You Can’t Afford Not To Do These Things

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

We’ve written about ideas for improving customer service, boosting staff morale, fostering change, and building a management and communication style that is win-win for both staff and administration. Almost everything we’ve discussed has, as its only cost, time–necessary to plan, implement, and review.

There are no expensive technologies to purchase, no cutting-edge software to struggle with, and no $500-an-hour consultants. Our suggestions involve listening, dialog, and transparent actions. Trust is the underlying concept. Communication is its foundation.

Economics hit morale

On April 1, 2007, when we began writing The Transparent Library column, the nation’s economy was reasonably strong, and library budgets were relatively sufficient and stable. But things have changed. Federal, state, and local budgets have begun to suffer seriously, and many libraries now face hiring freezes and, in some instances, layoffs and closings.

The economic downturn also hurts morale. If your library is experiencing layoffs and closings, this is unfortunate yet understandable. But we hear from some librarians that managers are using the economic crisis to close their doors and ears to new ideas and initiatives.

That is the worst thing they can do. In fact, now is the best time to implement many of the ideas we’ve advocated for the past two years, to listen to your staff and your users, seeking new and more efficient ideas to boost service delivery and morale. It is not the time to hunker down stubbornly.

Directors shouldn’t hide

First, managers and administrators should take some time to visit your locations. Listen to your constituents. While costly new initiatives are unlikely, ideas that make use of existing tools should be encouraged and studied. Honest dialog goes a long way toward addressing staff worries and concerns.

If you can’t get to all of your locations, go to some, then record a video for the staff as a whole. For a look at transparency at its best, check out the video of Allen County Public Library, IN, director Jeff Krull addressing his staff and user base about the current property tax reform issue in Indiana.

Building teamwork

Many libraries are responding productively to improve or augment internal interaction and the management of day-to-day tasks. Teams and committees can alternate between actual physical meetings and virtual meetings, reducing the fuel and downtime costs associated with travel. Free online tools can open up dialogs among physically and hierarchically separated groups within your organization.

Take a look at what the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga library is doing with a MediaWiki install to plan for its new building and highlight the workings of various departments.

Never stop learning

Unfortunately, many libraries are cracking down on just the things their staffers need. Recently, we heard from a librarian who found her “Learning 2.0” initiative on hold as her library system grapples with budget cuts and a hiring freeze. “I was told we don’t have time to take on new things,” she reported via email.

While we’ve previously promoted inclusive learning and open management, how do these ideas hold up in troubled economic times?

Budget woes, hiring freezes, and cutbacks are not reasons to suspend innovation, creativity, and learning. The mechanisms and priorities may change, but the culture should not.

Actually, tight budgets should foster creativity and the exploration of free online tools for outreach and low cost programming that taps into user needs. A program called “Super Couponing”—available throughout the Chicagoland area at public libraries—recently attracted almost 200 people to the Schaumburg Township District Library, IL.

Making use of time

While staff time isn’t free, it also isn’t permanently affixed to specific tasks and services, especially those that return little on investment. Sandra Nelson, author of Managing for Results, points out that a few hours here and there devoted to something as simple as a bulletin board can add up to misallocated time.

If you can find such black holes of time—whether it be hours spent on displays or hours spent on programs that few attend—you might reallocate some staff to more productive and lucrative projects that boost both morale and door-count.

You may also find that some teams or projects should be delayed or canceled in light of the budget. Staff time devoted to these initiatives could be redirected toward projects with more immediate returns. If you have a monthly team meeting to discuss a new ILS but, owing to budget cutbacks, that system is on hold, then you could retask that team or staff to look at other customer service initiatives.

Some new ideas

With the above in mind, try out some of these ideas to create buzz and interest with staff and your user base:

Mine the biblioblogosphere for innovative yet cost-effective ideas for programs. Rick Roche’s “How To Manage Your iPod” class at Thomas Ford Memorial Library, Western Springs, IL, is a recent example of programming success.

Community conversation

If your community is being hit by the economic downturn, take every chance to talk with your user base and reach out to other organizations. San Diego County Library is offering “hands-on support” for citizens in foreclosure via programs and partnering.

Other ideas you can explore

Host “Town Hall” meetings to discuss openly how the library is handling budget shortfalls. Encourage participation with users.

Consider creating a video for extending the town hall online—involving administrators or staff. Call for video responses.

Ask your user base to help you promote the library with their own video or graphic creations, as the New Jersey State Library did. Have a contest. Give the winner a “no cost” prize, such as freedom from fines, free video, or 50 free printouts.

Don’t make sweeping changes without checking in with your users and mining the appropriate data. For example: cut hours with low use not busy times.

Consider taking the conversation online via a site like “14 Days To Have Your Say” from Western Libraries, Western Washington University, which gathers and tallies user-generated ideas and the responses to them.

Keep your eyes on the ball

And, please, librarians, don’t take the easy way out. “Our budget cuts mean we have no time for staff development” could become “Let’s offer a free Learning 2.0 program for all staff and our users.”

The above is within reach at little or no cost and an outlay of staff time. The tools are free or low cost. All it takes is ingenuity and the proper mindset.

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

March 15, 2009 Library Journal