Far too often we associate the quality of our libraries with our collections. We may allow our collections to define us in the minds of our community members. I was recently reminded of this while viewing the presentation Scott Walter gave as part of the OCLC Speaker Series. Based on Walter’s editorial in the January 2011 issue of College & Research Libraries, it takes up the issue of what makes an academic library distinctive. All too often the distinction is based on physical collections. For example, my own library at Temple University seeks to promote the uniqueness of its collections about Philadelphia’s history in the 20th century. We promote this in our literature, and we plan programs and displays around this collection – as well we should since it’s an amazing wealth of content that we are proud of and eager to share with the global community. Walter’s argument is that we should be equally adept at developing and promoting distinctive service programs. It’s just harder to do.
Whether it’s collections or services, creating those that gain recognition for being distinctive requires distinctively good library workers. That’s what we hear too little about. With collections, you need good people with the right expertise who can spot materials that will fit an existing collection of distinction or serve as the basis of a new one. Luck or timing are factors that can bring an unexpected collection to the library, but more often than not it is the result of patient and persistent relationship building – and knowing where to make the effort. Creating library service programs of distinction, to my way of thinking, is much more dependent on enabling teams of library workers to develop unique ideas, then figure out how to fund them, invest the time in creating them, get support for implementing them and then evaluate and determine how to improve them. Collection builders may beg to differ, but for me creating and sustaining these services of distinction is the more challenging of the two. No doubt though, both are ultimately about the library’s human resources.
Based on presentations I’ve heard over the last several months, along with case studies of companies that excel at user experience design and delivery, I’m convinced more than ever that dedicated, motivated and committed staff are the key to better libraries. It’s also become more clear that it is the administration’s responsibility to provide the necessary training, educational opportunities and development that enables the staff to excel. In the tension that exists between control and innovation, the administration needs to move more towards innovation and away from control to empower staff to use their expertise to make the libary better. There’s no point in having great people if the administration ignores their great ideas, and is unable or unwilling to afford staff the freedom to try some of these ideas – and potentially have them fail.
It’s not enough to just have great staff – and even if your staff is good or just all right – it is even more important to get them working together. No lone genius or solo maverick is going to create services of distinction. That’s why Jason Young’s keynote for the ACRL President’s Program really inspired me. Discussing concepts from his book Culturetopia, he provided a primer on how to get people working together. If they can’t work together or, even worse – work against each other, the library gets worse not better. Young talked about the human elements that cause staff to have problems that work against team performance. Key among them are the tension and stress that people experience in their professional and personal lives. One antidote is training and development. The other is improving administrator performance when it comes to leadership and team development.
As I listened to Young I wrote this note: “I want to be the type of leader that people are enthusiastic about working with – they want to be on the team.” Young’s advice for leaders: don’t micromanage; listen; be aware of how your gestures contradict your words; make team members accountable; lower the tension by finding out what staff are doing right and reward it. Perhaps his most important point for building teams of great library workers is that gifted leaders are able to figure out what individuals’ strengths are and can then help staff build on them rather than force staff into areas where they are less competent. Need examples of what good teams can do make their libraries better? See the 28 examples of innovative, team-based projects that were submitted for the ACRL President’s Program Innovative Teamwork Competition.
Young shared his years of experience at Southwest Airlines as a corporate trainer and team builder. He emphasized the importance of helping employees build trust in one another. Simon Sinek amplifies and elaborates on that theme in this presentation “If You Don’t Know People You Don’t Know Business“. Establishing trust is critical to building great workplace teams. According to Sinek trust emerges in two ways. First, we have common values. We trust the people who share our world of experience. Second, we trust the people who believe what we believe. That’s why authenticity is so critical, says Sinek. We practice authenticity when we say and do the things we actually believe; they are the symbols of who we are. These are the signals we communicate to others who will then decide if we share common beliefs – and if we do then we have the basis for a trusting relationship.
That’s why we need to pay attention to this Project Information Literacy report (see pg. 7). It tells us that when students seek resources for course-related research they consult instructors 83% of the time, friends 49% of the time, and librarians only 30% of the time. The students don’t perceive librarians as sharing their values nor believing what they believe, so there’s no trust – and if you don’t trust someone you don’t seek them out for help or take their advice – you ignore them (RE: Sinek’s story about making the decision to buy a televison). Listen to Sinek’s presentation, especially the part (about 19-minute mark) where he talks about what really gives us fulfillment in our work. It’s not when we do something great. It’s when we help someone else do something great. It’s when we are generous and help someone else, expecting nothing in return. That’s the nature of a great team, when we help each other to achieve a single goal that is more important than ourselves. Sinek has advice for leaders similar to Young’s: The goal is not to fix others’ weaknesses; the goal is to amplify their strenghts and surround them with the people who can do what they can’t do. When team members find their common values and beliefs, and they begin helping each other to achieve that common goal, you know its going to make the library better.
There are other good examples out there. We can learn from businesses that invest significant effort on staff training so employees develop common values and beliefs. Joe Michelli’s book The New Gold Standard is all about Ritz-Carlton Hotels and how from day one each employee learns the common set of values and beliefs – it’s all documented and shared throughout the organization – and no surprise there’s a chapter dedicated to building trust in the workplace. Or this article about the Pret A Manger. A common set of values and beliefs among staff can lead to great service, whether it’s a luxury hotel or a fast food chain like Pret A Manger. According to the article “Pret has managed to build productive, friendly crews out of relatively low-paid, transient employees. And its workers seem pretty happy about it. Its annual work force turnover rate is about 60 percent — low for the fast-food industry, where the rate is normally 300 to 400 percent.” It’s all based on staff training and development.
No doubt we would all want to do everything we can to help our library workers be their best, knowing it would contribute to a better library. The challenge is in finding the time to create and implement the staff development programs that make it possible. Here, I don’t have the answers, but I do believe there are good models out there and hope to share more about that in the future. So much of what I’ve been reading and watching of late focuses on the importance of library workers and the necessity of building trusting relationships throughout the organization, from the administrative offices to the front line service desks. If we fail to build this culture of trust, if we fail to establish a common goal in which we all believe and work towards, then we have little chance of creating the great teams of library workers that make libraries better. That’s ultimately what leads to libraries of distinction.