The Open Door Director

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

The job of library director is difficult and often underappreciated. These days, library directors are more like university presidents, needing to build support in the community, raise money, and make a name for themselves and their library. Obviously, this varies by the size of the community, but all library directors need to garner sufficient political and community capital to get budgets approved and expansions funded and to keep door counts high.

It’s no longer enough for the library director simply to keep the place running. Today’s director is politician and lobbyist, fundraiser and spokesperson, juggling all of these titles while administering a library.

Why is this relevant to a column about transparent libraries? Because it is one of those dark truths that most people in the field know but few dare speak about. Libraries do not operate in a vacuum. They are not preordained to receive funding or even to exist [see Jackson County, OR, story, News, LJ 6/1/07, p. 14ff.]. Like every other organization, libraries must account for the money they request and consume. Transparency-putting our cards on the table-allows us to learn and grow, and it lets our community see us for all we are, including our vulnerabilities.

Remaining relevant

One foundational Library 2.0 concept is that the library must make itself sufficiently relevant to the local population so that funding and political support remain and grow stronger. This means libraries must act in concert with other nonprofits that use marketing campaigns, lobbying, and grassroots networks to develop long-term, deeply rooted sustenance across different demographics and political strata.

Transparency plays a role in helping library directors achieve these goals by opening the process to everyone. How many times have libraries held closed-door meetings about budget problems, or tried to hide fiscal shortfalls by moving money around so no one would notice? We often think that keeping such things from the public will save us from being “in the news,” but what it really does is keep the public from knowing just how dire our situation might be. We confuse the short-term advantage of avoiding media coverage with long-term success of stable funding and greater outreach to patrons.

Making actors

Opening the process takes the public out of the role of spectator and transforms them into participants. If the library director has done her job, the community becomes even more than a participant, it becomes a stakeholder. And, as any lobbyist will tell you, stakeholders are far more willing to fight for what they have a stake in than almost any other group. And stakeholders vote.

Today’s library director can facilitate transparency by building openness within the organization and using the power of communication to reach out to the community. Open organizations, where staff and public feel free (and safe) to contribute new ideas and suggestions and to play a role in their implementation and evaluation, will win more long-term proponents than closed organizations that hide failures and weaknesses.

Reaching out

Open communications, one of the three key elements of the transparent library (LJ 4/1/07, p. 30), includes going out to the community, both physically and virtually, talking to people about their needs, about what the library offers and wants to offer, and about what it requires to move forward.

The 21st-century library director visits local community groups, business organizations, civic associations, and churches. He uses surveys-both paper and online-as well as some of the newer tools such as blogs and social networks.

Building broad community support today means reaching a population that is online and interacting. Different demographics call for different tools. This may require the use of several online social networks, with a message targeted to each group.

Online transparency

Your MySpace presence might talk about your plans for teen activities and your need for their parents’ vote in an upcoming referendum. Your Flickr page could boast of your latest children’s services activities, and your blog on the local senior center’s web site might talk about your upcoming computer classes and tax preparation workshop.

The goal, however, is to use all of these new tools just as you use the tools that you’ve been working with in person. Reaching out, being open and honest, and inviting feedback and input will help you succeed in a most difficult task.

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

July 1, 2007 Library Journal