Alligators and Swamps and 21st Century Libraries


Tonight while I was watering my sapling trees I noticed that there were numerous ants crawling around the mound within the moat that I was flooding. As I watched the ants test the edge of the dry ground where the water was soaking it, and waiting to see if they all fled to the top of the mound, I realized that the constantly busy ants have a very limited perspective of their larger world. Basically, they can only see the dirt in front of their antennae because of their mission to seek and gather food.

I mentally translated this scene of the ants’ limited perception, and began to wonder if there was an analogy with why I haven’t seen more success stories about 21st Century libraries. After over three and a half years of following the 21st Century Library transformation issues, and blogging about the multitude of environmental factors and librarians characteristics and skills and organizational qualities of the 21st Century library, why aren’t there more libraries making “progress” if you will toward becoming 21st Century libraries? Why isn’t there more discussion and literature about libraries that are 21st Century libraries?

That brought to mind the conversation I was having awhile back with my good friend urban library director back east who reminded me that “When you’re up to your armpits in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your original goal was to drain the swamp.” I really enjoy her stories of mayhem in the library, and we both get a good laugh, but in reality it is the daily “crisis” of events that prevent exceptional leaders and library directors from achieving the vision they have for their library.

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It isn’t that they don’t know what to do to become a 21st Century library. It’s that they don’t have the resources to achieve it. When the events happen that require immediate and decisive action by the director, it takes time and energy and disrupts the organization. When it happens routinely – even daily – it robs the organization of the working environment of order and stability that promotes progress, and the disruption stifles efforts to achieve excellence.

Unquestionably, making progress takes planning for the future which takes considerable time. It takes time to envision the future. It takes time to create a plan to achieve that vision. It takes time to develop a plan to achieve that future that is actually helpful, as opposed to one that just consumes already severely limited resources. In my blog post of June 6, 2011, Too Busy Keeping the Library Running! I offered the following information from Stacie Dykstra, Nov 29, 2010, on Growth & Profit Solutions Blog (Cain Ellsworth & Co.).

Truly successful businesses excel in at least one of three key areas and adequately execute in the others depending upon the strategic focus they choose in delivering outstanding service to customers. These key areas are:
1. Product Excellence – Strategies that deliver the best product (or service) at the best value – e.g., Apple;
2. Customer Intimacy – Strategies that cultivate relationships and satisfy the unique needs of customers – e.g., Nike;
3. Operational Excellence – Strategies that deliver efficiency, low costs and make doing business simple and hassle-free – e.g., Wal-Mart.

Achieving excellence in these areas requires attention to 10 key critical success factors:
1. Planning
…….
…….

Many business owners say they are too busy working in the business to be able to concentrate on all these areas. Which is the reason why planning becomes so essential. It is the vital process that focuses your attention on the critical issues that will insure long-term success for your business. The development of winning strategies and their implementation requires effective planning and analysis to understand where your business is now, where you want it to be in the future, and how you are going to achieve your goals. [Emphasis added.]

The three key areas noted are especially applicable to the 21st Century Library – Product (Service) Excellence – Customer Intimacy – Operational Excellence. In order to achieve any of these the director and staff must PLAN.

One remedy I’ve found highly successful is just start small to plan and execute change. Start small – informally plan and accomplish one short-term goal – and then keep going. Before long you’ll have an appreciation for how useful and successful planning can be. Hopefully, that will develop a desire to make it work on the larger scale of a 21st Century Library Strategic Plan.

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