In my last column, I talked about some general principles that academic library administrators should bear in mind when faced with requests from other entities on campus to occupy space in the library (either temporarily or permanently). Those principles were: first, remember that the library does not belong to you; second, say “yes” or “no” based on strategy rather than on a knee-jerk defensive reaction; third, remember that cooperation creates political capital.
With this column I would like to share some of what we’ve learned in my library about building and maintaining happy and mutually beneficial relationships with those nonlibrary entities that do find their way into the library building.
Libraries that keep in mind the first principle mentioned above (responding to requests for space strategically rather than defensively) should find, happily, that when programs and people do end up in the library they will usually represent initiatives that nicely complement the library’s own programs and goals. For example, one partnership that my library established years ago was with our campus’s Academic Advising office. We now have several cubicles housing advisers from that office in the Knowledge Commons area of our library, which brings together our major research assistance offerings with representatives of the campus’s major academic support office. As tired as we all are of the overused term synergy, that’s exactly what we’ve achieved with this partnership.
Sometimes, however, you will find yourself in a position where it is wise to allow someone to take up space in the library despite the lack of any clear connection between the guest’s program and the library’s. A professor or staff employee may need temporary refuge from a difficult situation elsewhere on campus, or a program office may need somewhere to perch for a few months while a renovation project is completed. When the space request is situational and the programmatic fit is poor, these arrangements tend to be temporary.
Whether the relationship is temporary or permanent, however, living together in the same building will always entail certain challenges. Some of them are unavoidable, but all can be eased by taking certain steps and keeping certain principles in mind.
- Begin all space-sharing relationships with a formal document, one that is signed and cosigned and that clearly lays out rights and responsibilities of both parties. (The one we use in my library can be found here.) This agreement should be reviewed by both parties on a regular basis. The document should make it clear that some rules apply to everyone who inhabits the building, no matter where their organizational reporting lines run. These rules might include requirements to participate in safety drills, to maintain a certain level of cleanliness, to cooperate with security staff, etc.
- Bear in mind that if the library hosts other services, patrons will likely experience them as “library services.” This means that interactions over which you have very little control are going to shape patrons’ perceptions of the library. To a great degree, this is something you will simply have to accept. In some cases it may be possible to influence the service philosophies of your partners—however, when addressing service issues with your hosted partners, be careful not to send the message, “You guys are really lousy at this, and we’re good at it.” (And, of course, bear in mind that the learning may need to flow in the opposite direction as well: the library may well be able to pick up service tips from its partners.)
- Don’t treat your guests like tenants or even like guests; treat them like fellow citizens. The library and its partner programs are both tenants of a building that belongs to the campus. However, since the library building is largely under the library organization’s control, the library should make sure to keep its partners in the loop regarding building events, maintenance issues, changes in opening hours, custodial arrangements, etc. Announcements that go to everyone in the library organization will often not reach those who are physically located in the library but not part of the organization, so maintaining a separate email list for the full population of the building itself is a very good idea.
- Invite partners to meetings and events, maybe even on a recurring basis. In my library, we house the Teaching & Learning Technologies (TLT) program, which includes one of the campus’s major testing centers. Because this relationship is so important, and because the programmatic connections between TLT and the library are so strong, we have made it a point to invite TLT’s director to attend meetings of the library’s executive leadership team on a quarterly basis. This gives our two programs a regular and predictable opportunity to update each other on initiatives and activities and to touch base about any difficulties or issues that may need to be resolved. This level of interaction and coordination won’t be necessary with every relationship, but it’s wise to think about it whenever a partner relationship begins.
- There will be blood. Clean it up promptly. Every organization has its own culture, and when two different organizations are placed in the same building, the two cultures will very likely come into conflict at some point. Acknowledge this likelihood early in the relationship and together commit to the principle that when conflict arises, it will be dealt with promptly, professionally, and respectfully.
It’s important to remember that by no means will following the principles outlined above guarantee a perfectly harmonious and conflict-free relationship with your new partner in the library space. However, in our experience in my library, these principles can help a lot—both to prevent unnecessary conflict and to provide a clear path to resolution when it does arise.
I invite comments from anyone else who has had experiences with space-sharing in the library and would like to offer other tips and principles for success—or, perhaps even more useful, cautionary stories of failure!