Tuesday, April 12, 2005

"Does the non-dynamic library have a future?"

Yesterday I did a scan presentation for the New Jersey Library Association in a preconference called "Information Services in the Larger Context."

This was an excellent audience, full of questions, comments, and well-considered opinion. But one question stopped me in my tracks. One public library director explained his frustration in seeing the slow pace of change in libraries, and asked, "Does the non-dynamic library have a future?"

After some hemming and hawing, sort of like Elmer Fudd attempting to speak Aramaic, I finally said, "Maybe not." How's that for forceful opinion leadership?

During the rest of the program, the ride back to Newark Airport, and the flight home, I had time to think about this. It seems to me that libraries have a responsibility, not just an opportunity, to change.

Determining the nature of that change, though, is a combination of marketing and leadership. The type of marketing I'm referring to here is not about sales, but rather it's about knowing your clients thoroughly, what they need and want. Pat Wagner of Pattern Research led the group through some excellent exercises in this direction as the other part of the preconference, and she made some important points about how a library director can start to understand their communities more effectively.

But it's not just about giving people what they want. Leadership is about creating a vision that you can share with the board, with elected officials and business people, with the library's clients, and most of all, with the library staff. (One of our side discussions during this meeting was about the importance of not blaming the staff for not being willing to change. If the leaders cannot explain the change and provide a reason for it, the problem lies not with the staff, but with their leaders.)

Also, the clients can't know everything about what libraries could offer---they only know what they've experienced. Library leaders need to have contagious enthusiasm, not only for what the library is today but for what it can be tomorrow and beyond. And then they need to spread that contagion far and wide.

If we could do this, we wouldn't have to worry about non-dynamic libraries!


Anonymous said...


Interesting writeup. A couple of thoughts. First, the director who asked the question about the future of non-dynamic libraries - where was he on the spectrum? Was he a leader (according to your definition) or was he a whiner, seeing the world go past him? Was he part of the solution or part of the problem? It's so easy - especially now during the time of public library funding troubles - for administrators to whine "if only this" and use it as an excuse to do nothing.

Another point to make, which you touch on, is directors being in touch with their communities. In my experience, there are some areas of the country where "status quo, forever" is perfectly acceptable with the community - they like their little home away from home and don't want it to change. In this case, it is non-dynamism by choice. They're part of the pattern too. Perhaps a little off the norm, but a legitimate part of anyway. Should they disappear?

Finally, and this is more of a comment than a question. I wish that library directors would fail more often. Because failure means that at least they are trying new ideas, some of which will work and some of which will not. Too many libraries are playing it too safe, only going with the tried, true, and repetitive. In a sense, that's not dynamic, it's simply copying someone else's approach and localizing. No institution (or science or education ) moves forward unless it tries, experiments, and fails. So in the move for dynamism, let's also encourage failure. Failure is, in an environmental way, a measure of a larger success.


Anonymous said...

The issue is not whether we change but in what direction. Perhaps the only thing worse than not changing is sucessfully going in the wrong direction. Leadership is both the ability to inspire change and the ability to set forth a vision that leads to long-term success. Far to many changes in librarianship have led to nothing -- neither sucess nor even glorious failure -- they have been change for change sake.

Bob Belvin bbelvin at lmxac.org

George said...

Chuck, I only heard the question that the director asked, so I'm not qualified to characterize whether he is a leader or a whiner.

The problem with "the status quo forever" is that it leaves a lot of people behind, including future voters and community leaders. I'm not sure libraries with that attitude should disappear, but I have a sinking feeling they will.

We in the library world have a fear of failure. I think it's because we are entrusted with public money (in most cases), and we don't want to show up on the front page of the local newspaper for having a project fail. But I totally agree that a certain level of failure is a building block for the future.

Which leads me to our anonymous poster. I disagree with this stance, I think. Movement in the wrong direction at least gets the movement started. The direction can be altered as the momentum builds. There are very few utterly unrescuable (if that's a word) directions.

Thank you both for the very thoughtful posts!

George said...

Sorry...I missed Bob's name at the end of his post.