Everybody agrees that public libraries continue to change. They are offering new services, technologies, and helping to transform their communities.  Have public libraries themselves really changed though? With a few exceptions, the public library organizational structure has remained pretty much the same for decades.

Internal and external forces have necessitated the formation of new departments, like IT or customer service. Economic, political and social forces have driven the flattening of many public library org charts. Do these shifts and additions really help manage the complexity and change that the public library is experiencing?  Is it time to rethink public library organizational design?  Is it time to leave that Microsoft org chart template behind?

The idea of tearing down the silos in public library is a popular one. Yet, the artificial boundaries of Public Services and Support Services persist. All of the work done in the public library is done in service to the public, so aren’t all public library staff engaged in public service?

Many, if not all, of the processes in the public library are highly systematic.  Traditional public library organizational structure treats most processes as disjointed and disconnected. Attempts to rectify this and apply systems type operations in public libraries are challenging, because the structure is often not designed to support integration of tasks.

It may also be time to look at audience defined service models more holistically. This doesn’t mean that public libraries should stop serving audiences like, children, young adults or seniors. It does mean contextualizing services for those audiences in within broader concepts and with specific outcomes, like learning, engagement, innovation, experience and so on.

It is quite possible that the traditional public library organizational design may work just fine for some and that’s great. If not, then maybe it’s time to think about how to make it work better.

If you could redesign your public library organization, what would it look like? Would it be circular, like Columbus Metropolitan Library? A network of self-directed teams, like Portland (ME) Public Library? Is it driven by innovation? Efficiency? Experience? What is your ideal public library organizational design?  

What does it mean to be strategic?  Freek Vermeulen, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School and author of the book “Business Exposed: The naked truth about what really goes on in the world of business,” sums it up best in his Forbes blog post, What Strategy is Not.

First and foremost, strategy is about the choices we make as we answer a few simple questions:

  • Who are our libraries’ real customers/patrons/users/members?
  • What value do we bring to our customer/patrons/users/members?
  • How do we deliver our value proposition?

Our response to these questions should say just as much about we are deciding not to do as what we are deciding to do.

What is your library deciding not to do in 2014?

Take three reusable bags to the store and you’ll probably find four bags worth of stuff you just have to have. You will also find a way to squeeze everything into those three bags. The bags will bulge, buckle and bubble over. The handles and the seams will be strained. They will be awkward to maneuver out of the store. With sheer determination, you will lumber through the parking lot, to the train or down the street.

The idea of initiatives fitting with the library mission and/or vision is an important one. Most of us can probably make any project, initiative or great idea fit with our mission if it is something we really want to do. Whether our mission is very broad or extremely narrow in scope, many of us are masterful at making the case for why we should be doing it (whatever it may be at the moment). The result is often strained, misshapen library goals, objectives, resources and people.

When we talk about aligning initiatives with the library mission and/or vision, we are speaking to agreement, integration, and coordination. Taking on something that aligns with the library mission and vision feels natural and integral to what the library is doing or intends to do in the future. Just like when the items in the bag are properly align, nothing is spilling over, bent or stretched out of shape. There are not few awkward roll outs, or lumbering implementations.

Of course, this also means that there will be some things that may have to be left in the store or the library conference. 

Studies have demonstrated that twins have an undeniable connection. Even when separated at birth, they report feeling a sense that something is missing, and unexplained physical sensations, especially pain that can be traced to the moment their twin experiences a physical trauma. 

In libraries, innovation and organizational development are much like twins that are raised apart. Innovation is the one that is adopted into privilege. Library resources are never in short supply to support it. Innovation reaps the benefits of its favored position.

Organizational development is often the product of the foster care system. It gets bounced around the library with very little hope of being adopted. Resources are always in short supply for organizational development. It becomes the product of its disadvantaged background.

Though innovation may flourish, eventually it feels the pain of its neglected twin. A library’s continual investment in innovation without consideration for the systems, structures and processes needed to effectively manage it will the stress on the organization. Over time innovation related stress causes fissures, and cracks in the library infrastructure and culture along with a depletion of the resources that made library innovation possible in the first place.

It would be optimal if innovation and organizational development grew up together. The pressure on libraries to validate their worth with the next big thing can make this all but impossible. It is possible to cultivate a better, more productive relationship between the two. As we bask in the afterglow of a stunning project roll out, we need to stop and listen to what the organization is saying.

Have we hewn together systems from existing mechanisms that were not designed to manage our new big thing? Do we piece meal policies and processes together that are barely enforceable or operable? How steep is the learning curve and time commitment for staff? Can we articulate what success looks like and how we know when we’ve attained it?

The answers to these questions may tells us that we need to give some time and attention to organizational development, maybe even adopt him/her into our library, before innovation gets to far ahead of itself. 

A few weeks ago, singer Robin Thicke, producer Pharrell Williams and rapper, Clifford T.I. Harris made a preemptive legal move against the Gaye Estate and Bridgeport Music to secure rights as it relates to their current hit, Blurred Lines, Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” and Funkadelic’s “Sexy Ways.” We won’t get into the sticky wickets (of which there are plenty) here. [Oliver Herzfeld offers a good overview in his Forbes post, The Blurred Lines Of Copyright Law: Robin Thicke v. Marvin Gaye's Estate, if you want to get entangled in the details.] What we will tackle is why Robin Thicke just became more than just another missing or lost CD in our libraries.

For the majority of libraries providing Makerspaces, and digital content creation, offering these services has focused on learning and experimentation versus production.  In the today’s viral world, things can change unexpectedly and quickly.  Who knows when the next library produced video or song will become the next viral sensation. Therefore, libraries providing creative services to their communities need to be aware of the (often nebulous) copyright landscape beyond neatly placed stickers on the copy machines.

This doesn’t mean that libraries need to bring in a bunch of intellectual property lawyers to draft a complicated contract for the next Dr. Dre or Eminem who wants time in the library booth. It does mean we need to be aware of the potential future for creative services in our libraries and explore the library’s role in some of the more challenging copyright and IP issues. Familiarizing ourselves with the Thicke v. Gaye case is an opportunity for libraries to start getting clear before the lines start to get blurred.  

After reading marketing guru and all-round insightful guy, Seth Godin’s recent blog post, Nature and Nurture (The Professional Edition) , I was reminded that many libraries have adopted the mantra of transformation but they have not adapted internally to become truly transformative organizations.

Many libraries maintain structures, processes and cultures that are more akin to the famous Lucy and Ethel chocolate factory skit. We know how that ended. Many library folks feel exactly like Lucy and Ethel. In an attempt to be everything to everybody, the library conveyors churn faster and faster; staff struggle to keep up; the quality of their work diminishes and in the end a lot of work may get done, but there is very little transformation taking place.

This often happens when we approach transformation as a happy accident or residual of transactional library work. We offer the programs or services that happen to change someone’s actions, behavior or attitude. When a library truly becomes transformative the nature of the work is informed by identifying the change that we want to make happen.  In turn, this changes the nature of the organization.

The Library Chocolate Factory measures success quantitatively. Even in the effort to strive for quality, it is often measured by how many/much (books, programs, services) met or did not met standards. Library Chocolate Factory work takes less time, can be done over a shorter period, and may cost less to do. It rewards those who contribute to organizational outputs. In contrast, the Transformative Library is focused on outcomes. Its work is more time-consuming, may occur over a longer period of time and may cost more to complete. It rewards those whose work contributes to the organizational outcomes.

A real transformative library measures success by the outcomes it seeks to achieve. It understands that input and output metrics are often the ingredients and byproducts of measuring outcomes (NOT the outcomes themselves). Resources are allocated in support of achieving and measuring outcomes. Organizational structures are reengineered to integrate traditional functional areas into departments focused on broader concepts or ideas about work. Performance management processes require staff to focus on impact instead of productivity. The library leadership transforms the organizational culture and climate through their thoughts, words and deeds.

Unlike, Lucy and Ethel’s supervisor, the library leader in a transformative library does not turn up the speed on the conveyor, even when it appears that the staff have been successful. He/she is likely to take some time to subjectively and objectively evaluate the outcomes of their work. This person understands that an empty conveyor belt does not mean that all the chocolates made it into the box successfully. More importantly, he/she knows that even if they were all successful boxed that is not really the point.

A couple of nights ago, I watched the tweets as my colleagues across the country weighed in on the weeding situation in Urbana.  The one of the many takeaways from this whole thing is the need for strategic alignment within libraries as we adopt new services, technologies and tools.

Whether you weed one book or 100,000 volumes, the collection should support organizational outcomes informed by a clearly articulated mission, vision and strategy above all else*. In doing so, we can avoid haphazard processes that come when we characterize our collections with ambiguous terms, like new, popular, and up-to-date, or worse yet make them useless by trying to be all things to all people.

*That includes space, aesthetics, technology and special projects


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