Someone once said, “It’s easier to ride a horse in the direction it is going.” I often think of that remark when working with libraries that are successfully embracing change. There’s no argument that today’s libraries are no longer stand-alone, quiet, isolationist facilities that people have to physically visit to get something from. Hardly. Rather, today’s successful libraries are doing as much — or more — outside their walls as inside. It’s this mission growth (not mission creep) that has some library staff and leaders trying to avoid the horse altogether, rather than learning how to ride.

The good news is that working with these changes instead of against them is going to make you a lot happier; it will make your library more successful, and, overall, it will garner community support and engagement, the likes of which have never before been seen. And that’s what we’re all here for: to serve our communities in ways that meet their needs in the best ways possible.In its simplest form, the answer is to get outside your walls. But in doing so lots of questions arise, including these:

Question: All the staff in our children’s department really want to become more engaged with our schools, and we know the schools need us, but we just can’t seem to get the bosses to agree to let us spend more time working with them. What can we do?

Often leadership is under a lot of pressure to achieve in certain areas. So ask yourself, what are your bosses’ goals? Maybe you can match your goals to your bosses’ goals for a win-win.

For example, one library’s administration was dead set on increasing circulation. Period. That was their measurement and they were sticking to it. (We’ll save that discussion for another post!) In this case, a staff member looking to do more work with schools could investigate how he could partner with the schools to make sure all school children are issued library cards. Another avenue would be to get kids interested in coming into the library to check out books during outreach programs. On visits to schools to support teachers and their curriculum needs, he could also bring with him lots of books that would interest kids for check out.

There are plenty of off-site tools available to use for distance check out, from hand-held scanning devices to wireless connections. Your Integrated Library System (ILS) will have information on what’s available to you. And, if his library couldn’t afford or use any of those tools, he could still use a paper and pencil to write down card and barcode numbers. In this example, the staff member accomplishes both his goal of forming a closer partnership with area schools and his administration’s goal of increasing circulation.

Do you have too many rules about getting library cards to make this work? If so, then my next suggestion would be to get rid of some of those rules. Libraries have tried many alternatives successfully, such as the following:

Issue special Kid Cards, with limits on how many items can be checked out.

Don’t charge fines (that can end up restricting use and circulation) for anything classified as a juvenile item.

Explore the possibility of issuing one-time cards to be used at each visit, just to capture the circulation from that event.

This is just one example of how you can begin by understanding what it is your bosses want and then find a way to give it to them while still achieving your own goals. If you find a way to work together, everyone can win.

If you have an example of how this has worked in your library, please share it in the Comments section so we can all get more ideas!

Question: I’m the new director, and I’m having trouble getting staff to get behind me and try new things. My top priority is to help the library be well known in the community. What can I try?

First, I’d suggest you take a look at how you’ve introduced changes that weren’t well received. Consult your leadership team if you have one, or ask the staff directly. What might you learn, for example, if you were to ask your staff to email suggestions to you on the best way to try out new ideas? You might just find you’ve made some missteps in your approach, given you’re not completely aware of your library’s culture yet. With input from your staff, you can work together to get on the same page.

Once you’re working together, consider these common roadblocks to managing change, and see if you can find any alternative approaches to try:

Why are we doing this? If you don’t educate your staff about the reasons for a change, they will almost always be uncomfortable at best and reluctant at worst when it comes to taking part. Explain clearly why the library needs to do something differently, and then stop and listen for questions, ideas and feedback. Be flexible, and incorporate as many of the staff’s ideas as possible, while letting them know that you will be continually evaluating the changes and making adjustments as necessary.

What’s in it for me? Unfortunately, a personal benefit is often a requirement from all levels of staff before they are willing to commit to learning a new thing. Do they hate the idea of getting new phones? Explain the increased security and the ease of use that the new phones will offer and how they will make running the reference desk even smoother. Perhaps you’ll hear, “Oh, no! We’re not getting a new computer system, are we?” When making the announcement, be sure to point out how much better and faster service will be for the customers and how much easier collection management will be for the staff. It’s human nature to want a carrot at the end of the stick, so be certain to demonstrate clearly what good is going to come from the change or what detriment can result from avoiding it.

I’m going to fail! By and large, people just want to succeed at work. People tend to feel most comfortable and confident that they can do their job well when they use computer systems and processes they’ve already had time to learn. However, when you introduce something new, people tend to fear that they may no longer be as successful as they were before. Be sure to clarify all training that will accompany the change and emphasize that everyone’s learning will be fully supported.

One last tip: A successful library leader once initiated embedding library staff into community groups by allowing them to attend meetings and events on library time. Staff members each selected a group to join, and as they attended and became involved, opportunities to connect those groups to library support and collaboration followed. Don’t just tell staff to engage with the community; make sure you support them in their professional roles so that they can be successful.

Question: Our community wants so much from the library, and every time we give them something new, they just want more! How can we keep up with demand without giving up on our real purpose?

So, what is your real purpose? That’s step one in this answer, and, honestly, it’s often where even the most well-intentioned libraries go awry. Working with the community — businesses, organizations, schools and so on — is taxing, there’s no doubt about that.

Often, libraries are expected to share staff (we don’t have enough staff to do that!), to share skills (we don’t know anything about grant writing!) and sometimes even share money (we don’t even have enough money for us!). Before you decide these contributions go against everything you’re trying to achieve, maybe it’s time for a mission review.

If you have an updated strategic plan, that’s great! If you don’t, then it’s probably a good idea to start there.

If you are really in demand from your community, then lucky you! In this age of technology and change, as Joan Frye Williams once said, “We have to remember that we were in the information business — and we lost!” Every day, libraries need to be finding new, important and valuable ways to matter in their communities. This cannot happen without the full input, consideration and encouragement of the entire library team.

But I know you’re still wondering how you can keep offering more and more services with your limited resources. That answer is simple to say and challenging (but not impossible) to do: You must stop doing the things that matter less.

Come up with measurement and outcome tools that can help you objectively decide how to expend your human and financial resources (check out ALA or PLA for help). Remember, libraries don’t stop doing older things because no one likes them or uses them anymore; they stop doing them because fewer people like or use them and room must be made to meet new demands.

Create an Innovation Team and challenge team members to help staff contribute at least one new service idea per month that is based on a real, measured community need. Pilot the ideas and measure their success; you don’t have to keep them all!

Budget more carefully. If it’s not circulating, buy less. If attendance is down at a program, cut it out. If your entire staff isn’t being productive and contributing to the library’s success, consider not filling open positions or redesign the roles.

This isn’t easy work, but it’s critical if you want to meet new community needs with service instead of reasons why you can’t.

Back to the horse and rider from the beginning of this post … that same person who suggested you ride in the same direction as the change also said, “And, if the horse dies, it’s a good idea to dismount.”

Let go of your library’s out-of-date, irrelevant practices and services, and encourage your entire team, from top to bottom, to seek out and try new community-based connections. Communities need us — and we need them — to continue to matter in a real way.

Let’s learn from one another! Post your comments, reactions, questions and experiences with enabling and enacting change in the library in the comments below.

What else would you like to know? If you have nagging questions that you have always wanted another opinion on, now is your chance to ask. Write something in the comments below, or send your questions to me at I look forward to hearing from you!


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