An excerpt from Making the Most of Your Library Career, edited by Lois Stickell and Bridgette Sanders (ALA Editions, 2014).
Making your mark
Many thoughts percolated in my brain the day I started a new library position. I considered the new technologies, theories, and trends that I had encountered in graduate school, in journal articles, at workshops, and at conferences. I wondered how I could implement some of those ideas in my new position. I wanted to make my mark and show everyone what I was capable of accomplishing. I wondered, “How can I make everyone notice me as a leader and an agent of change and acknowledge what I can do? What changes can I put in place to make that happen?”
At this point I realized I needed to stop, take a breath, and think before making changes at my new library. “Change” is a scary word for many people, and it is not always necessary. Any librarian in a new position should take the time to consider a few points before discussing change.
Finding out which things are done a certain way
As a new librarian, you are expected to ask an abundance of questions. You should use this time to ask specific questions about why certain things are done a certain way. You may be surprised by what you discover. (Hint: Old may not be bad.) Your colleagues will probably be glad to explain the rationale for decisions. They want you to respect the process and history that existed before you came to the library. Rather than finding that your new colleagues have shied away from change, you may discover that they have tried or explored several different ways of accomplishing a task. Through trial and error, they may have concluded that the old method works best for the library and its patrons. Once you know why certain decisions were made, you may realize that the old way is perfect and change is not necessary.
During my first four months at Murray (Ky.) State University and with the Curriculum Materials Center, I devoted time to learning the history of the center, how it was organized, and the reasons behind decisions. For example, some materials at the center had been specifically placed in the collection by current faculty members. Due to their worn condition, I questioned whether they should be retained. After I learned the history of the center and these materials, I worked with faculty to decide whether to weed certain items. Had I followed my first inclination and weeded them myself, I would have offended my colleagues and created a sense of mistrust. Instead, I fostered a positive working environment because I demonstrated respect for the head of the center and for other colleagues’ contributions to the library.
If you are part of the public face of the library, start to build relationships with patrons. They may tell you how they see the library operating and whether change is needed. This may arise through casual conversation or by asking the simple question “Did you find everything that you needed?” If your library has a Friends organization, learn its history and meet the members. They have a vested interest in the library and may also have insight into changes that the public might wish to see.
Making suggestions for rational change
Change in any organization, especially a large one, can take time. After coming to an understanding of the library’s organizational structure, safely integrating yourself into the structure, and examining the library’s operational and organizational history, you should have concluded that change does not happen overnight. Small changes, like how to organize a department’s workflow, may happen in a matter of weeks. Larger changes, like those to the circulation policy, may require months to enact.
In spite of all these considerations, you may still see the need for changes. Before you open the office door to engage your colleagues in a discussion, consider the following points.
It can be tricky to find the right moment to make suggestions for change. Making suggestions during the first week, unless specifically asked, is tantamount to disaster. The library staff will think that you are trying to take over and that you do not appreciate what was done before you came. For example, a new librarian at my library who accepted a position that had been vacant for some time did not consult staff members who had operated the department before she developed a plan for change. When she presented the information and changes to the staff, she did not consider their points of view or show appreciation for their previous work. Her colleagues felt hurt and unappreciated and openly resisted her changes. The new librarian realized her mistake and had to immediately start repairing relationships.
Before making unsolicited suggestions, analyze the situation and develop concrete reasons for any changes. Research the problem in light of the library’s history, current trends, and the actions of other libraries before presenting suggestions to colleagues.
When I was working with an established colleague at the Curriculum Materials Center, I noticed that the center’s acquisitions process was cumbersome, time consuming, and haphazard. This often caused patrons’ needs to go unmet. Understanding that a change was needed, I studied the situation from all angles, politely questioned the seasoned professional about the history of the current process, asked other library professionals for advice, and developed a new acquisitions process for the center. With a well-developed plan in hand, I was able to change the way the Curriculum Materials Center handled the acquisition process to better meet patrons’ needs.
Consider certain factors when presenting change to colleagues. First, make sure your suggestions are clearly stated and easily understood. Second, include a time line of how long it will take to implement the change. (For example, you could state that the library will need to spend approximately one day to update the circulation policy to include electronic books.) Finally, include information that helps your colleagues see the need for the change and explains how they can assist with the process.
After creating the proposal, examine the procedures for how things will be accomplished. Recognition of these procedures, or the proverbial red tape, should be included in your proposal to your supervisors, the head of the department, or the library director. Failure to consider potential roadblocks can cause your initiative to stall or fall flat.
Allowing your colleagues to assist with the development of a change and its implementation removes the atmosphere of negativity from the library. Negativity can derail improvements if staff members do not feel they are part of the process. If staffers feel they are stakeholders, the project has a greater chance of succeeding.
Always keep the library’s organizational structure in mind when suggesting changes. If you are a member of the cataloging department and have a suggestion for a better way to catalog media items, the proper procedure would be to talk with your department head rather than taking the matter to the library director. This can avoid creating tense relationships.
Sometimes, however, following the chain of command does not work. Your department head may be too busy to entertain your suggestions. If this is the case, you may decide to address the situation with the library director or another department head. If you take this route, be up front with your department head. He or she may be pleased that you handled the situation. In my own experience, a faculty member at my university approached me about a project to create a display of local artifacts. She specifically requested assistance in developing the exhibit with artifacts from the library’s archives. I contacted a colleague who could help her with the project. After setting up the meeting, I spoke to my director and apologized if I had overstepped my authority. In this case, he was glad that I had handled the situation. However, you may not always be so lucky when you act outside the established protocol.
Finally, start with small changes. These can build over time to create a major change at the library. As a point of consideration, you could break down any major project into smaller pieces so that the change will not appear threatening and overwhelming. Prioritizing small changes is key to making sure the project is realized successfully.
Taking responsibility for mistakes
Just because you plan carefully does not mean you will not make mistakes or push too hard. When you slip up (and you will, just as I have and every librarian before you has), take a moment to think before you react. The first reaction can be worse than the actual error. Don’t become defensive and refuse to listen to others. If you listen to others, you may discover there is an easy solution.
Take responsibility when you make a mistake. Denying responsibility or blaming others will likely make things worse. Your colleagues will respect you more for owning up to errors and working to correct them. They will distance themselves from you if they think you will blame them for your slip-ups.
Finally, there will be instances when your colleagues feel pushed too hard to make changes. When it becomes apparent that you need to slow things down, don’t be afraid to adjust deadlines or to break the project into smaller pieces.
As you enter this new phase of your library career, don’t be afraid of change or be discouraged by a lack of encouragement, as these will come eventually. Change is a sign that libraries evolve as society evolves. Libraries exist to serve the needs of their patrons, and libraries must change as patrons’ needs change. Remember that the old ways of doing things are not always bad and that tactful ways to introduce change do exist.
Tips for Initiating Change
- Find the right moment to introduce change;
- Analyze the situation and develop concrete reasons for change;
- Discover the library’s tolerance for change through conversations with colleagues and by reflecting on projects already started;
- Make clearly stated suggestions for change and include a timeline;
- Allow colleagues to assist in developing changes;
- Keep the library’s organizational structure in mind when suggesting change;
- Start small.
KATHERINE FARMER is director of the Curriculum Materials Center and education research and instruction librarian at Murray (Ky.) State University.