Monday, August 31, 2015

the Wisdom Within These Walls

Recently, I read the galley proof of my friend Anne McGhee's book The Wisdom Within These Walls. You can pick it up from Amazon here.

I happen to have been around when Annie first started gathering the stories that form the core of the book - interviews with real people in the area. She found some incredible people. One woman was a police dispatcher in Dallas, and on duty the day Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. One man actually helped get us to the moon. Another tells the heartbreaking story of the Pacific theater in WWII.

Back then, Annie turned the interviews into brief, very powerful monologues. Then, she put together a readers theater group to perform them. These "plays" remain some of the most moving moments of my life.

But she has continued to think about these stories, and her book is about just what wisdom means. Her definition is a gem: "Wisdom is our capacity to take in the experience of life, infuse it with intention, and return it to the world for the benefit of others."

I recommend it highly not just for anybody in Front Range of Colorado, where most of the folks profiled here live. I recommend for every library. This book is an example of the fine, sensitive, even transformative writing that's going on right in our own back yards, and deserves to be shared widely. It even includes a section for discussion -- perfectly appropriate for book clubs, high school classroom discussions, and more. I can think of no better example of the importance of understanding and assisting the self-publishing revolution.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Diversity in libraries

A decade ago now, one of my libraries opened a teen area. The manager of the branch (Greg Mickells, now the director of the Madison WI Public Library), had an idea. Why not hire teens as staff - not just as shelvers, but to staff the service desk, answer questions, assist in collection purchasing, and generally have parity with the adults? I admit I was a little dubious. But I went along.

It was a staggering success - and not just because we hired some very bright young people who took their positions seriously and did a fine job.

More to the point: some 10 years later, they all came back. As librarians.

I've been thinking lately about our failure as a profession to reflect the growing diversity of our society. The problem, I think, is that we pounce on candidates who have already run the MLIS (Master's of Library and Information Science) gauntlet. It's too late. If we really want to pull more diverse candidates into the pool, we have to get them while they're still in high school. We have to treat them well, show them the excitement of the profession.

Sure, some of them will move onto other things. But some of them - many of them, I bet - will fall in love with librarianship. And then we've got 'em.

So that's my proposal (although it was not my idea - it was Greg's): create a new position, and aggressively recruit diverse candidates from high schools.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Values in the library

Recently, Tim Miller, the director of the Pines and Plains Library in Elbert County Colorado, reached out to Sharon Morris, Director of Library Development for the Colorado State Library. He was looking for a workshop based on the idea of organizational values, and knew that Sharon had just finished her doctoral dissertation on just that topic. Sharon and I have done a number of workshops and classes together so she invited me to team up to help develop and deliver this new one. We're still working on the final title, but it's something like "Our Values, Our Culture: Purposeful Libraries for Community Impact."

Here's a broad overview of the premises of the day:
  • Individuals have deeply held values that they bring to the work place.
  • Often, people can discover that they hold a key subset of those values in common.
  • When you think, talk, and reflect on that, you not only become more mindful of how you show up at work, you become more intentional about the culture of your workplace.
  • All of that leads to greater confidence in your own abilities, your actual ability to provide consistent service in the moment, and the integrity and capacity of your organization.
So over the course of about five hours (with time out for lunch) we walked the staff of this rural library through exercises in which:
  • They had to choose three values from a list. These values best captured what they wanted to live up to in the workplace.
  • They met in small groups to select three top values in common at that table.
  • We facilitated a discussion to see if they could find three or four values the whole staff could agree upon.
That set the base for the rest of the day, in which we explored how they could embed those values in their work, how they could use those values to communicate with each other, and finally, how they could communicate, through a series of common but complex work scenarios, those values to the community. Ultimately, that's the test: would the community be able to correctly identify what motivated the staff?

There were a few other twists along the way. Sharon has a gift for devising meaningful exercises that turn instruction into highly personal learning, and I had a few ideas, too. We recently tallied up and reviewed the various evaluations of the day, and I'm pleased to report that it seems most of the content really resonated. Staff reported real changes in their understanding, and the director of the library later reported that he sees a distinct difference in staff behavior.

It's a powerful approach. Figure out what you aspire to. Think about ways to make it real. Hold yourself and coworkers accountable to that aspiration.

At any rate, this is an engaging day for staff. If you'd be interested in that, contact Sharon here or me here.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Interview techniques that work

I have been working over the past year and a half with several folks, mostly new library directors, as a coach. One of my clients just hired a key person for her team, and was curious enough about a hiring technique I have used in the past to give it a try herself.

Mostly, this is a version of the "assessment center" technique known as the "leaderless discussion." (You can find out more about the assessment center here.)

The core idea is very simple. First, know what you're looking for - at least in the sense of demonstrable skills.

Second, create a scenario or exercise in which that skill must be demonstrated. In the case of many leadership positions, a leaderless panel discussion, large enough to promote real interaction (at least five people) and around some relevant job topics, is a rich source for observational data.

Third, have multiple observers, who have been coached about how to observe people's communication behaviors (I give them a chart with headings - voice, non-verbal, process management, content - then walk them through some examples). Usually, observers are assigned to watch one person in particular, with at least one dedicated observer per candidate.

Fourth, after the exercise, excuse the candidates, then pool the comments. The facilitator has to be careful to note the difference between a judgment and the behavior itself. So if someone offers that "this person is too aggressive," the facilitator asks, "what behavior made you think that?" Let's say the answer is something like, "she kept cutting off other speakers." Then the facilitator asks, "Did anyone else see that?" The object here is to build up a communication profile that is as specific and grounded in observed behavior as possible. Bottom line: this is how the person manifests their abilities, and that's what you're going to get on the job. Then I have some suggestions about ways to get a rough calculation of the fit of the candidate for the position.

That takes care of one half of the interview: figuring out if an organization wants to hire someone. (And it also allows a lot of people to participate in a transparent interview exercise that is staggeringly efficient: 7 candidates in and out in 45 minutes, with as many observers as you want to accommodate.) But what about the other half? How does the candidate know if he or she would take the job if offered?

The new twist: put the staff on a panel (typically, the director, a supervisor, a colleague, and maybe a customer, internal or external). Ask them: what do you think this job is really about - its key function and key needs. Then the candidates watch, learning what people will expect of them, and watching how they communicate with each other. All of the candidates hear the same information. This exercise takes only about 30 minutes.

Again, take the two together, and you get a very cost-effective process, focused and on point, with both sides better understanding what they might be getting into. But there are some unexpected benefits.
  • The staff panel tends to draw the team a little closer together. They hear each other talk about the job needs, and they can't help but want to make the place seem like a good place to work. 
  • The focus on communication behavior tends to make the staff more thoughtful about their own behavior, and what kind of style would be a good addition to the staff. 
The combination of the two tends to promote better teams, and a more mindful and positive culture.

At any rate, I was delighted to hear that the process worked well for my client: helping her get at the subtle cues that mark the right hire, and making the organization itself a little stronger. Since few decisions are as important as getting the right people on the bus, that's a big deal.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A new planning priority: rest

I had breakfast this morning with my dear friend and colleague Monique Sendze, now director of IT and innovation for the Tulsa City County Library. It sounds like a terrific job, a terrific library, and I know she'll be successful there.

She and I wound up having a conversation I've had three times over the past two days, so it might be worth digging into it a little deeper.

The larger frame is that institutions have rhythms: they focus outward, they focus inward. Institutions breathe, too. Sometimes library leaders get curious about their environment, explore it, build relationships, investigate themes and needs. Then they turn in to do something about it - sometimes to strengthen a core that suddenly needs some attention, sometimes to implement a project or vision identified in the outward-looking phase.

Then, after that project is done, the possibilities branch.
  • Institutions stagnate. They remain inwardly focused, incurious about their environment, disengaged with larger themes of change.
  • Institutions immediately launch into the next big thing. On the heels on one enormous project, they feel they must keep up the momentum.
I want to suggest another option.

A few months ago I was consulting for a library back in the midwest. It had just opened a magnificent new building, representing years of public discussion, planning, fundraising, and construction. I asked them what they were proud of, and they were very justifiably proud of their building. Then I asked them which library, in their collective judgment, was a level above them in library development. The idea is to figure out "what's next?"

They really didn't know. They wanted to keep moving, but they didn't know where to. It wasn't that they lacked ambition. They just lacked, in that moment, a clear new direction.

So I gave them permission to do something we don't do often enough: to rest. To take a deep breath and reflect. To look around and see how things have changed.

When a new building opens up, it changes the whole identity of a library. New people show up. Service models get tested - and need to be tweaked. Or as I describe it, you're showing up on the community dance floor with some new moves, and now you need to see what your partner (the community!) makes of it. It's a dance, not a solo performance.

Too often, we think that Vision - a compelling idea of change - adheres to a few charismatic leaders. But I don't believe that. Vision is an iterative and collaborative process. It takes listening, attention, pondering, checking back in with each other.

Ultimately, I recommended to this library planning group that they just show up in their new library as mindfully as possible. They should pay attention to who was new, what people were talking about, how the pattern of use was changing. And I recommended that they start more systematically going around to community leaders in their own environment. That is, don't invite another group of people to the library and ask them what they think of it. Show up in their own warehouses, offices, or neighborhood restaurants. Ask them what they are thinking about. And listen. And think about it, too.

Note that this isn't permission to stop doing anything new. We still have to respond to stuff going on around us, and there are always a variety of things we can do to make improvements, some more or less urgent. But I believe in purposeful change, and few of us are wise enough to move inexorably from one big thing to the next. It makes sense to build in some pauses, some rests, between the important, systemic, strategic changes in an organization. If we do take the time to do that, we avoid "innovation fatigue," or the sense that it's change for its own sake.

We also allow our batteries to recharge, to celebrate our triumphs and to get centered again. It's worth remembering.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Self-publishing and collection development

Recently I was asked to read and write a blurb for a new title. It's called Self-Publishing and Collection Development: Opportunities and Challenges for Libraries, edited by Robert P. Holley. Purdue University Press: West Lafayette IN 2015.

I wrote, "This outstanding compendium makes several important points. First, self-publishing is out of its infancy -- now accounting for over half the intellectual output of our culture. Second, this explosion of literature has finally gotten our collective attention. Self-publishing has forced us to look afresh and more critically at the value and costs of editorial processes, book design, pricing, distribution, bibliographic control, marketing, reviewing, and library relations with authors. Third, most of the pieces here are from colleagues who aren't writing from the outside anymore. Astute vendors, public librarians, academic librarians, and even librarians who are also self-published authors now are in the thick of things, eyes open and taking names.

"I recommend Self-Publishing and Collection Development not just for university and large public libraries. It belongs in every public library, every community college, every university, and any high school that still has a budget. This is where the revolution begins, and the lively profiles of key players and issues is a snapshot not just of library history, but of a transformative moment in the history of publishing."

The good news: the price is reasonable, too: $14.99 for the epub, $29.95 for the paperback. Order info here.

Saturday, August 1, 2015


Last week I had the distinct honor of participating in the first RIPL: Research Institute For Public Libraries, held at the stunning Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs. The institute was a joint project of the Colorado State Library and the Colorado Library Consortium (CLiC). Its Vision was to "create a culture shift in public libraries to be purposeful in gathering, analyzing and using data for decision making, strategic planning, and to prove library impact." It was also described, by several program presenters, as "a data boot camp." A deep thoughtfulness of instructional design was on display: the institute was incredibly interactive.

There were many wonderful speakers about many aspects of the use of data. Some of my favorite speakers were from Colorado (although there were some other standouts, among them Pew's Lee Rainie - see my American Libraries blog about one aspect of that talk here - Danielle Milam from Las Vegas, and Deirdre Costello from EBSCO). But one of my takeaways was that the old "stun and drone" method of instruction (Power Point and lecture) just doesn't work anymore. This new style of continuing education is the hallmark of our state library's Library Development people (under the leadership and example of Sharon Morris), and it made what might seem dry, technical matter to some, quite lively and engaging. But the program planners (and speakers) like Nicolle Steffen, Linda Hofschire, and Elizabeth Kelsen-Huber really seem to believe that data is exciting, too. And after awhile, you start to believe them.

I tweeted a bunch, as did many others: see #RIPLeffect.

Beyond that, my own contribution came at a breakout session near the end: storytelling with data (hint: end with the data; don't start with it).

To my regret, I had to leave part way through George Needham's wrap-up (another favorite speaker). I had been battling, for about three days, what turned out to be an inflamed tooth. This was the worst pain I have ever felt, finally flaring so bad I drove myself back to Castle Rock for an emergency root canal. (And may need another one.)

But I've been reflecting on the institute since then, and find much to commend it. It was impressive to me that it had sold out in 12 seconds.

I wonder: are 100-odd people (and some odder than others!) enough to truly shift a professional culture? I think the answer is yes.

My warm congratulations to State Library and CLiC staff for one of the most involving, enjoyable, and thought-provoking professional education experiences I've ever attended. Based on what I heard from other attendees, I gather there's strong interest in doing it again. I bet that one sells out in 10 seconds. - 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'...