People Who Can and Should Influence Change in Libraries

As library systems struggle with finding their relevance within the continuously and rapidly changing digital world, there are a number of things which we (library staff) all need to keep in mind.

The first point is probably the hardest thing to digest – to a certain extent it doesn’t matter what we think – what matters is what others think of us.  As libraries move to re-invent ourselves, which I would say we are doing at a relatively more rapid pace than we have in decades, stop any person walking on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word library.  I will put my money on one of the following three responses – books, fines or librarians shushing.

This provides us with what at times feels like an insurmountable set of issues to overcome.  Not only do libraries need to re-invent themselves, we also need to do it while conveying the message externally (in a way that addresses some of the traditional perceptions of libraries the community has come to know – an institution where people still experience barriers to accessing information or having social exchanges).

For this post – I want to write a few thoughts about how to influence change within libraries.  I think it is important to identify the types of attributes the ‘ideal’ staff member would have to possess in order to be able to work within an environment where change is occurring, to address and influence the above issues….

  • A person who sees the need for change and innovation, not only from the perspective of staff but through the lens of library users and non-users. Now it is important to acknowledge that there is a clear delineation between innovators and leaders verses managers.  Innovators and effective leaders who can drive a change process can come from anywhere within an organizations structure.  The issues is, do we allow that to occur – or do we limit it to the detriment of libraries?  Lets use private industry as a case study – if someone on staff within a large corporation has a great idea – would they stifle it because of the ‘level’ the person is within the organization?  For profit industries have a motivation (money and profit) which drives improvement.  Public service organizations also have a motivating factor – better customer experiences.
  • A person who is able to be humble and move beyond their role as ‘expert’.  Becoming an expert in engaging, finding the appropriate role for facilitating the link between people and information (or maybe even people and people), and linking and visualizing the role in which libraries can play in community, is a different kind of expertise that being a spokesperson who informs people of information or existing programs.
  • Someone who can move beyond the perceived barriers to community led work (resources, role of services, the unknown), and not allow these barriers to stop them from trying it.
  • A willingness to seriously accept trial and error – and report on the learnings that occurred when trying new and innovative approaches to working with community.  Anyone who says they ‘have got it’ to working with community – needs to re-evaluate.  When one person has always ‘got’ the answer for community – they need to review the concepts behind the engagement process.
  • A willingness to shift library based responses from ‘no’ it does not fit within our mandate – to how can we work with the community based information needs to make it (or them) fit within the libraries mandate.  If community members are expressing that they see a link between the library and their need, we should be encouraging staff to find the linkage – otherwise it is another lost opportunity for library service development.
  • An acknowledgement that the penalization of community and the concept of librarians as stewards (keepers and holders of information) is outdated.  Libraries once possessed warehouses of information – which community members can now find on the click of an iPad or laptop.  We are no longer entitled to creating barriers to large numbers of potential library users – especially when we should be trying to entice them to use library services, rather than limiting community use.
  • It is important for the ‘ideal’ community based library staff member who wants to be innovative to think about our role in the information exchange and how we engage with community outside the confines of the physical library branch.

This is only a starting point – and is internally focused…. Next we need to convince the really important people, community members, about the changing nature of libraries and our continuing relevance in their lives.

If they still only view libraries simply as a ware house of books, of late fines and fees or shushing when people talk in the library…….  then we have a 😦 future..




Filed under academic libraries, public libraries, The Profession

6 responses to “People Who Can and Should Influence Change in Libraries

  1. Sally

    I wholeheartedly agree that what matters most is what others think of libraries rather than what we think of ourselves. And I find that lots of librarians agree with this, and will also agree that the characteristics of an ‘ideal’ staff member are necessary. But the next stage – of doing something about it – is our biggest hurdle. Dave Lankes wrote a great post about this recently:
    “Every week I go into my introductory class for librarianship and talk about amazing librarians, big ideas, and the opportunities to shape the future. On a pretty regular basis mostly receptive students tell me “I love it, I get it, but when I go into some libraries, I don’t see it.” There are simply too many librarians that can’t see beyond what they do today to see a brighter tomorrow – or realize that what they do today will shape that future brighter or not.”

    And in my post “What business are libraries in?” rather than consider the answer to this question from a librarian’s viewpoint (because we as a profession have talked about this long enough and still can’t agree), I focus instead on what customers would want libraries and librarians to be. Still not an easy question to answer, but perhaps a more relevant one. What do you think?

    • willimen

      Hi Sally,

      Yes, I have been writing a fair bit about the importance of first having a vision (or at a minimum, having the ability to work with targeted community to help us define) of where library service should progress, and then working with staff (and community) to implement.

      One thing library school students need to keep in mind is that while they are in university they have the ability to let their minds run free. Upon entering the profession for the first time, they will be met with, and judged by, pre-existing organizational expectations (aka – the status quo).

      Library schools develop the library professions future leaders. So it is important that progressive library schools continue to foster growth, development and future visioning.

      Meanwhile, libraries must begin looking at new models of service development and delivery, which are relevant to their users and non-users. This is an internal decision, usually driven by library boards, Senior Management Teams, CEO’s, University Librarians etc.. They must take a progressive stance in order for their respective systems to maintain relevancy.

      Unfortunately, I do foresee a time where libraries could either develop two-tiered library systems – those who have taken a progressive stance – and those which have maintained a 20th century approach. I am not sure if the latter will be able, in the near future, to justify their continued funding? I could be and hope I am wrong.

      In any case, libraries need to be redefined. It is our decision to work with community to do this together, or someone (or something) else will do it for us.


  2. Michelle Helliwell

    Ken – this post is so timely. I’ve been grappling with this same issues for a while now. And part of the problem I see – perhaps I am way off base – is that we don’t have one, strong central library association (in Canada anyway) to really start to drive this discussion to our professional. I work in healthcare, and I know that if I had stayed within the four walls of my library (which no longer exists as a traditional service) I would have been obsolete a long time ago – and even now my existence is far from secure.

    How we remain relevant I think is requirement for our survival but the discussion is leaderless. I would love to be part of that discussion – and so would others, but there seems to be no mechanism for it.

  3. All of these are issues that ALL librarians are grappling with. How do we prove our necessity to our patrons when “everything is online”? I think that too much of the public support of libraries is based on tradition (fond memories, the library as a place, etc.). How are we going to change as a profession when the “next generation” doesn’t share the same values & need for place/structure?

  4. willimen

    Holly, I know that one of the most profound moments I had in library school was when I learnt that most people feel that they are good searchers when using browsers (like google). Most people feel proficient and satisfied with their search results.

    We as librarians may scoff at this, saying we can provide better search results – but who really cares about that? Why would they seek the advice of a librarian if they feel satisfied with information they are finding.

    That is in part, why I feel we need to look at and really hone in on exploring the various roles in which libraries can play in community information exchanges…

    One thing I definitely believe, we can not ‘justify’ our existence by imposing our thoughts on the next generation. Daves post addresses this… and basically says we will be viewed as ‘the mud’.

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