How the Allen County Public Library is innovating for the future while cherishing library traditions

You don’t have to be a book lover to love the library.

Of course, they have millions of books and you could easily get lost in the stacks if you want to, but there’s plenty more to do at your public library– and you don’t even have to go there to experience the many wonders a public library has to offer.

Here in northeast Indiana, the Allen County Public Library (ACPL) has grown over the years, providing books and so much more to the community. Founded in 1895, the ACPL includes the main location in downtown Fort Wayne and 13 additional branches around the county. 

In late 2023, the library released its strategic plan after an extensive process which included interviews, focus groups, online surveys, and many conversations with the community and staff. 

ACPL Executive Director Susan Baier says they were intentional about talking to their current patrons, as well as seeking input from community members and groups who may not have been using the library, to help formulate the four-year strategic plan. 

ACPL Executive Director Susan Baier“I like the plan a lot because I feel it honors and cherishes our tradition,” says Baier. “It's such a wonderful foundation to build upon and it also looks to the future.”

The tradition that Baier speaks of is one of the core pillars of the plan– celebrating reading and learning. She says the library wants to lean into this tradition in the coming years. 

A visual graph representing the Allen County Public Library's plan.“The exciting part to me is that (celebrating reading and learning) can be interpreted in so many different ways– and it should be interpreted in many ways.”

When you think of reading and learning and libraries, first and foremost, you probably think of books on the shelves, and the ACPL lives up to that. (Fear not book lovers, Baier says books on shelves aren't going away any time soon.) In addition to physical copies of books, the library also offers patrons audiobooks, movies, and music online. 

Accessing materials like ebooks took off during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Baier says there are no signs of that slowing down.

“Many of our patrons may never– or rarely set foot in one of our physical buildings,” she says. “They can be card holders that live in Allen County but are traveling to their family in Texas, or traveling to work across the globe, and yet they are still engaging with us.”

The library’s recognition of this “other” type of customer was key in their strategic planning process. The digital customer’s opinion of the library is based on their experience of the institution through a screen. 

Baier says the ACPL understands that this type of patron may have a different vision for the library and different expectations, too.

Books, digital or otherwise, are an integral part of what the library offers, but it’s not the only method of learning that the ACPL serves up. Patrons can visit the library’s maker labs where they can learn to use 3D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines, and more.

Inside the Makers Lab at ACPL.“It excites me that our plan does have that appreciation and respect for our history and our tradition and what we're known for,” says Baier. “And also, there's so much more on top of that.”

In addition to celebrating reading and learning, the ACPL’s strategic plan also addresses how they plan to serve as a community resource. There have been concerns raised in the last few years about the reading scores of Indiana’s third graders and the learning loss that may have resulted from the pandemic. Baier says it’s a big problem that affects the whole community.

Children play with the Lego wall at ACPL.“Something that I often say is big community problems involve a lot of partners at the table to help brainstorm solutions,” she explains. “And making sure that everybody in the community – particularly children, but everybody – has free access to reading materials, is foundational to what we do.”

One of the ways that the ACPL has improved access to books is by removing late fees. Baier says they heard from families who were not using the library simply because they were afraid that they could potentially run up fines and wouldn't be able to pay them. 

“The fines really didn't help us get anything back,” she says. “They were punitive for the sake of being punitive. It really didn't result in any sort of positive outcome for anybody.”

The removal of fines for late materials has been positive, and in particular, Baier says they’ve seen an increase in children’s circulation.

Furthermore, when creating the strategic plan, the library thought through what it meant to be a community resource to Allen County’s immigrant and refugee communities. The library hired local consulting firm Petra Solutions to help. This year, the ACPL will be adding a bilingual Program and Partnerships Specialist who speaks Spanish, Burmese, or both.

“It is so important to have staff who look like the community they serve, who can speak the languages, who have that cultural competency,” says Baier. “We learned that we need to work on that area; This is a first step.”

Another employee position that is being added is a social services coordinator. This is a staff person that a lot of libraries around the country have added, explains Baier.

“People come to the library for all kinds of information needs… sometimes they need help identifying how to navigate the healthcare system or where to access mental health services or where to find utility assistance,” she says. “Those are questions that we get very often.” 

The ACPL had social work interns for the past couple of years as a pilot program. They’ve also been working with Parkview Behavioral Health and their homeless outreach team who have had office hours at the main library branch once a week. The new social services position will expand what the library can offer and also provide support and training for staff who are helping patrons with their needs.

In addition to the strategic plan, another big project that the ACPL completed last year was upgrading the Integrated Library System that runs everything the library does. They also updated the website and mobile app at the same time. All of this was the culmination of months of preparation and the migration of millions of records, including patron information, library catalog records, and web data.

Allen County Public Library, Main Branch
Baier says the new system is much more user-friendly with an intuitive interface for both staff and patrons making routine tasks faster and easier to complete.

“That is particularly relevant to our library because of the complexity of our collections,” she says. “Our genealogy researchers are doing some very in-depth searching. Those records are quite complex and the system that we have now makes the discovery much easier.”

Library patrons explore the Genealogy Center.
The Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center has 1.2 million physical items in itscollection and is the largest public library collection of genealogy records in the country. 

Baier says they are getting great reports from their genealogy researchers here in Allen County and all over the world that they're having more success finding what they're looking for in the library’s catalog.

Curt Witcher, the Genealogy Center Manager and Director of Special Collections was recently recognized by the American Library Association with the I Love My Librarian Award. Witcher was one of 10 honored from nearly 1,400 nominations nationwide. He was recognized for his decades-long service and contributions that have made the Genealogy Center such a notable part of the ACPL’s offerings.

The library is amongst the largest collections of Jewish genealogy in the world. In 2025, the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, a conference previously held in London, and this year in Philadelphia, will take place in Fort Wayne. Baier says she is excited to have the library be at the center of such a big event bringing tourism to the county and helping the local economy grow.

“There's going to be about 1,000 people coming to Fort Wayne, who will be staying here for several days in our hotels and eating at our restaurants… and that's due to the reputation of our collection worldwide,” she explains.

One aspect of the Genealogy Center Baier says she would like more people to be aware of and to help them grow is the Community Album, a digital album of collections that showcase the people and history of Allen County. 

“Our goal is to make that community album truly a reflection of the community and that's done by community contributions,” she says. “We have people who generously loan us their personal effects… we are able to scan it and digitize it and give their materials back to them safe and sound and then write the metadata and make it available to the world.”

Baier says the library recently did this with a collection from United Hispanic Americans, a nonprofit devoted to the empowerment of the Hispanic community in Allen County. ACPL worked with their retired Executive Director Rosa Gerra to digitize boxes of photographs, letters, and other records and then unveiled them at a recent event. The collection is now online for everybody to see.

If genealogy is not your thing, there’s plenty more that the library has to offer in the way of events and programming. On the ACPL website, visitors can search based on age group, library location, and event type. There are art exhibits, book clubs, discussion groups, storytimes, writers’ forums, and more to choose from.

Baier is even starting her own book club of celebrity autobiographies. She says as executive director, most of her job is administrative, which has removed her from hands-on library work. 

“(Having my own book club) kind of gets me in touch with why I got into the business in the first place– the root of what I love to do,” she says. “And it gives me an opportunity to be with patrons, which I love.” 

Angela Jackson-Brown signs copies of her book during  Writer’s Day with Angela Jackson-Brown at ACPL.The library has several events and programs to support local writers and authors, too. The ACPL has just launched a podcast called “Pages and Voices” devoted to local authors. Their website also features a section where local authors can submit information if they would like to have a copy of their book in the collection, would be willing to offer a program, or would like to be a guest on the podcast.

In October last year, the library hosted “A Writer’s Day with Angela Jackson-Brown,” a free all-day event made possible in part through an Indiana Humanities grant. The ACPL recently learned they have been selected through a competitive process to receive an Indiana Humanities grant again this year “for another big-time author visit.” Baier says she can’t say who it is just yet, but it’s someone she’s pretty excited about.

“It's a big deal to meet an author in person… for people, no matter if they are a writer, if they are an aspiring writer, or if they are just a lover of the written word,” she says.

Baier says putting on events is one of the things that the ACPL does well, and is happy that they can make it happen. She also says when talking about creators, she has to give a shout-out to the Access Fort Wayne department.

Access Fort Wayne in action.“I don't know of many other public libraries in the country that have their own in-house TV and radio station,” says Baier. “The Angela Jackson-Brown program– we were able to livestream that and it now lives on YouTube because of the work of our Access Fort Wayne department.”

Through Access Fort Wayne, the library offers free training on radio and television production skills and gives community members a platform to create their own content. For some people, it’s a fun hobby, but for others, it can be the start of a career. Several local television and radio personnel started building their skills at Access Fort Wayne.

Allen County Public Library***
There’s truly something for everybody at the library. If you haven’t checked it out lately, you might be surprised by all they have to offer. As Baier points out, just because you don’t have to pay for the ACPL’s programs and services when you receive them, they are valuable and do have a cost.

“The library is a public commodity that you have paid for, so come get your money’s worth,” she says. “We think we give you a big bang for your buck.”
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Read more articles by Jennie Renner.

Jennie Renner is a Hoosier native who has lived in the Fort Wayne area for most of her life. She believes that art, in all its forms, makes everything better. Her work can be found in Glo Magazine and Input Fort Wayne and self-published on Medium.