Answers for Library Leaders


Back in August last year, I Posted 21st Century Library – “Rebooted” Into Relevance that highlighted an exceptionally thought provoking article by Scott Corwin, Elisabeth Hartley & Harry Hawkes – “The Library Rebooted” published at Booz & Company website strategy+business.

That article is without question THE BEST single source of advice for library leaders I have read regarding answers to address the multitude of challenges facing libraries today. So much so that it bears repeating – often!

“7 Imperatives for Library Leadership”

    1. Rethink the operating model
    2. Understand and respond to user needs
    3. Embrace the concept of continuous innovation
    4. Forge a digital identity
    5. Connect with stakeholders in ways that pure internet companies cannot
    6. Expand the metrics
    7. Be courageous

The full article (seriously, you should read it) contains direct answers to the many elements of change that are facing library leaders, and which issues are being discussed ad nauseam in the library community regarding the future of libraries. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel so we can claim a unique strategy or solution. All we need is a successful strategy – and this is it!

1. Rethink the operating model.
Many of the old assumptions about running a library — that the measure of a library’s quality is the size of its book collection, that there’s value in keeping even infrequently loaned books on the shelves, that library staffing decisions shouldn’t be questioned — are outmoded and need to be set aside. This is not to say that libraries will be able to re-create themselves as purely digital, service-oriented organizations; …. But many libraries today, operating in paper and film, haven’t changed some of their operating practices since World War II. Their role as the preservers of recorded history means they have to spend a lot of their resources just maintaining the assets they already have. … They should … explore new ways of serving users more conveniently, effectively, and efficiently. Perhaps they can create an online reservation system that patrons can use for a small fee if they want to have a book waiting for them at the front desk when they arrive. … Such analytically enabled improvements are necessary as libraries come under increasing budgetary pressure.” [Emphasis added.]

2. Understand and respond to user needs.
“Libraries have only the most general information about their users — how many of them there are, what they do when they are at the library, and what they borrow. … [Due to] some provisions of legislation enacted after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. … the solution most libraries have settled on — namely, to avoid gathering any detailed information about users’ needs and activities — is far too timid. Libraries should develop advanced capabilities to build aggregated profiles of users, or what retailers call customer segmentation analysis. Who is visiting the library and how often are they coming? What are they doing once they get there? Which books do they borrow most often? Which books never leave the shelves? Which services get used most often; which least? Merchandisers and retailers have tools to help them answer these kinds of questions. Libraries, too, should adapt or create these and similar tools.” [Emphasis added.]

3. Embrace the concept of continuous innovation.
“This is not the time for libraries to shy away from new strategies. Library executives need to do more than innovate, however. They need to approach the innovation challenge with an entrepreneurial mind-set: test, measure, refine. And if something does not work, they must go through the process again: Test, measure, and refine using new ideas and concepts. The innovation doesn’t have to be of any one type; it can happen across the whole library value chain. …, there might be changes in format, including the opening of smaller library “outlets” in what is essentially a variation on a theme already being practiced by retailers like Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, and Tesco. Libraries should appropriate the many traffic-building enhancements that retailers are making to their stores.” [Emphasis added.]

4. Forge a digital identity.
“Clearly, there is no way that libraries could transform themselves into leading-edge Internet organizations even if they wanted to. … But some experimentation is in order. Should libraries let people reserve books remotely, from their home or office? Should they adopt a convenient delivery-to-home model, à la Netflix? Should they make their librarians available at all hours to respond to online inquiries? And to the extent that they do these things, should they (as part of rethinking their operating model) charge for some of these services, as the Toronto Library does with a fee-based custom research service? Finally, should libraries pursue these initiatives alone or in concert with one another?” [Emphasis added.]

5. Connect with stakeholders in ways pure Internet companies cannot.
“Libraries can’t provide faster online data retrieval than a search engine, and that’s not where they should try to compete. What they can do, on the community library side, is take advantage of their local strength…. Community library leaders who get out and make connections in the community will successfully transform their institution into a fulcrum for many of the issues and concerns that touch local residents. Their programs, services, and offerings will all be better off as a result of this outreach and connectedness.” [Emphasis added.]

6. Expand the metrics.
“… Keeping track of the number of monthly and annual physical visitors … monitoring the number of books … in circulation” must give way to “online-specific metrics … especially as libraries invest more resources in digital initiatives and put bigger parts of their collections online. And it will be important … for the measurements to move beyond the strictly countable … into attitudinal areas like level of engagement and customer satisfaction. … [I]n the bigger context of changes, this resistance to [measure staff performance] should be easy to surmount. Institutions that proactively measure performance, embrace change, and look for ways to serve users will have an easier time getting financial support in an era of reduced public resources and private donations.” [Emphasis added.]

7. Be courageous.
The library “… world has changed — a lot. … the environment in which libraries operate has certainly shifted, and the challenge for those running them is to figure out the evolutionary path they should follow. There is no one answer, which may provide an advantage to those with an appetite for intelligent risk taking. After all, nothing nowadays — nothing at all — is written in stone.” [Emphasis added.]

Librarians have always been courageous. Now is not the time to allow that most useful trait to disappear!

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Answers for Library Leaders

  1. Thank you for another great post. Having entered the library profession at the (relatively) advanced age of 50, I was bemused by the static nature of library services and audience information gathering. Not that I have not fallen into complacency at times! As you describe, it ought to be evident by now that who we serve, how we provide services and what constitutes excellent service require regular analysis, reflection, and action. Similarly the old units of measure, like numbers of books are not valid, or are less valid indicators of success. As for community engagement, service on community boards, attendance at municipal meetings, membership in service clubs are all absolutely essential. Librarians have been too self effacing. We have the expertise to help communities make better decisions, and need to emphasize that capacity through participation in community activities.

    • Thanks. I always appreciate the feedback. It helps to know that I’m actually thinking along the same lines as others in the profession (even though it’s our second career, which I believe has been a good thing).

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