Category Archives: The Transparent Library / Library Journal

The Transparent Library: Coping with Anonymity

Picture this: your library has launched a visionary long-range reorganization plan that sparks an anonymous, critical blog from staff members. Or your library appears in an anonymous YouTube or Flickr extravaganza that targets your authoritarian signage, unfriendly staff, and dirty public restrooms. Or your soon-to-be-launched web revamp is reviewed on an employee’s personal blog before the library goes public. Hypothetical? No.

Such events, which have occurred at various libraries, can make for difficult and stressful times. Are they entirely negative? Can transparency and anonymity coexist? Is it better to turn a blind eye to the conversation playing out online?

Read the whole column here

Coping with Anonymity

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

Picture this: your library has launched a visionary long-range reorganization plan that sparks an anonymous, critical blog from staff members. Or your library appears in an anonymous YouTube or Flickr extravaganza that targets your authoritarian signage, unfriendly staff, and dirty public restrooms. Or your soon-to-be-launched web revamp is reviewed on an employee’s personal blog before the library goes public. Hypothetical? No.

Such events, which have occurred at various libraries, can make for difficult and stressful times. Are they entirely negative? Can transparency and anonymity coexist? Is it better to turn a blind eye to the conversation playing out online?

Progress and perils
Our goal is better libraries-and transparency usually can help. The underlying concept of transparency is an increased (and unfettered) flow of information, but today’s technology allows for unidentified blogs, untraceable survey responses, and the freedom to say pretty much anything anonymously.

If you hold tight to information/plans/new services until the time is right, it may hurt. Control can sometimes stifle creative thought and constructive criticism and thus spur anonymous carping.

Many organizations pursue transparency by creating more open means of communication. Secrets are a thing of the past (within legal limits, of course) and everyone-staff and public-is kept informed as much as is practical.

Major organizational and operational changes are discussed and decided openly, if not necessarily democratically. Long-term projects are managed so that staff have multiple avenues to contribute questions and advice.

Bumps on the road
However, we’ve seen numerous organizations, including several high-profile libraries, hit hurdles that frustrate and demoralize staff. Other organizations where entrenched leaders offer no more than lip service regarding transparency are prodded into transparency by desperate staff or the public. In response, anonymous complaints and concerns may emerge. Such outlets can run the gamut from constructive criticism to unproductive griping or even defamation.

A common anonymous outlet is the pseudonymous or anonymous individual blog. The less common but far more powerful variation is the group or community blog or web site that may be written by several writers but accepts unsigned comments and submissions.

And how about exposure via Flickr or YouTube? What might have taken months to make the rounds through libraryland, or sat at a local newspaper waiting for a decision on whether it was worth publishing, now can spread rapidly across the biblioblogosphere.

A nimble response
Your best response to this new world is to audit signage, library policy, and staff communication. Walking through the library with a customer’s eyes might lead you to change inappropriate signage. A user-centered look at the public policy manual may yield less rule-bound guidelines. Finally, establishing a way for staffers and patrons to comment freely fosters openness. See the Link List for examples.

The response to such criticism can be vital. A defensive stance, accompanied by a “we know and you don’t” attitude, often provokes anonymous critics to redouble their efforts and, in some cases where many people can comment or post, may result in more vitriol.

However, organizations willing to accept some level of criticism in return for ideas, suggestions, and the opportunity to change may be able to turn around a difficult situation. Leaders with a thick skin may be able to discern the legitimate criticism beneath the vituperation. (Purely mean-spirited, nonconstructive posts, however, are best ignored.)
Such breadth of speech can be found in answers to surveys and often deters libraries from conducting broad public (or even staff) polls. Harshly worded survey answers, however, should be simply par for the course; an unwillingness to see and read such commentary only hurts the organization.

A positive outcome to negative perceptions is our goal. It may be frustrating, especially for leaders who strive to make a difference in their institutions, but the benefits of entering the conversation-eyes wide open, carefully listening to the feedback, willing to respond to reproof in the open arena-will make it worthwhile.

LINK LIST

Sheridan Libraries Blog

Wayne State University Libraries

Michael Casey is Information Technology Division Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, CA, and co-author of Library 2.0.

January 1, 2008 Library Journal

The Transparent Library: A Road Map to Transparency

The “To Do” list for transparency is simple but requires commitment from administrators and staff and a willingness to learn from failure. While the list mostly fits all sizes, note that the challenges in achieving the first two items are faced mainly by medium and large libraries.

The list

  • Give your staff multiple avenues for open communication, including internal blogs and vertical teams.
  • Visit front-line staff regularly.
  • Cross-train staff so they have a sense of what their fellow front-line workers do all day.
  • Encourage new ideas and the hearing of ideas among all levels of staff and with the public.
  • Provide learning opportunities for all staff, including regional and web conferences. Start a Learning 2.0 initiative so that staffers can learn from the comfort of their own desk. Reinforce their knowledge of the library’s mission and introduce them to the planning process and how things get done at all levels of library administration and management.
  • Invite staff (on the clock) to attend governance meetings and other user community gatherings to get to know the political leadership.
  • Get all departments, all divisions, to plan their projects as a group so everyone knows (and can prepare for) what’s on the upcoming calendar and so everyone can offer input and suggestions.

Read the whole column here

A Road Map to Transparency

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

In our experiences at a larger public library system and in a university setting (after numerous years in a medium-sized public library), respectively, we often have had access to resources that smaller libraries/systems do not.

While that sets our frame of reference, we intend to give advice aimed at libraries of all sizes. No matter the dimensions of the institution, the building blocks of transparency allow a more honest, open flow of ideas, where staff and users are valued.

The “To Do” list for transparency is simple but requires commitment from administrators and staff and a willingness to learn from failure. While the list mostly fits all sizes, note that the challenges in achieving the first two items are faced mainly by medium and large libraries.

The list

Give your staff multiple avenues for open communication, including internal blogs and vertical teams.

Visit front-line staff regularly.

Cross-train staff so they have a sense of what their fellow front-line workers do all day.

Encourage new ideas and the hearing of ideas among all levels of staff and with the public.

Provide learning opportunities for all staff, including regional and web conferences. Start a Learning 2.0 initiative so that staffers can learn from the comfort of their own desk. Reinforce their knowledge of the library’s mission and introduce them to the planning process and how things get done at all levels of library administration and management.

Invite staff (on the clock) to attend governance meetings and other user community gatherings to get to know the political leadership.

Get all departments, all divisions, to plan their projects as a group so everyone knows (and can prepare for) what’s on the upcoming calendar and so everyone can offer input and suggestions.

Potential pitfalls?

Unlike the “To Do” list, the pitfalls to implementation vary according to the size of the institution. Smaller libraries can benefit from easier communication, a more cohesive feel among all levels of staff, and a clearer view of the big picture. Directors and staff work closely and meet their users regularly.

However, smaller libraries sometimes inadvertently allow strong dissenters to derail new initiatives and spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt among the staff. Training sessions can easily be overturned by one vocal naysayer. Sometimes it’s simply time for the sour apple to fall off the limb and for fresh ideas to be watered.

Medium-sized and larger libraries may have the resources to provide ample training opportunities, staff movement, and communication tools but their organizations may be based on silos and barriers.

Silos occur when departments dig in and don’t recognize the importance of big picture planning. One department’s attempt to implement new initiatives can run smack into another department’s project. Departments must talk as they grow so that everyone is on board with strategic thinking and project scheduling. Naysayers may be here, but a skillful project leader or library administrator can turn gridlocked obstinance into diversified opinion.

Say yes
Midsized and large libraries must take measures to insure that the culture of “no” does not become entrenched. How many libraries still ban cell phones and portable devices, refusing to acknowledge their varied uses? How many libraries like to think that only true “research” represents a valid use of the library computer? How in this day of content creation, social networking, gaming as learning, and a return to the idea of learning as play can we ever decide what’s research and what’s not?

While outdated thinking still persists, it is decreasing as libraries begin to listen to their users, come to learn about new technological tools, and see that a “yes but quietly” is so much better than a big “NO.”

A public face
What better way to show the face of the library than to get some of your staff to come to board or governance meetings. They can meet and greet the local politicos and form friendships with those holding the power of the purse.

This also gives staff a more global understanding of what is going on with the library and its community. An involved and aware staff, like an involved and aware public, is far more likely to support you in the long run.

Look at your library with the steps mentioned above in mind. You may have already done some of the items on this list. Some may fit with your organization now, while you may need to wait until the climate for introducing others is better. That’s just your local reality.

Michael Casey is Information Technology Division Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, CA, and co-author of Library 2.0.

December 15, 2007 Library Journal

The Technology Storm

In this new world, these models no longer fly:

Locked-down library web sites held captive by overzealous IT departments or marketing/PR offices.
Technology purchases driven by accounting departments instead of front-line staff and savvy professionals.
Technology decisions and plans without staff buy-in.
IT projects driven by artificial time lines instead of customer service needs.
A siege mentality because of concerns about security, privacy, and safety of data.

The models might be better replaced by the traits of the Transparent Library:

Make decisions in public. Hold meetings and invite staff and public comment for all major projects.
Create multiple avenues of communication and encourage vertical communication among all levels of staff.
Share plans and steps for projects and listen to feedback.
As you create and adapt library services, also consider technology usage statistics. Analysis of computer use, web site traffic, and the return on investment for all technology projects is essential.

Read the whole column here

The Technology Storm

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

We’re a far cry from the days when technology was solely the domain of the IT folks at the library. Now, much of what we do is linked to using, planning for, implementing, and evaluating all manner of technologies-from web site design/redesign and the rapidly growing trend of using social tools in the library all the way to finding out what hardware works best for the library and how to implement radio frequency identification (RFID).

While teams and committees ponder decisions about how a technology will fit in, the big picture decisions also require a transparent approach to politics. This may be easily overlooked, but it is painful if forgotten.

Political openness
Remember what makes the transparent library work. The new web is open, so be willing to share. Do you allow anyone on staff to contribute a post to a blog? Are the blog writers and readers willing to hear criticism without playing the blame game? The answer should be yes.

Larger, more involved projects can stir the political and organizational culture even more. Consider recent RFID implementations at many libraries. There have been well-publicized conflicts at the San Francisco Public Library and nearby Berkeley Public Library, but other facilities struggle under the radar to gain buy-in and smooth transitions.

What worked so very well in a demo may not translate to immediate success in your building. Polarized staff and users may feel frustration as tagging projects slow and the technology is pushed to the limit. Unfortunately, with expensive projects administrators often need to demonstrate immediate returns.

The web site challenge
Consider the library’s web site. Too many organizations refuse to put up anything new until it has been examined and focus-grouped to death. The transparent library announces to everyone that improvements are being made and pushes out the new product as soon as it can. An informed public is (usually) an understanding public; users should prefer a work-in-progress over an old, customer-unfriendly web site.

Modern web sites are driven with content management systems, both the software type and the human type. Teams should get together and share information, looking at system needs. They must organize the content with an eye toward end user needs, not internal department power grabs. Various departments must share the responsibility of creating and maintaining fresh web site content; the web site manager then becomes more of a project manager than an original content creator.

OCLC’s 2005 report “Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources” told us a dirty little secret: only one percent of information seekers start with the library web site, preferring easier-to-use web sites, even if the latter don’t lead to information of comparable quality.

Library web site managers often must contend with many different and entrenched interests-materials selectors who want to market their books, outreach staff who want notices for upcoming events, children’s section staff who want a visually appealing kid’s page, and administrators who simply want a popular, error-free site. It can’t be the job of one person.

Unlocking the organization

In this new world, these models no longer fly:

• Locked-down library web sites held captive by overzealous IT departments or marketing/PR offices.
• Technology purchases driven by accounting departments instead of front-line staff and savvy professionals.
• Technology decisions and plans without staff buy-in.
• IT projects driven by artificial time lines instead of customer service needs.
• A siege mentality because of concerns about security, privacy, and safety of data.

The models might be better replaced by the traits of the Transparent Library:

• Make decisions in public. Hold meetings and invite staff and public comment for all major projects.
• Create multiple avenues of communication and encourage vertical communication among all levels of staff.
• Share plans and steps for projects and listen to feedback.

As you create and adapt library services, also consider technology usage statistics. Analysis of computer use, web site traffic, and the return on investment for all technology projects is essential.

This should also be part of the library’s story you tell to boards, governing bodies, and, of course, our users. Mindful, genuine, inclusive planning is the best way to navigate the technology storm.

LINK LIST

“Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources”

Michael Casey is Information Technology Division Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, CA, and co-author of Library 2.0.

November 15, 2007 Library Journal

Are You Opaque?

Nowadays, an unhappy public can be more vocal than ever before, thanks to the Internet. When Apple dropped the price of the iPhone by $200 just weeks after the device went on sale, various Apple discussion forums caught fire with angry posts, and savvy geeks launched web sites to protest. How might a library director respond to the launch of a critical blog posted by community members or even anonymous staffers? (Check AFPLwatch.com for a perfect example of the latter in action.) Imagine if a site just like that debuted for your library. One of the toughest—and most crucial—things a library director can do is open the door, loosen the reins, and throw out that opaque institutional policy. A director’s blog (with open, unmoderated comments and a comment policy) would be a good start.

Read the whole column here

Triumphing Over Opacity

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

We recently heard from a ‘librarian in the trenches’ who copied our recent column on transparency (‘The Open Door Director,’ LJ 7/07, p. 29) for colleagues but was chastised by the library director for being too open with ‘lower levels of staff.’ We’ve received several comments like this since The Transparent Library began last April, which indicates that some library managers still prefer opacity. We’d like to share some examples and ideas on how to improve the situation.

Michael S.: As an academic, I’ve talked with many librarians this year about these topics. I spent 15 years working in a medium-sized public library, so I know what’s it’s like on the inside. As a reference librarian and Internet trainer, I served the public. Later, as a department head, I went to meetings, corrected time cards, and guided technology training and planning. Open, consistent communication was crucial. Staff became upset if a new technology (new drives, a new desktop image) appeared on their public desks without any announcement or instruction. Buy-in, we learned, required training and inclusion.

Michael C.: I’ve also worked in all levels of public librarianship, from front-line part-time staffer to director-level administration. I’ve seen some public relations debacles and internal problems brought on by a lack of transparency. It’s far too easy to become less transparent as you move up the management/leadership ladder and use a simple ‘need-to-know’ rationalization. Top levels of management, fearing flaws in their decisions, often hold information tightly.

MS: It’s not always upper managers who push back. Sometimes an administrator ready to change the organizational structure and flow meets resistance from the staff. But what’s a leader to do when staffers blatantly refuse to change processes–be it blogging for the library, job rotation, or a major shift in the library’s mission and goals? Steve Backs in ‘Blog About Libraries’ offered a resonant comment: professions do not stand still. I think it’s easy to hide behind ‘we have too much work as it is’ or ‘I don’t have time for that,’ when the world is changing. We can and should let go of outdated methods in our processes, such as typing new book lists or funneling all of the library’s web content to one staff member who has access to make changes, when technology can free up our time for more important matters, such as proving our worth to governing bodies and creating useful services.

MC: Good point. Middle managers may have found what works and fear change might make them more vulnerable. Still, I believe that organizational cultures are changed from above.

MS: I couldn’t agree more. Buy-in from leadership will make or break some libraries. Some of those in the middle and below are chomping at the bit to try some new things such as a Facebook group for the library or a Flickr account to promote youth services. They want to break down some barriers and engage in an honest, human conversation with users, while, up top, the proposals for those new services languish on administrative desks.

MC: In ‘The Open Door Director,’ we noted the negative implications of hiding budget problems. Unless your users know the troubles you face, they may not react favorably to the money-saving cuts you must make. Not explaining major actions to the public can cause a very bad, long-term PR problem. Unfortunately, many administrators only learn this lesson the hard way. We’ve had too many accounting failures, mortgage lender failures, and Enrons for people to look the other way.

MS: Nowadays, an unhappy public can be more vocal than ever before, thanks to the Internet. When Apple dropped the price of the iPhone by $200 just weeks after the device went on sale, various Apple discussion forums caught fire with angry posts, and savvy geeks launched web sites to protest. How might a library director respond to the launch of a critical blog posted by community members or even anonymous staffers? (Check AFPLwatch.com for a perfect example of the latter in action.) Imagine if a site just like that debuted for your library. One of the toughest–and most crucial–things a library director can do is open the door, loosen the reins, and throw out that opaque institutional policy. A director’s blog (with open, unmoderated comments and a comment policy) would be a good start.

LINK LIST

Blog About Libraries

‘The Open Door Director’

Michael Casey is Information Technology Division Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, CA, and co-author of Library 2.0.

October 15, 2007 Library Journal

Going to the Field

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

How many times have decisions been met with resistance and misunderstanding in your library when word reaches the front lines?

Sometimes it seems like higher-ups create policy without a feel for what actually happens on desks throughout the library. Often, those higher ups are labeled “out of touch.”

And those staffers who are on the front lines or working in the branches-whether they’re public or academic libraries-do know what goes on every day.

You know what it’s like. You know how you must juggle immediate customer service needs with longer-term issues such as training, staff evaluations, community outreach, event programming, collection maintenance, and more. You know that when a ceiling-mounted light bulb goes out that you need to request maintenance to come out and get it fixed. And you know that the daily deposit forms must be filled out exactly as required.

But you also know that you have to deal with other immediate issues-the angry customer on the telephone, the upset employee, or the crowd from the story hour that just ended.

Front-line management staff, especially, must be able to triage every situation that comes along and properly place it in the greater scheme of everything that needs to be done. Time is limited, and efficiency is required. Many managers simply do not have the option to devote an hour to looking for and properly filling out paperwork.

The effects of juggling
However, juggling these responsibilities is difficult. When you have to deal with individuals back in accounting or physical services who think that you have all day to follow their painstakingly laid out instructions for performing what should be a simple task, well, then you begin to develop a morale problem. Time is far better spent at the front end of the library than at the back, but not every department head or administrator understands that.

It’s not entirely the fault of the administration. Those people in accounting and collection development and, yes, even IT, perhaps have never worked in a library. Oh, they work in the offices of a library, but they’ve never really stood at a reference desk and answered questions during science project season, or dealt with an angry mother who just found something she refers to as “erotica” (or worse) in the children’s area. They’ve never had to juggle those “in-your-face” customer needs with administrative tasks.

Don’t misunderstand; those administrators deal with an entirely different set of demands and duties, but the purpose of the library is to meet the needs of the user. Remember, the service desks, branches, and satellites are the front lines in your library’s ability to deliver quality customer service.

To the front lines
So how do you get administrators and support staffers to understand the daily operations of the real library? How do you get them to recognize that you deal not only with their guidelines and expectations but also with those of many other departments as well, all on top of your local duties?

Bring them out.
Bring out the maintenance administration and let them see just how dark that corner area is-perhaps sending out staff to replace lighting once a month simply doesn’t work. And get those accountants out there to see how you have to count the money amidst screaming kids and a full book-drop and do it all on a tiny table without a proper chair.

Get collections staff out to see your full rows of boring fiction and your empty shelves devoid of graphic novels. Use these visits as a means to start conversations about what the users want.
Rotate administrative and support staff through the branches or various departments. Have them go through the same training that all of the front-line staffers go through. Write policies and guidelines so that staff can easily understand and comply with them.

A multitude of issues
We’re not trying to turn accountants and administrators into desk librarians. But we do want them to see and comprehend the multitude of issues that branch or department staff and management deal with every day. If support and administrative staff see the processes for what they really are, then, we hope, they’ll begin to view their roles in a new light.

The transparent library’s fluid nature and open communication allow all levels of staff to understand what it takes to meet user needs. By following this simple rule-bring them out-you’ll develop a big-picture understanding of library services among your staff, and you’ll see dividends immediately.

Michael Casey is Information Technology Division Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, CA, and co-author of Library 2.0.

September 15, 2007 Library Journal