Friday, November 15, 2013

Arizona Library Association 2013

The Arizona Library Association invited me to be its keynote speaker for the 2013 conference. My topic was "Change That Matters." First, let me thank Tom Wilding, then-Chair of AzLA, for his early conversations with me, and his kind transportation (with his partner) from the airport to the conference site. Second, let me thank Rene Tanner, who not only escorted me to a local community theater production of the Music Man, but ran (with others) a truly awesome conference. 

My keynote focused on three things: 

1. The organizational changes that rippled from Douglas County Libraries' RFID/self-check/automated materials handling to our adoption of "community reference" or "embedded librarianship" to a far more community-focused organization at all levels;

2. The business problems of ebooks (such as high-priced leases for commercial content just as new, cheaper, and far more interesting streams of content were emerging); and

3. Approaches to managing organizational change.

After the talk, I spent the couple of days attending other conference programs (with other members of the conference leadership). At the end of the conference, today, we gathered as a panel to talk about our gleanings.

I understand that the session was taped, so I'll try to go back and add the link. But I wanted to comment on an uncomfortable topic I introduced at the end.

There are many important issues in modern librarianship. But one of them tends to be ignored: almost every library administrator I know has allowed his or her library to be held hostage by a small group of people who fundamentally disagree with the direction of the library, and have resorted to passive-aggressive sabotage.

I wish I had been clearer about this. But let me try to make myself clearer now. I am NOT saying that dissent should not be tolerated. On the contrary. Good leadership is based on vigorous and engaged debate. "Groupthink" -- just agreeing without challenge -- is a sure route to both tyranny and mediocrity. A sound organization is constantly questioning and assessing.

But in libraries -- as with so many organizations -- there are many people who (a) do NOT speak up to challenge premises and directions when they are under consideration, but (b) once a decision has been made, continue to take a paycheck, but actively or covertly behave in such a way as to contradict organizational directions.

I put it like this: this bus is bound for Disneyland. A clear and unequivocal statement is made to staff. Some staff would prefer to go to Boise, ID. And Boise is a terrific destination. But this bus, this library, isn't going there. If YOU want to go there, you're on the wrong bus. You face a choice: stay here and try to convince everyone they're going to the wrong place, or get off the bus, and get on one going to Boise.

My argument: we listened to you. We made a decision you may not agree with. Now you have a choice: stay and do your best for us, or leave and work for another direction. You DON'T get the choice to stay and fight us every step of the way. Why? Because we're paying you. That's the job. To take money from an organization while you're trying to work against its clearly articulated goals isn't "diversity of opinion." It's domestic terrorism.

I truly believe that this is the most exciting time in the history of our profession. Good leadership makes decisions, and communicates them clearly to staff and community.

But by many measures - the collapse of school libraries across the west, the CLOSING of libraries (see Wickenberg) - one generation of leadership utterly failed in growing support. Yes, we grew use to extraordinary levels. But we did not achieve sustainability.

Librarians are really nice people. But sometimes, nice isn't what's needed. The issue isn't that "we need to act more like businesses." Ninety percent of businesses fail in the first year. 

We need to act like successful enterprises. It's not about public or private. It means we need to be clear about our goals, and manage ourselves to get there. That means, on occasion, inviting people outl

Anyhow, this perspective generated a little heat. I'd like to hear from attendees, or others...


Barbara said...

Thanks. This is a very good discussion of why we need dissent and discussion as decisions are made and why, once they are made, entropy is no longer an option.

Jamie said...

That's clearly stated!

Danielle said...

I totally agree, I had a meeting this morning and I share with staff from other department about the 26 secounds conversation with staff, they look of their faces was priceless. Looking forward to spend only 10% of my time with that group! Thank you!

Jamie said...

Do remember the other side of that: listen to them, hear their deep concerns, and try not only to do the right thing, but to make it fun. Leadership begins with listening. But it ends in action.

Richard Thau said...

Your insights are right on target. Thank you for expressing them. - 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'...