Photo by Wes Kroninger
Technological savvy and hound rescue keep library’s executive director going
With nearly three decades there under his belt, Don Barlow’s dedication to the Westerville Public Library may be matched only by his love of Afghan hounds.
The 63-year-old executive director of the library has watched it evolve over time, but has always ensured his facility has the tools and technology for today’s patrons.
“I’ve learned how fast things move since I first started,” says Barlow.
Barlow accepted the executive director position in 1988.
“A good friend of my wife and I owned a restaurant and moved to Columbus to lead the OSU Faculty Club,” says Barlow. “We would drive to Columbus to visit him, and I liked that the area was only two hours from my hometown of Covington, Ky. I also knew Ohio had a good reputation for libraries.”
When he started, the 29,000-square-foot library’s circulation was 773,713 items, with no computers for 38,000 cardholders. But his implementations quickly made the library a leader in technology.
“We were the first library in Ohio to offer Internet access in 1993 and, one year later, we developed the first website for an Ohio library,” says Barlow. “We were also the first in the state to introduce self-serve checkout in 1994, something we had before Kroger.”
If the Westerville library was not the first in the state to implement new services and technologies, it was usually the second, Barlow says.
One of the services the library was second to incorporate was a drive-through window for picking up reserve items. In addition, SearchOhio, a consortium of Ohio libraries, greatly increased the number of available items. Patrons now have access to 73 million items from 28 partner libraries and all college and university libraries in the state.
By 2012, the library’s size more than tripled to 100,000 square feet, with a circulation of 2.2 million items for 105,917 cardholders. The library now features 23 desktop computers, four specialized computers for photo or video editing, and laptops available for checkout within the library.
The accolades received during Barlow’s tenure are impressive. The library was ranked No. 1 in the nation in 1999 and has remained in the top 10 since. Last year, the facility was named a Five-Star Library by Library Journal, one of only 85 nationwide to earn the honor.
But Barlow knows the library must continue to stay ahead of the technological curve.
“The gap has closed between people saying ‘I’ve never heard of this’ to ‘Why don’t you have this?’ so we must stay relevant,” says Barlow. “For example, since cell phones are now information devices, our technology in the library must be available on phones as well.”
Another example is Library Link. Westerville City School District students can search the library’s catalog from school and have items directly delivered to them. A similar program exists for preschools, day care facilities and nursing homes.
Barlow’s innovations and improvements continue to provide a library that is more than books. The library has some unique features for all ages, including a Teen Center with a 12-seat Internet café and a Children’s Place with climb-through doorways.
“Our mission is to provide what people want, not what they need,” says Barlow. “I see the library as a community environment, and a gathering place to relax.”
Future plans include developing an innovation space, 3-D printing and new classes such as gourmet cooking and citizenship, Barlow says. There are also plans to create branch facilities throughout Westerville.
Not too bad for a man whose library career began mostly as the result of good timing.
“I never had an interest in libraries growing up,” says Barlow. “After I was laid off from my first job at a post office, the Kenton County (Ky.) Library called the unemployment office while I was sitting there.”
Not only did Barlow work as chief indexer at the Kenton County Library for five years, he also met his future wife, Elaine, who was working at the library as a cataloguer.
Barlow eventually became adult services librarian at the Boone County (Ky.) Public Library in 1982. He moved to Indiana a year later, as executive director for the Alexandria Public Library in Mt. Vernon before relocating to Westerville.
Barlow is known in Westerville thanks to his involvement as a board member of the Westerville Area Chamber of Commerce, and past president of the Kiwanis Club of Westerville. He knows the library’s success is a community-wide effort.
“It’s very important to partner with other community organizations,” says Barlow. “There’s no competition between us and any organization, so it makes my job easier with everyone working together and sharing ideas on how we can help each other.”
But Afghan Hound Rescue Central Ohio provides some of Barlow’s most rewarding community involvement.
“I got my first Afghan hound in 1972, followed by two more,” says Barlow. “People say my wife and I are lousy foster parents because we have a hard time giving up dogs. It’s been rewarding to be part of the organization for 15 years and helping about 300 Afghan hounds find homes.”
With the growth and success of the library during his tenure, Barlow sums up his experiences in one word.
“Privileged. With the staff, board and community, why would anyone not want to stay here for 27 years?” he says. “I once interviewed for a similar position in Lexington, Ky., believing I would be going home. Then I realized I wasn’t going home, but leaving home.”
Chris Woodley is a contributing writer. Feedback welcome at email@example.com.