Sunday, March 22, 2015

The practice of leadership

A couple of days ago I attended the retirement party of my friend and colleague Rochelle Logan. Rochelle was one of my associate directors at Douglas County Libraries for 14 years, and wow, she was a good one.

After I left (in January of 2014, after 24 years there!), I entered the world of writing, speaking and consulting. Much of the time, that meant talking about leadership. And it turns out I was not alone. A lot of people make a living talking about leadership.

But I was surprised by some of the people who wanted to hire me.  Often, they had their own talkers - university professors and professional speakers. Why didn't they just use their in-house talent? The reason, it turned out, is that although those people could talk about it, they hadn't actually done it. 

At Rochelle's party, I found myself thinking about the practice of leadership.  Before and during our time together, we built and grew a team (many teams, really). We made plans, saw them through, then built on them. We forged, had conflicts with, and resolved hundreds of relationships with our authorizing environment: citizens, elected officials, vendors, leaders, and followers from everywhere. We secured resources (we exploded our budget from about $688,000 to over $20 million annually), and managed them thoughtfully. By the end of my tenure, DCL moved from one of the lowest ranked libraries in the state to one of the top 1% in the world. (I'm talking about such output measures as circulation per capita, visits per capita, and so on, about which Rochelle was unusually knowledgeable.) We built or renovated seven modern, green, busy, highly functional libraries - and all without a dime of debt.  We launched innovative and game-changing initiatives, like our ebook platform and what we called "community reference." We saw many of our staff move on to their own positions of successful leadership, a matter of particular pride for me.

Not only that, we made major improvements to the lives of those around us. We aided in academic accomplishment, we helped establish businesses, we strengthened a host of civic projects. We connected people around ideas and stories. We made our community stronger and smarter.

As a child of the sixties and seventies, I was inclined to distrust authority, and, yes, anybody over 30. But it turns out that experience makes a difference. We got better over time, with practice and mutual support. And we did big things.

It's kind of like when your parents tell you to practice the piano if you want to get good. Talent is very nice indeed, a gift worth celebrating. But it's practice that leads to achievement.

So I learned two big things from my time as director. First, public institutions are not evil, despite the relentless harping on that destructive theme over the past decade. They can, and in the case of well-run libraries, usually do make real and positive contributions to the lives of individuals, families, businesses, and communities of all kinds. Second, experience matters, especially when disciplined by honest feedback, mindfulness based on values, and the will to improve.

I mention all this because, as a candidate for the presidency of the American Library Association, I've been responding to a lot of written and oral interviews lately that eventually ask, "so why should we vote for you?" It occurred to me yesterday that my answer, in part, is that I not only know how to talk about leadership, I have real practice in it, in making change for the better, not only for libraries, but for the wider world around us. In fact (with a little help my friends), I'm pretty good at it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Gale Cengage interview and blog

On February 6, 2015, I gave an interview on "Libraries as Agents of Change" for Gale Geek. You can find the audio here.

Afterward, I was given the opportunity to blog about it. You'll find that here.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

LaRue ALA presidential statement

[As published in the March/April 2015 issue of American Libraries.]

Librarianship is at a tipping point. We have challenges. But there has never, not in human history, been a time so thrilling to be in our field.  A new generation of librarians - more diverse, more tech-savvy, bringing a new kind of social energy - is joining us and our colleagues at just the right moment. Every day, we are working together to make a difference to our larger communities - school, academic, public, and an emerging global culture.

I have spent my career as librarian, community leader, newspaper columnist, radio and TV show host, writer, teacher, and a leader of statewide, regional, national, and even international efforts in positioning the library for tomorrow. If we are to survive and thrive in that tomorrow, we must shift public perceptions of our roles.  As ALA President, I will not only communicate the services we provide, but also highlight our value in strengthening our communities.  Here are three ways I will focus public attention:

First, we must elevate librarians as community leaders.  We should turn outward, build on the exciting work of "embedded librarianship" and take it up a notch. Imagine librarians who catalog their community (school, university, or civic) leaders, conduct in-depth conversations to identify shared aspirations and concerns, then pick and deliver high impact projects that move whole communities forward.

Second, we must unleash our power in the marketplace. This means we should define digital publishing agreements that enhance our purchasing power, increase access, and honor creators. This is a time of experimentation: we need larger scale, statewide or regional infrastructure, library-run repositories that make common cause with our scholars, students, authors, musicians, and artists. We need to embrace the disruption of digital publishing by stepping into the heart of the revolution. We must move from gatekeeper to gardener, along the lines of the Digital Public Library of America, the Douglas County Libraries model, Califa, the statewide experiments of Massachusetts, Arizona, and Colorado.  With the explosion of independent and self-publishing, we have an unprecedented opportunity to give voice to those who have been ignored or marginalized for so long.

Finally, we must showcase our leadership as 21st century literacy champions. This starts with early childhood literacy. Children with an abundance of books in their homes are healthier as children, and live longer as adults. They stay in school and stay out of jail. They make more money and enjoy a better quality of life. information-literate adults are armed with the skills and knowledge they need to live, learn, work, and govern in communities that can compete and flourish in an information society. Our message must penetrate the culture of our media and public policymakers. It must communicate how we make our society healthier, and increase the freedom, productivity and creativity of our constituents.

A vote for me is a vote toward this new reality of librarians as bold, deeply engaged and informed community leaders--valued partners in the work of discovery and creation.

And do vote! I am honored to be among the candidates for your president. Speak up about the kind of leadership you want ALA to demonstrate. ALA needs your thoughtful participation. Together, we can position the library of tomorrow to make a real difference in the future of our many interrelated communities. - Welcome

In November of 2018, I left my position at ALA in Chicago to return to my Colorado-based writing, speaking, and consulting career. So I'...