Six Signposts on the Way

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

We recently presented a workshop in London at Internet Librarian International, based on our writings here, and realized that throughout the columns we’ve identified a set of mile markers for the journey toward transparency.

Give everyone an avenue to talk.
Offer online and real-world mechanisms for all of the library’s stakeholders, staff and users, to talk, react, and suggest solutions. A good start is a suggestion box and a way to share the answers with everyone. Add an online forum or blog and “town hall meetings,” and the stage is set.

Your goal is to engage your community and get them talking even if it is within the confines of your firewall or within your institution. Encourage trust, respect, and a willingness to be open. Remember, no one should be punished for speaking up or speaking out. And use that feedback from staff and library users for planning.

Play nice and be constructive.
The new suggestion box or blog is not a soapbox or place to share petty grievances or diatribes. Staffers should use it constructively. Administrators shouldn’t let fear or loss of control dissuade them from a good idea.

Couch your ideas and suggestions in ways that decision-makers will understand. Show the positive return on the investment, whether it’s a monetary savings or a customer service deliverable. Good ideas are difficult to ignore, and good ideas that save the library money or bring in new users are even more imperative.

Grow and develop your support community.
Everyone is a stakeholder in your library, even those in the community who don’t use the library. There will come a time when a bond fund or tax initiative needs community support, and the library will have to be able to call on those sponsors.

Nurture interested parties in your user community: whomever you serve, whether they be teens, seniors, faculty, staff, or students. Remember that, as with schools, even those who use the facility little or never still benefit from a community with a thriving library. However, you can and should draw in those nonusers, turning them into critical participants whose voices will be heard in difficult times.

Be willing to accept anonymity.
Anonymity can encourage people to share observations or ask questions that might otherwise never emerge. Be willing to look past nonconstructive critical statements gathered from staff or the public via surveys, comments, or feedback forms. There may be substance behind the snark to be addressed and used.

What about bad or “not so useful” statements or suggestions made by staff? Name-calling, for instance, may not merit an open reply, but it’s best to address even slightly feasible ideas, if only to acknowledge the input and encourage more feedback. Explain why a particular idea might not work at this time, and direct focus to other areas. Or involve staffers in exploring the costs and benefits of particular ideas that might demonstrate their feasibility to all.

Tell the truth.
Lies don’t work. Your staff and users will remember deception for a long time. Honesty creates buy-in for initiatives and plans, and that buy-in creates success.

During difficult times, pull constituents in so they understand reasons for changes to services. Don’t hide behind “happy talk” PR when an honest voice is much stronger and more memorable.

Be honest with yourself as well about what your user community wants. Don’t let one vocal critic change policy for the entire library; know that the squeaky wheel doesn’t necessarily reflect the populace.

Focus on user-driven policy, not driving users away.
Usage patterns, user needs, and the grim reality of tough economic times mean we must steadily reevaluate our mission, our services, and our policies.

We recognize that true reference questions are slipping on our stats pages, but demand for access to the web, emerging technologies, and traditional public library services can still thrive, as the recent upturn in library use shows. Keep track of what users gravitate toward and respond nimbly to their needs.

Fewer college students browse the shelves these days, but the academic library can remain central. Academic libraries recognize the need for technology and collaborative space to respond to changing patterns of use.

See your library through the eyes of your users. Brian Herzog’s “Work Like a Patron Day” invited library staffers to experience their facilities as users do: What signage do they see? How are they treated? How does the library feel?

Join us next month for the final six signposts.

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

November 15, 2008 Library Journal