Tuesday, October 7, 2014

From community reference to library as leader

A few weeks ago (Sept. 14-19) I made a trip to Bulgaria. (Another blog with more about that to follow!) I was a guest of the Bulgarian Library and Information Association, speaking in the national capital of Sofia to about 30, mostly public library directors about what I've called "community reference," and others call "embedded reference." 

Incidentally, as I think more about this, I've decided it might better be called "library as leader." I advocate a process that follows seven stages:

1. Brainstorm the names of community leaders. "Community" here doesn't mean just public leaders. The community could be a university, a public school, or a corporation. "Community" just means "operating environment." And "leaders" means decision-makers or influencers. 

2. Interview them. One of the fundamental skills of librarianship is the reference interview. I suggest three questions: 
- what are the key concerns of your constituents over the next 18-24 months?
- what decisions will you have to make in the next 18-24 months, and what information would you like to have first?
- who else should we talk with?

George Needham once commented to me that we should add another question: what would success look like? It's a good one.

Note that in the course of this interview, you're really not talking about the library, although in my experience leaders often ask, a couple of times, why the library is doing this. My answer: we want to understand the needs of our community, and talking to leaders is a very efficient way to do that. Also, it may be possible that the library can assist our community on some specific initiatives. Which initiatives? That's what we're trying to find out.

I find this to be a very powerful kind of advocacy. It's not the "here are a bunch of numbers about us, remember us, love us" kind of pitch. Rather, it's a subtle reminder that we are, or can be, a powerful asset not just interested in ourselves, but interested in improving the lives of everyone around us. Not coincidentally, it begins the process of cultivating relationships with those community leaders - another worthwhile outcome.

3. Catalog the community. Come back, digest, and categorize the results of the interviews. Is there overlap? What IS going on in the community?

4. Present your findings back to the community. Invite the leaders to come to a debrief session. This is what you heard - maybe 5-10 key concerns. Did you get it right? Then ask, who is working on what? 

Again, these leaders may start making statements, usually positive, about the library. But you say, "this isn't about the library, or not yet. We're just trying to understand the agenda of the community. Maybe there's a place where we can add value." 

This is why I now want to call this "library as leader." What we're doing here, through a process of interviews, convening, and facilitation, is helping the community be more conscious of its own goals. We're helping them orient to the future.

5. Now go back and pick a project. This project should advance community goals. It should be high profile and high impact. It should be something that is consonant with the library's mission.

6. Do it. Make the project happen, as professionally and effectively as possible. This might be a year, or even multi-year intiative.

7. Tell everyone about it. It's not enough to do good. People have to know about it to recognize its value. A very effective technique is the project evaluation. Ask for time in front of those community leaders, at council meetings, chamber meetings, to do a group assessment. Here's what you did and why you did it. You're done, now. (Nothing gets people's attention like telling them that you've STOPPED doing something.) Ask what parts of the project were successful, and what could be improved. Indicate an openness to new projects, with the caveat that the library will be thoughtful about assessing which ones really make a difference.

Note that my definition of leadership is not telling people what to do. It begins with questions. It involves listening and careful thought. It requires investment and the building of capacity both within and beyond the organization. It involves doing something, and letting people know you've done it.

It also involves librarians leaving the building. Hence the title of my two day workshop: "Elvis has left the building!" (And yes, the Bulgarians know all about Elvis!)

I could tell that the topic was a little out there for my Bulgarian colleagues. But it is in the US, too. Part of the workshop involves "how do you sell this" to various stakeholders: director, senior staff and supervisors, front line reference staff, city councils, media, the public. Recognize that this was delivered through a simultaneous translation setup: I lectured in English, attendees listened through headsets to live translation, they asked questions in Bulgarian, I listened through my headset to the English translation -- all coming from a tag team of two translators in a booth in the back of the room. So that's both fascinating and a challenge. But I got the impression, finally, that they found this whole process an intriguing way to raise their visibility and demonstrate their value in a time of declining use and funding.

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