awards that our department handles. We send out an awards submission form with the different submission categories and instructions on how to nominate people and organizations. We collect and organize everything and send it on to the Board for their review and consideration. We use a Google Form document for the Board to select the category winners, and the library system organizes and hosts the ceremony event with board members presenting the awards.

Noah: How is the awards night itself set up?

Emily: The awards night lasts two hours in total. We open up the space early with some light refreshments — this year was a hot chocolate bar. The overhead costs are minimal. The venue is the auditorium of an Agricultural Center which can hold up to 150 people and is owned by the county government, so it is free for other county departments to use and includes an overhead projector and a big screen.

The refreshments are sponsored by the Friends of Berks County Public Libraries rather than coming out of our budget line. This year we utilized the Berks Career and Technical Center for catering, having students prepare desserts.

During the ceremony, we project slides up on the big screen that list all the nominees for the categories and their corresponding libraries. In the remarks, we make sure to note that while not everyone will be selected as a winner, every nominee should be recognized, and there plenty of people who have not been nominated that we also want to celebrate.

We do have two monetary awards: a $500 check to the library that wins the public relations award and $100 to the Friend of the Year. The funds come from the Friends of Berks County Public Libraries and the county commissioners’ appropriations fund. The Friends take care of the Friend of the Year trophy, a vase with engraving, along with the accompanying flowers. Our department pays for the other awards and works with a local small business that handles their ordering and engraving.

Obstacles and opportunities

Noah: Are there any lessons learned you’ve made over the years?

Emily: One issue we’ve had is that most of the ceremony attendees consisted of just the winners—people wouldn’t go unless they won. Starting in 2018, nominees didn’t know if they won until the awards ceremony—with exceptions for a few categories, like the elected official, local business, and community organization awards. We wanted to make sure that people like senators knew they were receiving the award and could plan time in their schedules to attend. 

For this year’s ceremony in early March 2024, the process was very successful. The first award was the Linda Baer Friend of the Year. As soon as we announced the winner of the award, audible gasps of pleasant surprise could be heard throughout the auditorium. This year we had 90 people attend, which was one of our largest events to date. We’ve had to move the ceremony location to accommodate an increase in attendance over the years.  

Noah: What challenges have you had in administering the awards?

Emily: A lot of the challenges have centered around the nominating system. Recently we have seen a lot of turnover in our libraries—especially at the director position. We find that our veteran directors are the primary people who submit nominations. We do send out the form to everyone involved in libraries through our list-serv with directors, staff, board members, and friends’ groups. But we also limit the number of nominations—every library can submit only one nomination for every category. In the past, we’d have some libraries that would nominate five programs each, but for the purpose of the awards, we ask that they submit only their most outstanding candidate.

With new library directors we’ve found they don’t always see how these awards could be beneficial to their libraries. For instance, considering elected officials: Even if their nominee doesn’t win, they’re still notified that they’ve been nominated, which is a great way to share they’ve been honored by their library. The awards are also a way to generate additional support down the line through community members.

The nomination process used to be very lengthy: Now it’s a fillable PDF that just asks for name of nomination, contact information of nominee/library, a paragraph that asks them to explain why they deserve to win the award (300 words maximum). The Chet Hagan Memorial Public Relations Award is our most involved application: We ask them to craft a physical portfolio that demonstrates their library’s promotional efforts throughout the calendar year.

Making an impact

Noah: What impacts have you seen from the awards?

Emily: We have seen businesses recognize their receipt of an award on their social media or even in physical displays at their business. During our county commissioners meeting, the commissioners recognize the awards and mention a few winners. The ceremony is always covered by media groups. 

Every year we do invite the county commissioners, and the Chief Operations Officer and his deputy. This year 4 out of the 5 county officials attended this ceremony. One official was very emotional when the volunteer Tori Johnson received her award. She volunteered at the library as part of a life-skill class at her high school—she is partially deaf and blind—and her mom gave a very emotional speech about how the library helped her get out in the community. There were many tissues, and the elected officials felt the emotional impact of the award.

Last year was the first time we presented the Volunteer of the Year award, and it was given to someone on the autism spectrum who volunteered at one of the libraries. The library provided him a connection to the community and a purpose; his parent said he loves coming in, and it helps him use his strengths in mathematics and organization in the community.

Another recent award that comes to mind: One of last year’s winners, Firefly Bookstore, was nominated during a time when school boards were in the process of starting to censor materials available to students, so the bookstore, in conjunction with the library, helped put on an event related to a book banned at that school. As reflected in this example, the awards help give merit to libraries working with outside organizations and honoring the work they do together.

I wanted to share one more memorable moment from this year’s awards ceremony that was quite touching. Our first award of the evening was the Linda Baer Friend of the Year award, and it was presented to Diane Pawling of the Mifflin Community Library. Prior to her involvement with the library Friends group, Diane had once been the director of the Mifflin library. Helen Flynn, the Berks County Public Libraries advisory board member who presented the award to Diane, was director of the same library immediately following Diane. And the person who nominated Diane for the award had at one time worked directly with late Linda Baer as part of our own Friends group.

Advice for other libraries

Noah: Any advice on how to get started?

Emily: I would lean more towards internal awards to start out. We receive the most nominations for categories like Outstanding Program and Outstanding Staff Member. We’ve also received a lot of volunteer nominees since it was recently created two years ago. We’ve found that since library directors are particularly busy at the end of the year with annual reports, library operations, and other important tasks, they are more apt and motivated to submit nominations for their internal recognition. It’s a good place to start, and those are most popular categories that people are calling to keep.

I’d also advise sending out a library survey to see staff recommendations. One adaptation we’ve considered is moving the awards to be in conjunction with our staff development day or another event, based on feedback received from staff.  Our biggest hurdle is soliciting nominations for all the categories, so we start internally where there is the most interest.

Noah:  Given that Berks County has over 400,000 residents, how would you recommend scaling this to a smaller population?

Emily: It is true that we do have a lot of residents, but that shifts depending on where you are in the county. Our county’s only city has close to 100,000 residents, but other more small and rural towns, like the one where I live, have only a few thousand people and one library. There is a general trend we see where libraries that serve more people, and thus have more municipal funding, are able to do more and have more possibilities when considering awards. Our smaller libraries are dealing with high turnover rates and staffing changes, and it has been harder to get nominations. But it is important to state that everyone stands a chance to receive an award. We have had some of the smaller libraries win the big Chet Hagan Memorial Public Relations Award because they showed their merit. When considering the nominations, the advisory board reviews the messages and impact of each submission, so it’s important that libraries take the time to carefully craft their messages that illustrate their impact.  

Noah Lenstra is an associate professor of Library and Information Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He co-chairs the Partnership Committee of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries and in 2016 started Let’s Move in Libraries.

Emily Orischak is the Community Relations Coordinator for Berks County Public Libraries. The Berks County Public Libraries (BCPL) System is a department of the County of Berks, serving 428,849 county residents across 866 square miles and 72 municipalities since 1986. Through the support of the Berks County Commissioners, BCPL staff aids in strengthening the Berks County community by providing centralized support for the 19 full-service member libraries and four branches.