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Where old-timey and online collide: A Q&A with Toby Greenwalt, CLP's director of digital strategy



Toby Greenwalt’s career has led him from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to a near north suburb of Chicago called Skokie to act as a reference librarian. While in Skokie, his work in digital earned him a new role as virtual services coordinator—fitting for a gentlemen whose twitter handle, @theanalogdivide, perfectly describes his interest in exploring where traditional library services and the digital world collide. Now he is six months in as the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s first director of digital strategy and technology implementation.
 
In the newly formed position, Greenwalt coordinates system-wide digital and technology initiatives and directs the work of the CLP information technology department. He also works in conjunction with the administration to ensure CLP is recognized as a trusted and relevant resource for the community in an increasingly digital world.
 
We caught up with Greenwalt to find out how he’s fared in this first six months, what’s in store for the future of CLP and what he’s enjoying about life in the ‘Burgh.
 
You’ve had six months to settle into your position as director of digital strategy and technology implementation at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. What have you been working on?
 I’ve spent these initial months really getting to know my community - both inside the library and out. Within the organization, I’ve been getting a feel for how the library as a whole operates. What’s working really well? What’s broken? What are the blind spots that a newcomer like me might be better equipped to identify? It’s led me to take some concrete steps toward improving the overall user experience at the library. A good example of this is my current work to overhaul our wireless network. With more people bringing devices of their own into the space, we have to find ways to accommodate the increasing demand for bandwidth.
 
Outside the library, I’ve been getting acquainted with the amazing community doing creative things with technology here in Pittsburgh. Between the universities, museums, startups, meet-up groups and everyone else, it’s clear that most people are as supportive of one another as they are ambitious. It’s creating some great opportunities for collaboration—and opening many people’s eyes to what the library is capable of.
 
What challenges are you confronting in this position?
As you can imagine, we’re an organization with a lot of moving parts. There’s a technology aspect to nearly every part of library service, and smoothing out the seams that divide our various departments can be tricky. We tend to use a lot of proprietary software to offer things like articles and eBooks to the public. It’s going to take some work to get many of these tools to do the things we want them to do.
 
Likewise, there’s the ongoing question of how people see the library. For people who haven’t been in a library since they were kids, it’s easy to say, “Why would I go there? I can get everything on the Internet now.”
 
Libraries and online content aren’t mutually exclusive. It takes something of a hearts-and-minds campaign to make people realize the role the library plays here—not just in terms of making informed decisions about the information they consume, but in that our buildings have so much more than just books.
 
What are your short-term and long-term goals for the library?
In the short term, I’m working to improve a lot of our existing services. We’re working on getting staff to operate and communicate more openly using online tools to make it easier for people to share ideas and quickly work through problems. This will inform our work as we start redesigning our website and exploring new services, such as making hardware kits, including cameras and robots, available for users to check out of the library.
 
As far as long-range planning is concerned, it’s about taking these principles of openness and collaboration and applying it to how the library connects with the community. I’m particularly inspired by how the open source community works: that simple act of saying “Here’s what I’m working on”— or “Here’s a problem I’d like to tackle”— can open up the doors to all sorts of new approaches to big problems. It’s a mindset that applies easily to community life, and the library is the perfect engine for bringing people together to make Pittsburgh a better place.  
 
Your LinkedIn profile says you are “transforming libraries into platforms for personal growth and community development.” Can you tell me more about that?
I use the term “platform” for the library in the same way you’d refer to a software platform—a set of tools one can employ to perform neat tricks and accomplish specific tasks. The library has always performed this function in many ways—helping people get things done like start businesses, find jobs and of course discover great books. Technology makes it possible to expand our focus, and to help bring people of all stripes together to do great things. 

You have a lot of experience working in public libraries -- what made you decide to follow this career path?
I’m a massive pop culture junkie and something of an armchair sociologist. I love watching how media can bring people together—whether it’s a book that “you’ve just got to read!” or the way people contribute to dumb hashtag jokes on Twitter. As a repository for information and an essential community institution, the public library is the perfect hub in which to see these phenomena take place.
 
Anything else you would like to add?
When I got this job, I moved to Pittsburgh more or less sight unseen. The fact that this town is so full of supportive, interesting, creative people has been a revelation. It’s been great getting to know the city through my work at CLP. I can’t wait to see what we can get done.
 
 
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