Thursday, January 30, 2014

One Size Fits All: Three Big Lessons from a Small Joint Use Library, by LeoNard Thompson


I spent my first few years in library management overseeing a 1,100 square foot space that was centrally located within a joint use facility. The city referred to them as neighborhood resource centers. The building housed a recreation facility, prenatal health and dental clinics, social service offices, meeting rooms, and an elementary school. I learned many valuable lessons while managing there, and over the years I have found that a majority of those lessons are applicable to most library environments, no matter the location or the size. Out of them all, the following three have proven to be most beneficial.

How to Cultivate Good Partnerships
A major part of coexisting in such an unusual public service environment was being educated about the variety of services other departments offered. Library customers were often confused as to where library services began and another departments’ began. In those moments, which were often, it became incumbent upon our staff to know a great deal about the department functions offered throughout the building, including specifics like hours of operation, contact information, procedural needs like required forms of ID, and any associated costs.

Libraries of any size, type, or locale can benefit from such wisdom. Although information and referral services in libraries have transformed extensively with the advent of technology, library professionals should be aware of what local resources are available within their given community, and further realize the importance of having such information readily available when patron demand is repetitious.

How to Capitalize on Good Communication
Cultivating and sustaining those partnerships meant that communication between departments in the center had to be timely and with ease. When there was a major change in available services, hours of operation, or personnel, we had to stay in the loop in order to keep up-to-date and correct. We also realized that we shared a sizeable portion of the customer base, therefore we were able to take advantage of this fact when marketing a new library service or program.

Libraries often fail to capitalize on the marketing aspects of such collaborations. When you are in communication with like-minded and similar focused organizations, you put your library in a great position to reach segments of the community you would not regularly have access to. Inclusion in newsletters, email lists and listservs, directories, on web sites, and possible outreach or program invitations, are very likely if you create and maintain quality communication with your partners – even if they aren’t in the same building like ours were.

The Importance of Staff Input
Because of the size and unique location of the library, the feeling of isolation would set in. Our staff dealt with a distinctive set of daily circumstances our fellow system coworkers could not relate to. Such issues as our variation of hours and specialized collections, the high volume of youth patrons we would attract, and historical relationships with the other departments, made for many atypical practices and protocols that existed only at that branch.

Those distinct procedures were designed and implemented by our staff. As issues would arise, we never seemed to have a precedent to refer to, or neighboring location to contact for advice. It was sink or swim, making for an atmosphere of trial, error, and creativity. The staff also took on an intrinsic confidence, pride, and positive morale from our situation. The negativity of such sheltering was balanced by the level of input staff had on the daily tasks being carried out. They had pride because of buy-in that always came in the early stages of something new.

Larger traditional libraries with higher staff numbers could benefit from the upsides we gained from those feelings of seclusion. Oftentimes staff would-be contributions can get lost in such environments. Mechanisms for sharing ideas and front line input can be muddled by process and procedure, and creativity can be diminished, or removed altogether. I learned that the most authentic way to earn staff buy in was to actually allow for and incorporate staff input.  

Today, I am managing a division that is located in the main library location of major city, which is a vastly different experience from those eleven hundred square feet. But, the lessons stated here, and many unmentioned more, have taken me far, and wider than first imagined.

LeoNard Thompson is a former at-risk educator, now writer, presenter and managing librarian in Washington, DC. Find out more about him at and follow him on twitter @Lee_Yo_Nard

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