creating a flat library and the culture of maybe

The North Plains Public Library is in a fairly uncommon stage of growth. I don’t have any figures but I bet there aren’t too many public libraries that are just a few years old and have a one year old building. We’re the most recently added member of the Washington County Cooperative Library Services (WCCLS) – a system with which I happen to be pretty impressed. Our circulation is likely going to double in FY 2007, and we’re already out of space. With increased use will come increased funding, of course a very welcome thing. Some of this funding will go towards staffing the library more. Because the library is in this not-quite-grown-up-yet position I’m taking some time to lay the groundwork so it can grow in a sensible manner.

So many library org charts resemble those famous structures at Giza because they’ve always been that way. Being such a young organization, the NPPL doesn’t have to move around the weight of a long institutional history and can do things right from the start. If anyone ever says, “because it’s always been this way” when examining the organization structure of the NPPL, I hope they’re referring to something flat.

Right now the library structure is neither flat nor hierarchical. Among staff, things tend towards being amorphous which is interesting and valuable in its own right, but has its issues and doesn’t exactly prime the library for structured growth. In order for the relationship between employees to take some sort of shape, employees must have some sort of identity. I don’t think it is possible to form any type of organizational structure – bottom-up, top-down, whatever – without organizational identities.

In light of this, the library’s four part-time circ clerks are getting specific job titles. These titles will be internal only in the sense that officially to the City of North Plains they’ll still be simply Circulation Clerks, but that doesn’t make the titles less important. So, what are they going to be titled? It seemed artificial to name the clerks Department Heads at this point. The word ‘expert’ has all sorts of icky implications. So what I settled on – for the first draft of this collaborative process – is the word ‘lead.’ We’re going to have a Lead Circulation Clerk, a Lead Cataloger, a Lead YS/YA Clerk, and so forth.

This mimics the departmentalization of a larger library without erecting artificial (or real) barriers to all staff working together. At the same time, staff, including our unpaid staff of volunteers, will have a point person to go to about particular issues as they arise. This point person will also serve as the main conduit of information about their particular area(s), not only to me, but to the rest of the staff as well. The title “Lead Facilities Clerk” doesn’t imply that others can’t help out with duties related to the facility, but it does provide an organizational identity.

Not wanting to shoehorn people into positions in which they weren’t comfortable or interested, I wrote drafts of job descriptions and distributed them at our last staff meeting. Everyone has already tended to specialize and/or enjoy certain areas of the library – related to their own talents and interests – so I used this as a basis. Now we’re going to work together to add and subtract things from the descriptions. Maybe they’ll even suggest another title besides “lead.”

Something interesting came up during this distribution of potential job duties. I neglected to give each of the clerks all of the job descriptions. I only gave them the individual descriptions I thought most appropriate. It was a total palm-against-forehead moment when the circ clerks all agreed they’d like to see each other’s proposed roles. This was a minor mistake and not in the spirit of this open source job description writing exercise. Everyone now has each of the descriptions so they can A) comment on the duties of all positions, B) see what others are doing and perhaps C) try to claim some of it for their own if they really like the sound of it.

A nice organizational structure is fine and dandy but it is also meaningless without the right attitude to back it up. Libraries with severe hierarchies either are the result of or set the stage for a strong Culture of No. It is probably a “chicken or egg” question but either way, a library can’t have a free flowing exchange of ideas in a collaborative environment if the Culture of No dominates.

Instead of a Culture of No, I’m aiming to create a Culture of Maybe. You might not be surprised that employees really appreciate being able to discuss library issues without fear of judgment or other negative reactions. Here are some ideas for creating a Culture of Maybe.

Encourage collaboration. Collaboration needs to be at the core of how things are accomplished. It isn’t just a method of working on discreet projects, but rather an complete way of communicating and acting. Challenges to this include staff involvement with many aspects of library service, some of which might be outside their traditional area of interest or expertise. (At the NPPL it is very apparent that we>me. The group does a fantastic job of brainstorming and refining ideas.)

Listen to everyone. This doesn’t mean that everyone is always right, but it does mean that their ideas deserve consideration. Staff need to know that presenting ideas that don’t get put into practice is not an indication of poor performance and that they won’t be penalized in any way for doing so.

Let natural talents develop. People are happy when they can do what interests them. People do their best work when their happy.

Make people responsible. This is not about being able to blame someone if things go haywire. It is about letting people know what they’re responsible for and that their actions have a direct impact on the operation of the library. If employees see the direct impact they have, they’ll be more likely to take pride in what they’re doing. An essential part of this is providing the freedom and resources to allow people to actually do their job.

Set deadlines and stick to them. All of this free flowing conversation and discussion is great, but it must result in something. Decisions should rarely be final, however. An initial deadline and a secondary evaluation point can be set, the latter providing another opportunity for reflection, reevaluation and refinement.

No matter the size of your library, incorporating some of the above ideas, either into the entire library or just your department or team, will benefit the staff and ultimately lead towards better service for your customers.

photo credits: two pyramids at giza, collaboration

6 thoughts on “creating a flat library and the culture of maybe”

  1. Yes we should get away from job descriptions and get to job duties. Then include what they would actually want to do. Collaboration on library services should go beyond someone’s position. Decision-making should also be pushed down. Great stuff!

  2. I think this is a great idea in theory and a good way to approach the job description writing process, as well as helping staff carve out their roles within the organization. My only wrinkle, and this is based solely on personal management experience, is that this would probably work tremendously well with hardworking, responsible, and eager staff who really love their jobs and want to succeed. I can’t see this being easy for a manager if they are experiencing a personnel problem. As much as I don’t like the hierarchical organizational structure of my library and department, I appreciate that it is there and that job descriptions are written in a way that makes it easy to determine accountability and responsibility. Unfortunately, I have dealt with a good share of personnel issues and have been able to effectively deal with them because we don’t have a flat structure and we have clearly defined job duties and expectations. It is far from ideal, but it does serve a purpose. I try to enable the spirit of yes and of a fluid org chart and roles in different ways. One of the easiest ones is to encourage staff to get involved in other areas of interest. This seems to go a long way with making staff feel like they are not in one distinct box and lets them interact with other areas of the organization.

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