2017 Semifinalist
County of Multnomah, OR
January 1, 2017

In fall 2012, with support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation through The Library Foundation, the library’s private fundraising partner, Multnomah County Library embarked on a project to redesign a fundamental service and redefine the relationship between librarians and readers. Librarians have traditionally offered reading recommendations for interested patrons. During these in-person interactions, librarians make personal and enduring connections with community members while championing the value of reading and its benefit to quality of life. The digital revolution has challenged public libraries to reimagine their services in the context of our increasingly virtual world. Amazon, National Public Radio, and Goodreads are a small sample of readily available tools to which readers may turn for suggestions. But what online self-service amenities favor in convenience, they lack in fellowship. A trained librarian’s connection with a reader cannot be duplicated by an algorithm. The first year of the project focused on exploratory research to uncover reader perceptions and identify opportunities to connect with patrons. In summer 2013, the project team conducted a series of six focus groups with patrons representing diverse demographics and one very important mutual characteristic: all self-identified as avid readers. Taking inspiration from the results of the focus groups, the team developed the concept of an online “personal librarian.” In April 2014, Multnomah County Library launched My Librarian, featuring a photo-based menu of staff members with a wide variety of interests and passions. Each curates his or her own profile page, writes regular blog posts, contributes to a monthly newsletter, and shares reading lists. Patrons may decide on their next read from the immediately available content or opt to contact a featured My Librarian for personalized recommendations. The My Librarian-of-choice then designs a tailored list of titles and shares it with the patron, elucidating on each selection. Depending on a patron’s stated preferences, recommendations may range from fiction to nonfiction, e-books to audiobooks, music to movies. After a year of building, training and revising, the library commissioned an independent evaluation of the My Librarian pilot. In response to user recommendations to expand diversity and to keep pace with the popularity of the service, a second cohort with more cultural heterogeneity joined the team, bringing the roster of My Librarians to its current tally of 17. Since the program’s inception, the number of one-on-one interactions and personalized lists created by the My Librarian team has surpassed 2,200, with more generated every day.