Let’s All Lighten Up

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

Sometimes, it’s simply not easy.
When life throws us $4-a-gallon gasoline, rising unemployment, a housing credit crunch, and tight local, state, and federal budgets, libraries feel the pinch.

It’s natural for work morale to suffer. Boards and administrators feel pressure to make cuts and increase staff efficiency. Front-line staffers get hit from both sides–supervisors who expect more (and sometimes give less) and users who expect the same services they’re used to, plus a smiling face. During times like this, the natural inclination is to “get serious,” push your staff harder, and make every dollar go further.

Yet getting serious is almost always the wrong way to encourage more from staff. Study after study illustrates this, and conventional wisdom reminds us that when work becomes more pressure-ridden, turning up the heat won’t result in a more efficient and productive workforce.

“She sucks the fun out of everything we do; it just makes it harder to do our jobs,” wrote a library staffer responding to our July 2008 column (“Check Your Ego at the Door”). “What can we do?”

Making libraries fun
Libraries–all libraries–should be fun, even in difficult times. Just scan LJ’s recent Movers & Shakers (M&S) roster or peruse the library blogosphere to see library workers who have discovered that a sense of play and creativity, even what seems like frivolous experimentation, can result in useful services and solutions.

M&S Tony Tallent, while at the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County, NC (he’s now at Boulder PL, CO), devised “Drop Everything and Learn Day,” aiming at “encouraging staff to stay curious and inspired.”

But some libraries, mired in hierarchical leadership structures, closed communication systems, and restrictive policies, drain the life out of users’ curiosity and damage staff morale as well.

Fun can mean a playful use of space, technology, and people. It can cost money, especially with some technologies, but many web sites, such as Flickr and fd’s Flickr toys, offer a way to create fun signage, name tags, and more.

Global goodies
Look at how the librarians and staff at the DOK Library in Delft, The Netherlands, have incorporated games, color, and technology. The romance section, painted a brilliant, passionate red, beckons to readers. A Bluetooth message appears on users’ cell phones upon entering DOK: “Welcome to the most modern library in the world.” And game systems abound for young and old.

A “fun” library, our peers (on Twitter) have told us, depends on the tone established by administrators and also lets patrons who don’t necessarily come for reading still enjoy being in the building.

“When they’re laughing, they’re listening,” write Adrian Gostick, a lecturer and educator in strategic communication and leadership from Seton Hall University, NJ, and Scott Christopher, a humorist and columnist, in their recent book, The Levity Effect (Wiley). “Fun at work can provide a competitive advantage, help attract and retain employees, and provide the spark to jumpstart creativity.”

Adding some fun
Here are a few simple guidelines to up the fun quotient at your organization.

Give creatively. Warren-Newport PL (Gurnee, IL) director Steve Bero offered two hours of his time to any department that won a staff day raffle for charity fundraising. Even if you decide not to raffle off your services, just get out there and talk to your staff (and not just your favorites). Make yourself available. Listen.

Librarians and staffers: Don’t dismiss Guitar Hero or Learning 2.0 because you didn’t come to work to play games or write a blog. The bigger picture of your work life is important: balance, mind, body, and spirit. Then, extend the playfulness to your users.

Team leaders and others: Check out The Levity Effect’s Chapter 7 for “142 ways to have fun at work.” Many of the suggestions, from promoting a staff “Wall of Fame” to late afternoon game sessions as a break, may work for your team or provoke additional brainstorming. The “Wall of Fame” could easily become a “Staff Recognition” blog or an online photo gallery of the best images created with the Flickr toys.

Laugh. Explore. Play. Try new things. Give a little. Share a lot.



fd’s Flickr toys


The Levity Effect

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

August 15, 2008 Library Journal