Change at American University

Managing for change and continuous improvement

January 25, 2010

Bill Mayer imagines a library without librarians. The way he sees it, his campus is filled with activity and he wants his librarians to be a part of the action. “Their role isn’t to simply go out and generate more visibility” he explains, “but to become more involved with everything that is going on around us.”

This vision opens up the library for new types of programming spaces. “I’d really like to see the library transformed into a series of living rooms and kitchens,” Mayer suggests. This metaphor builds on the idea that at parties, people congregate around the food and comfortable sitting areas. Libraries in this manner would become a natural place for learners to mix and mingle.

Mayer has been the university librarian at American University in Washington D. C. for two and a half years and is crafting a bold agenda for the future. This is evident in the library’s new mission statement: we enable success. Reading like a call to action, this simple statement pushes forward a powerful charge that reframes the library as an integral part of campus. “I’m not really a fan of build-it-and-they-will-come," Mayer says. “We need to constantly scan for opportunities and fill any voids that we see.”

And just how does one make radical change happen? Mayer provides an analogy: “Change is like water on brick, with a steady stream over a long period of time, changes will occur.” Altering work culture isn’t something that can happen overnight; it is an ongoing and constant process.

Building nodes

The American University Library is now broadening its reach by cataloging campus collections. A library staff member noticed that the university’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Ally (GLBTA) organization had accumulated a vast amount of materials kept in a reading room in the student center. The library made a deal with the group to help make their collection more discoverable. Library staff provided cataloging and processing of the 1,000+ items, set the group up with a circulation system, and provided general guidance for workflow and inventory control. The results have led to greater exposure and increased usage of these materials from one of the most robust GLBTA resource centers in the metro D.C. area. Mayer sees this as important contribution to supporting diversity on campus through library partnerships.

Mayer also views this as moving away from a bunch of scattered boutique collections into a more enterprise system. “We have a responsibility to maximize the information assets of the campus, regardless of whether we own the material of not.” After the success with the GLBTA, other campus partners are coming aboard including the Career Center and the Women & Politics Institute.

Unbound by periodicals

Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking during Mayer’s tenure so far has been the removal of the library’s bound periodicals. A 2007 study found that they were on track to run out of shelf space in less than three years. Something had to be done. One of the ideas that emerged from the staff was to get rid of the 100,000 bound periodicals by moving them to off-site storage and relying on advancements in document delivery. The library was able to persuade the faculty, administrators, and trustees that this was a necessary next step.

This relocation of periodicals did not only impact patrons, but also library staff. Entire workflows had to be restructured. Imagine all the details involved with removing a large amount of your collection; from cataloging to shifting to instruction, this was an immense project. Mayer felt that it was important for his staff to own the endeavor. Employees at all levels participated and unit heads coordinated the effort, instead of typical top-down marching orders.

With the aid of professional movers, the transfer of materials took only two months. This venture opened up much needed shelf space, but also allowed for the library to build a learning commons and gain other much needed work areas for patrons and library staff.

Trust and fear

During my conversation with Mayer one word kept coming up over and over again: trust. “Trust is the most important aspect of the work we do–without it, there can be no change, no movement, no growth," he said. I asked him how one goes about building trust and his response was simple: listening. “You ask questions and then you listen to what others say and suggest, and then you build up together from there. That’s a key part. If an administrator doesn’t ask, or even worse, asks but doesn’t include aspects that staff suggest, then you lose trust.”

In addition to maximizing trust, Mayer calls for us to reduce fear. “One of the most depressing things I see in libraries is when they use fear-based decision-making” Mayer expressed, “this is when they are afraid to do something because patrons might steal, destroy, abuse, not use, or not understand something.”

With so much emphasis these days on “library as place” it is refreshing to see a director focused on making his library more ubiquitous. Obviously the materials, people, and services in our buildings are a crucial part of what we provide, but pushing the library out into the classrooms, offices, hallways, labs, and common spaces on campus is the way to become more holistic. But Mayer doesn’t want it to stop there: “I’m lobbying to move my office out of the library so that I could generate more programming space for our users in the library. Besides, my job should be out in the community generating interest, engagement, and excitement for the library and the university together.”

BRIAN MATHEWS is an assistant university librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His column spotlights creative leadership strategies for designing and sustaining inspirational libraries.