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