February 16, 2018

Learning to Thrive in a Culture of Change

Amanda Clay Powers

Amanda Clay Powers
(Photo by Kris Lee)

The future of libraries is caught up in our ability to change and continually respond to the rapid changes around us. But in order to have meaningful change that will make our libraries thrive, rather than continually exhausting our resources, we have to find a way to discriminate among the changes we could make, implement the ones that make sense, and then keep them going while we continually evaluate them. But how can we ever keep up? And how can we become the libraries of the future when we are relied upon to be pillars of our communities, not revolutionaries? Well, lean in. I’m going to share with you the secrets I’ve learned from five years of applying social technologies in an academic library.

First—find yourself a geek with good tech radar and listen to her. Second, bring new ideas into the library any way you can. Third, set up a system to evaluate the resulting innovations that emerge from your library staff so you can sustain them. That’s it.

Find and support committed, passionate geeks to clear a path in the social media wilderness for you. Create an ongoing culture of exploration and open-mindedness by continually bringing new ideas into your library, deepening your expertise to make the innovations sustainable. Incubate ideas, sort through them, and then develop and sustain the applications that your newly empowered, knowledgeable staff will inevitably produce.

This model works, but while it is simple, it is not necessarily an easy path. In fact, I’m here to tell you that you can expect fits and starts, conflicts and obstacles, panic and suspicion. The ongoing process of creating a future for your library must be nurtured and yes, even “institutionalized” so that you can respond to and occasionally embrace rapid innovation while keeping the library stable.

I firmly believe that if you are determined to take your work in a certain direction, you can eventually get there. Regardless of where you begin, let your patrons’ needs be your North Star. Without the goal of connecting with and serving your patrons, all the tech planning and inventive applications in the world will be useless. Adopting new technologies because they are new or cool or because some other library has them is fruitless “keeping up with the Joneses.” That sort of tech adoption will never be deeply rooted or lasting, because there’s no real reason to sustain it. If nothing else, projects that aren’t patron-focused will lack the metrics demanded when the Assessment Police come around. (And they will come.) Academic libraries by design do not make overnight shifts in culture, practices, or policies. That’s to your benefit, because once those shifts occur, they’ll be as stable as they were difficult to achieve.

Why You Need Your Own Geek

There’s no way I know of for emerging tech to be tracked, identified, and adopted in a library through a top-down structure. For the library to stay aware of what is happening in that social media wilderness means that some individual has to be passionate about it. New social technologies are not released systematically on a development plan from a major vendor; they evolve quickly and require more than a 9 to 5 workday to investigate.

The ideal social media tracker is someone who actually wants to spend irrational amounts of time experimenting with bleeding edge tech and signing up for each new beta (or alpha!) service as it comes across the radar. You need someone who has that radar and is willing to participate in shaping new technologies with the library in mind. This compulsive creature must be willing to watch technologies fail, even after having invested time in them—in fact, they should be committed to wasting time, knowing that it will pay off in the long run.

If you don’t already have such a person, you can create a position and search for one. If you go this route, keep in mind that such individuals don’t always fit comfortably with the rest of the culture of the library. You may be lucky enough to find someone who can get along with anyone, manage change, plan projects, envision the future, and translate geek-tech into administrative-speak. If that happens, hang on tight. If not, consider searching for people already in your library who are secretly experimenting with new tech and social media. They are there. They have blogs about their favorite characters from True Blood that you know nothing about. They’re doing social couponing using Twitter and Facebook and pulling their penny-saver RSS feeds into Google Scholar. They have entire worlds of information you could leverage. All you have to do is listen—even if you don’t understand a word at first.

Once you find this treasure, your role is not over. It is vital to understand that they are waiting for someone to direct their explorations. Planning a library’s tech future is not easy to do while being bombarded by the newest, hottest, most distracting technology. Just as soon as things begin to feel solid and stable, the paradigm will shift and some game-changing newcomer rocks the library.

Nurturing is crucial too. Give your star explorer permission to experiment—call it play if you want, but I think it makes sense to acknowledge it as work. They will find your future for you by happily hacking through dizzying options that would flatten the rest of us. Listen when they come up with crazy ideas, empower them to try new things, and for goodness sake, implement something every once in a while. In the opposite world of the future, failure is success because it’s the only way to learn.

Geeking Your Library

It may be counterintuitive to say that institutionalizing change in libraries relies on the individual at its heart, but that’s the case. It cannot rest on the shoulders of one individual, however. Change has to become part of a library’s culture—not something that one person—no matter how brilliant—champions. The early adopter might not be the person to cheerfully commit to the daily ins and outs of updating statuses, checking broken links, and connecting the entire library to the mission of new innovations. Anyway, no library can afford to shape a program around one person; the work of the new technology has to be integrated into the bones of the library itself: part of job descriptions, accountable to a supervisory structure, and with mechanisms for renewal and revolution. More than anything, it must become routine and even, yes, boring. Coming up with Facebook updates day in and day out, year in and year out, is not thrilling work, but if you have committed to Facebook for outreach or marketing or reference, it is vital to maintaining your program.

It’s okay, and maybe inevitable, that your bleeding-edge tech geeks with their highly refined radar don’t sustain the projects that become part of your institution. But how do you develop deep enough expertise in your staff so that your brilliant techies can hand off viable projects?

Assembling Your Geek Squad

Commit to getting information in from outside. You can only talk to each other for so long, and there is a vibrant community in the library world of doers, debaters, naysayers, and champions of all sorts. Library staff must be encouraged to get into the mix and to listen to the arguments. Sometimes they may seem like pointless pontificating or even navel-gazing, but these communities offer ideas and nurturing for fledgling geeks. The Mississippi State University (MSU) Libraries, for example, started the MS Library 2.0 Summit in 2007 after being inspired by hearing Michael Stephens speak at the NASIG Mid-South eResources Symposium in 2006. Bringing innovators to your library will place all of your staff in the role of learner and demonstrate the value the library places on learning new things. In this age of the webinar, it’s not necessary to fly innovators in and put them up at the Hampton Inn. However, some of the most valuable learning at conferences happens between sessions, where developing relationships with like-minded souls and brainstorming with colleagues gets at the real stuff—not just the presentation but what is and isn’t working.

Leverage your geeks to find the topics that will be most relevant and the people that can speak to them. If you don’t have time to start your own conference, consider a lecture series that brings people in from nearby libraries or even from your own campus or local community. Your geeks will know them. In 2011, one of the speakers at the MSU Summit was Shane Reed, the owner of a local coffee shop that had built an enormous engaged and loyal Twitter following of MSU students and faculty. He spoke about the challenges of creating community on campus using social media—exactly what every university is trying to do, and so far failing at for the most part. In planning for the future, we have to listen to perspectives outside the library AND outside the library world. We don’t have all the answers, and the successful library of the future will have people in place who are listening to the business world, and to journalists, technologists, and even pop stars. Thinking outside the box has never been more important.

Teaching the Tech

An extension of this external engagement is a culture of continuous learning within the organization. It’s not enough for the chosen few to know the important innovations as they approach. You must elevate the skill level of the entire organization through an active and vital curriculum provided by instructors from across the library. Once your staff is engaged in these new tools, they will need to understand how the tools are changing, learning about new privacy settings or interface changes, for example, as they come up. New employees will have to be brought up to the proficiency level of the current staff.

In addition to general training in new technologies and social media, it’s a good idea to show staff how other libraries are leading the way with the options you’re considering. Here come the geeks again. They will have an ear to the ground, be networking with other librarians, and understand the context of new tools as they roll out. Your training program should also give your people what they need to imagine how they might apply new technologies in their own jobs. If you have established service to patrons as your library’s top priority, it will be natural that applications that help patrons will bubble to the top. Your staff knows your community better than anyone else. Student workers, alumna-turned-employees, long-term reference librarians—they all have intimate relationships with your users and are using your tools.

You’ll find varying degrees of willingness and interest to embrace new technologies. Some will be too unwilling, exhausted, or busy to be bothered, which is fine. You don’t need everyone. But there will also be people who want to know new things and will think up ways that new tools will work in their department. These are the foot soldiers of an emerging tech program, and before you know it, you’ll notice a depth of knowledge and capability within the organization that you never expected.

One of the benefits of this kind of ongoing technology training is consensus building. The more people know about something, the less they fear it. Getting past fear of the unknown is essential in introducing new technologies and in establishing a sustainable structure. However, while training usually creates consensus among the ranks, it doesn’t always have the same effect on the institution’s upper echelons. For that you need proposals, preferably ones that include proof-of-concept. Very rarely does something sustainable get done without first being written down and labored over.

Geek the Administration

Geeking the administration takes time and patience. It also requires structures in place that allow for the necessary evaluation and institutionalization of the tech projects that have risen to the top. Some administrators lack the skills to evaluate proposals, not to mention time to devote to technology training workshops. I propose two structures that will work together to make change sustainable. Some (most?) of you will roll your eyes at even more committees—but why fight them? This is who we are as libraries—we want consensus. And to get it, we have to talk it out.

Step One: Create Your Geek Filter Committee

The first group is a small, commando-like operation. You need passionate, die-hard geeks, of course, but you also need translators: a sympathetic reference librarian who sees patrons with their iPads, an IT guru who is willing to listen to crazy ideas, an instruction-type person who wants to know more, someone who’s been around and knows where the bodies are buried, and maybe even an administrator whose real goal is to monitor your subversive activities. This group should be small so that real work can get done.

It will direct the technology training, bring speakers in to provide vision and excitement, and lead training sessions that provide everyone the tools they need to innovate. The group is the filter that makes the entire system work, where ideas from the geeks and the geek squad can be evaluated, fleshed out, tested, and where the best of the best can move forward. Without this group, ideas will not move into the political reality of an actual library. Without translation, even the most amazing, logical ideas will wither on the vine.

Tips for this group: Not every idea should go forward. It’s critical to filter and incubate new ideas first. Look for proof-of-concept. This is the place to anticipate all the inevitable questions, problems, and obstacles and then write it up. If the momentum slows on a project, table it. It may not be time for it, or maybe it wasn’t a good fit. Some ideas will be duds; this is the kicking-the-tires phase, after all.

Once an idea has been put through its paces, and you have a solid project with a well-thought out proposal—what’s next?

Step 2: Build a Broad Consensus

Yes, another committee. Consensus, buy-in, approval, participation, and willing bodies will make your new ventures work in ways you cannot imagine today. A group with members from across the library system must review and approve (or disapprove) your proposals. The purpose of this group will be to garner buy-in from every corner of the library. Implementation of social media tools, in particular, takes a village. If you plan ahead and give people a voice, input, approval—suddenly the new program is coming from the entire library and not just from the geek in the corner (whom they’ve never been sure about to begin with).

Our Facebook page, for example, got traction when one intrepid librarian started posting call numbers and titles of poetry books during national poetry month. I was sure that we would lose followers. Nope. They loved it. People commented and “liked” the posts. They wanted to talk about books and identify with those that they liked on their library’s Facebook Page. Then our digital projects administrator got involved. Turns out he was sitting on a pile of odd MSU-related pictures: Elvis at the library, our Mascot getting arrested, crazy signs on campus from the ’60s. As much as I cared about Facebook and had a vision for it, I would never have done either of those things, but it turns out they’re what people wanted.

Once your proposal moves up the line, you’ll have to communicate with people outside your Geek Squad. Tips for this hurdle: Make your proposal understandable. For anyone. Do not use tech-speak or jargon. Include whatever evidence you can gather from Pew research, ComScore stats, the library literature, whatever is out there—even anecdotal information from blogs or listservs. Librarians love data, especially if they don’t understand the technology. Make a one-page executive summary. Many people on the committee and in the administration won’t get past that.

Above all, do not get annoyed if they have many questions that you think have obvious answers. It’s helpful to hear all the ways in which your clear prose can be misunderstood. Create reasonable plans that library administrators will be able to approve. Provide plans for maintenance. Include methods of assessment and a trajectory for growth. Your proposal will be part of what makes your project sustainable, not just what persuades the powers that be to approve it.

What we learned about committees that include a cross-section of library employees is that there is a widely varying comfort level with technology. Therefore, your tech projects need to be translated so that they are comprehensible to everyone. Listen to the debate about your project and work to build trust. Everyone will have a different set of priorities and taking those into account makes your proposal and your project stronger and more sustainable, moving them beyond being a pet project or a blip on your Geek’s radar, and into the institution’s life.

Next Stop—Your Future?

Over the last five years implementing these steps, I’ve seen countless dead projects and tabled even more. I’ve seen wonderful projects flag and nearly fail from exhausted and overworked personnel. In order to serve our patrons and have meaningful change that will create a future for libraries that makes us relevant, nimble, porous, and vibrant, we have to start with our Geeks.


Amanda Clay Powers (on Twitter: @amandaclay) is Virtual Reference Manager at Mississippi State University Libraries.

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  1. José Orozco-Tenorio says:

    I suppose you wnat to say “The Future of Librarians…” and not “The future of libraries”

    • That’s an interesting distinction you are making, José, and I can see what you mean. I would counter that librarians are the element that transforms a building with books (or a website that has links/databases on it) into a library. The future of libraries is contingent on the choices we make as librarians right now.