Sunday, June 1, 2014 marked my 15th year of public library service. With my 5 years in academic and health sciences libraries, I am heading towards 20 years in the profession. I guess I’m approaching that point in professional life where I can tell it like it is. So here it goes….

I did not go into the library and information science profession, because I loved books or reading. Don’t get me wrong, I am an avid reader. The item and the activity, however, are not my librarian raison d’être. The book and reading are just one tool and a method that inform my real reason for pursuing a career in LIS….curiosity! Since birth (according to my mother) I have had an insatiable curiosity. I want to discover, explore and know. Discovery, exploration and knowing are generative. There is always more to discover, more to explore and more to know.

It’s why I opted for the MLIS program with the research emphasis [Shout out to the faculty and staff at the School of Library and Information Science at University of Southern Mississippi], even though it meant an extra semester of coursework.

It is one reason why my work in the field has always been grounded in evidence-based practice and assessment. My favorite LIS journal? Evidenced Based Library and Information Science Practice

It is the reason that I will be sitting for my comprehensive exams in order to move forward to the next phase of my doctoral work in the Managerial Leadership in the Information Professions at Simmons College. [I also decided to move forward with the PhD, because there is very little strong research coming out of the public library practice. This has to change in the future.]

It is the never-ending curiosity that keeps me in the profession.

Is this what our patrons/customers/members/user/people want?

It should be a fundamental question. It can be a rhetorical one. It should be a question that is asked. Merely asking, however isn’t enough. Understanding who, how, when and where we ask this question is more important than the question itself.

Asking this type of question of regular library users creates an echo chamber that does little to challenge our ideas about our users or ourselves. When a librarian ask this question at a library service desk or on the library website, it serves to amplify the echo chamber. We ground the respondent’s framework of library knowing as it relates to the specific library. Every response, good, bad and other, is constructed around this framework. This is not a bad thing. It just may not give us an accurate read on what users want, don’t want, like or don’t like. We can learn about what our users know about libraries, specifically our libraries.

Understanding what library users know can be just as valuable as understanding users’ wants. Knowing contributes to” wanting.” We can’t want what we don’t know. Changing what users know can lead to a change in what they want. This is powerful, but it is different from understanding users’ want. We need to keep this in mind when we pose this question to ourselves and others.

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.  


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