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 We can and should let go of outdated methods in our processes, such as typing new book lists or funneling all of the library’s web content to one staff member who has access to make changes, when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 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.


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