When I think of Spring, I don’t think of chirping birds or sunshine, flowers in bloom or baby bunnies. I think of the Michigan Library Association Spring Institute.
The MLA Spring Institute is an annual multi-day conference for librarians in children’s and teen services and it is pure awesome.
In 2004, I had started working as a youth librarian. I was brand new at my job and I was very excited about all the creative ways libraries were serving teens. I also had no idea how I was going to do those creative things. So, I sought the wisdom of other librarians and they pointed me in the direction of the MLA Spring Institute Committee.
This group of 20 people consisted of workers in children’s and teen services from across the State, from all sizes and classes of libraries, brought together to work on this one event. Two co-chairs facilitated the meetings, coordinated all of the activities. The first few meetings, I thought they were very fancy. I thought everyone I met there was magical.
It turns out that things were not so much fancy and magical. It took a whole lot of work and energy, as well as a crazy level of attention to detail to pull everything together. In the five years I worked with this group, I learned more about project management, leadership, vision, and organizational change than I can possibly convey. Here, however, are a sample of lessons learned from committee work:
1. Start Small.
My dear friend Cory likes to say that her entire contribution to her first year on the committee was that she brought tissue paper for wrapping the door prizes. The next year she brought E.L. Konigsburg. Two years later she chaired the event. Whenever we walk into a project, a group, an organization, it is nearly impossible to understand the big picture. Sometimes a small contribution is enough to start and sometimes a small change has a tidal wave of effects.
2. Every piece of the puzzle matters.
Planning even a small event can be a huge undertaking. Coordinating a half dozen keynote speakers and their transportation, balancing the breakout sessions, managing the budget, figuring out the logistics of meals, technology, decorations, publicity, registration, state continuing education filings, working with vendors, soliciting sponsorships, selecting awards. If any job doesn’t get done, then the conference suffers for it. The people doing the work matter: their perspectives, their worries, and their investment. If any person is neglected in the team, then the committee suffers for it.
3. Mentorship has a natural progression.
Each year on the committee, about half of the members would stick around and half would leave. Some people had been around for ten years, others might serve for one or two. This led to a natural shift in roles. It also led to those who held a role one year helping someone move into that role the next year. Some mentoring relationships were quick, others lasted all year, but everyone learned from each other and the students went on to become the teachers. We all spent at least part of our time encouraging growth in the profession just by interacting with each other.
4. Cooperation develops specialization
I am not sure that I really knew what I was good at before I started doing committee work. Good teams help you find what you love and make you better at it. When I worked with Mary Davis as co-chair in 2007, we quickly fell into our respective roles. Her planning and organization skills were essential. My communication and technological skills were helpful. We overlapped on plenty of things, but in any given situation, we could tell which one of us would feel more comfortable handling it.
5. Nothing exists in a vacuum.
Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in a vision of how we want things to be. Brilliant ideas have been generated. Everyone on the planning team is on board. And then it doesn’t happen. Associations have their own goals. Associations change their goals. Attendees have their own goals. The administrations of libraries have their own goals. There are time constraints, financial constraints, standards and best practices that need to be met. Sometimes new opportunities are thrown into the mix just when it seems like everything is planned out. Listening and adaptability become key to making sure that things come to fruition.
6. Resources are limited.
Dream big, but the amount of money available is always going to limit what you can do. Some things just have to take precedence over others. Identify which priorities are essential, and budget enough money to do them well. Identify which are priorities can be done cheaply, and get those too. A budget is a list of priorities with price tags attached. You also face restraints like time and space. Budget those too. Always leave a little slack in your resource planning, because of #7.
7. Things will go wrong. Roll with it.
The Internet will go down. Attendees will not be on the registration list. Speakers cancel. A State Legislator may show up unexpectedly and want time to speak to the crowd, somehow managing to say something to offend everyone in it. It is not worth getting upset over. A sense of humor is essential and hey, sometimes you end up getting Eric Rohmann and Candace Fleming as last minute replacements. (Good job Michelle!) I can’t tell you how applicable this is to my daily work.
8. You can’t make everyone happy
The temperature will always be too cold or too hot. Someone will feel disappointed that their program submission wasn’t accepted. Someone will always hate the food. Some things will be over some people’s heads. Some things will seem to be done to death. Some people will hate one person’s style while others will love it. Keep your eyes on the prize and move forward.
9. Working to create a comfortable, welcoming environment can cause the most magical accidents.
This not only applies to the leaders of a committee doing this for members, but members of the committee doing this for attendees and guests. An impromptu sing-along concert with Dan Zanes in the basement of a hotel? Priceless. I still find that the more comfortable my co- workers are the more creative and interesting work they get done.
10. Forging connections helps everybody.
I value the time I have spent with every single person I have worked with on committees. It has helped me learn and grow. I know that I have helped others to learn and grow. Even today, I miss these monthly planning meetings. We would always begin with sharing our victories and challenges with each other. I know that if I called those people I worked with nine years ago and asked for help, they would help me. They know that I would do the same for them. And sometimes if your first fancy co-chair (*cough* Kevin *cough*) asks you to write for a blog you agree to do it, no questions asked.