George at It’s all good just got back from giving a presentation at the New Jersey Library Association where he was asked a difficult question:
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?
I have to agree. I see a gulf growing between libraries who are change agents and libraries that are averse to change. And I worry about what will become of those libraries that begin to fall far behind — behind other libraries and behind their patrons. Will their only patrons be the very young and the very old? Are those libraries abandoning teens and tech-savvy adults who expect catalogs to be usable and Internet access to be plentiful at the library? How far behind technologically will some libraries let themselves become before they are forced to innovate? And will their patrons still be there when they finally do?
My interviews have offered me more insight into this problem. I’ve been to libraries that were passionate about user-centered innovation and were looking at how every bleeding edge technology could be used to improve services to patrons. These libraries tried to stay just ahead of their patrons and anticipate their needs rather than being reactive to patron demands. I’ve been to libraries that weren’t particularly tech-forward, but that were at least trying to keep up with their patrons. The librarians there may not have known what RSS was, but they were willing to learn if it could help their patrons. Then there were the libraries where change seemed to be a dirty word. For every question I asked (have you thought about wifi?, what do you think about your current web presence?, etc.) there was an excuse for why they haven’t kept up. And while I obviously didn’t call them on it in a job interview, these excuses sounded pretty hollow to me. Obviously not every library’s service population is super tech-savvy, but at some of the libraries, I’ve felt a palpable disinterest in learning new things and trying new things. It’s the we’ve always done it this way and it’s worked fine so far so why rock the boat mentality. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to realize that their service population has changed right under their noses, and with that change comes new requirements to meet patrons’ needs.
I see these three types of libraries — those that are change agents, those who keep up, and those that are change averse — and I genuinely hope that I end up employed by one of the first two (though obviously my first choice would be to work at at the first). I can imagine that anyone who is passionate about user-centered change would be frustrated working at a library that could be categorized as change averse. I’ve certainly read enough stories on nexgenlib-L about frustrated next genners who are thinking about alternative careers because the libraries they work for are unwilling to try anything new and won’t listen to any suggestions.
There are plenty of factors that keep libraries in the 1990s (or before). Sometimes the staff is afraid of trying out new technologies and programming ideas. I worked in a library where the front-end of the ILS was completely outmoded and unusable by patrons, but it was not changed because the back-end was comfortable and familiar to the staff. I think a lot of libraries are interested in innovation, but they may not know where to start because of lack of knowledge about technology and/or lack of funds. Sometimes it’s the library board or the city/county/school administrators who keep change from happening. I wish some librarian who has been successful in “fighting City Hall” would write a guide to creating change in libraries when the powers that be are averse to it (though there may already be one that I’m unaware of). Because it certainly isn’t easy. I feel for librarians who are full of ideas for improving services to patrons but are stymied at every turn by either their colleagues or the powers that be. I think it is probably the biggest problem libraries have in retaining young/new librarians (with pay being a close second). And more than losing passionate, tech-savvy new-ish librarians, these libraries are alienating entire generations of potential library users — people who believe that libraries are dinosaurs of the pre-digital era, because those are the only libraries they’ve known.
George argues that leaders at libraries must have certain qualities: they must understand their clients’ needs and wants, they must develop a vision for the library that they can sell to the board, they must think outside of the box (beyond the limited imagination of the community), and they must be full of enthusiasm.
Libraries must first understand their patrons — not only the people who visit the library but also the people in the community who don’t. How could the library better serve the needs of all community members, not just the richest, the most visible or the loudest members? Where I used to live, the people who used the library were primarily under 10 and over 65. And library services were targetted to those groups. But what about teens, generation x-ers, and baby boomers? What about the growing Latino community in the area? These people may not have visited the library because they didn’t think the library had much to offer them. But it could if the library understood the needs of the community.
Library directors need to know how to schmooze the powers that be. They need to show how innovation in the library will benefit the city/county/university/etc. Most people are averse to change if they cannot see how it will benefit them directly. Library directors need to develop a strategic vision for the library and show how it fits into the strategic vision for the community/university as a whole. They need to show how each innovation, each initiative, fits into that strategic vision so it doesn’t seem like these ideas have been thrown out capriciously. They need to show how it will impact every stakeholder, what it will cost, and what will be gained. They need to be able to really sell their ideas. Library directors need to infect their staff and the board/administration with enthusiasm about creating change. Library directors can set the tone for change, or they can do just the opposite.