Saturday, May 3, 2008

Knowing when it's time to move on or When doing things right isn't good enough

I've been thinking about another conversation I had with Rick Ashton. Again, Rick and his staff did a lot of ground-breaking and transformative work at Denver Public. Not only was there a sharp focus on customer service, but Schlessman was the first "bookstore-style" library in Colorado, a model that got a lot of attention from other library directors, and greatly informed our own library's subsequent experimentation. Denver was the first library in the neighborhood to adopt self-check in a big way, and it was a big help after a couple of disastrous funding cuts.

Rick did a lot of things right politically. But there came a moment when it was obvious that, for a variety of reasons, he was not going to be able to restore that funding. And so he did something difficult and right in a different way: he left.

I think back to my own career, and the merging of the Greeley Public Library with the Weld Library District (now the High Plains Library District). It was a very painful move for me and my family: I essentially made my independent city library a branch of the district, and fired myself to make the budget balance. But I have no doubt that it was the right thing, simplifying and strengthening a system of sane funding.

Probably because I was raised on an intense diet of superhero comics, I have always striven to do right. But the difference between the real world and the world of comics (at least, back in the 50s) is that sometimes, you can do right, and it doesn't work. Then it's time for somebody else to take a shot at it.

Last year, our community ran a model campaign to increase library funding, quite well done overall. And it failed. We'll try again, because the institution needs that solution if it is to continue to thrive. It's possible we'll fail again, and it's possible that that wouldn't be my fault.

But there are moments when the director has to conclude: hmm, maybe the institution needs somebody else to pull this off. Then, the director has to find a way, without grandstanding, without breast-beating, to fulfill the job: make it possible for the institution to succeed, even if it means its time for a new director.

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