Can Shorter Meetings Improve Your Library?

Megan Hartline —  March 1, 2016 — 1 Comment
hands writing on a document at a meeting table with text "can shorter meetings improve your library?"

Photo by Olu Eletu via Unsplash


How long is the default meeting time at your library?

There’s a default meeting length in most calendar software. Google and Outlook both start at 30 minutes, though the default can be changed at will.

In practice, a library’s default meeting length for each of us has more to do with internal social standards than software parameters. The standard meeting times for libraries seems to be a little longer than the software defaults.

Based on my extremely scientific poll of 8 library employees on Twitter, 100% of libraries set meetings for an hour.

Why are we meeting for a full hour?

There’s a reason long meetings (and committees, which schedule even longer meetings) are common in libraries. Libraries value harmony, transparency, and consensus. Meetings serve to open communication flows and build consensus.

I have a proposition: communicate and build all that consensus . . . in half the time.

Conversations will inevitably take up the time allotted to them, like a potted plant growing to fit its bowl. Have you ever been in a meeting that ended early?

On the other hand, have you ever been in a meeting that was run efficiently, cut off side conversations, and got to the point quickly? Constraining the time to half an hour can do that. If everyone knows you have limited time for the discussion, attendees will stick to the reason for the meeting.

Peter Bregman talks about the advantage of shorter meetings in a recent Harvard Business Review article. Bregman says that after cutting standard meetings from 60 minutes to 30, he found that everyone was more engaged, focused, and productive during that short time.

Meetings can help us decide what we’re going to do together, but then we need time to do that thing. Bregman says:

The sign of a great meeting isn’t the meeting itself. It’s what happens after that meeting. Save at least the last five minutes to summarize what you learned, articulate what was valuable, commit to what you are going to do as a result of the meeting, and clarify how you will assess the success of your next steps.

Just like time spent on email inbox management, time spent in needlessly long meetings is time that you could spend doing transformative library work.

I like my colleagues, but I didn’t get into libraries to sit around a table with them. I got into libraries in order to help people change their lives through access to information. Here’s a few tips for shortening meetings and using that time effectively:

  • Share relevant readings ahead of time and ask attendees to come prepared.
  • Create an agenda, with time estimates – and stick to it
  • Clarify decisions that will be made together
  • Consider ways for everyone’s voice to be heard efficiently
  • Assign actions as a result of the meeting

By condensing our decision-making, consensus-building meeting time, we can spend more time actually doing. That extra time means we can be better at our jobs, which will make our libraries more effective, which will make us happier in our personal lives (because we’re all in this for the positive change).

I might be getting carried away. 30 minute meetings might not have a direct line to greater personal happiness. It might not even be feasible to cut down all meetings to 30 minutes.

I noticed my monthly, hour-long departmental meetings were always running over 60 minutes, and yet we weren’t all on the same page about what each of us was doing. We weren’t making decisions together – we were just sharing announcements.

In order to facilitate information sharing and keep each other posted, we borrowed an Agile technique and started practicing 15 minute weekly standups. Every Friday, we gather around and stay standing while sharing what we’re up to and what we might need help with. The time limit makes sure we keep things moving.

The 15 minute weekly check ins are awesome and efficient, and now our monthly meetings are more interactive. We use the time to discuss ideas for improvement. We’re still working on getting that meeting time down, but we’re using it more effectively and no longer running over the time limit.

Rethink your default meeting time. If your meetings are more about information sharing than decision-making, try cutting some standard hour meetings down to half an hour (or shorter!) and see if your work life becomes more effective.

Megan Hartline


Megan Hartline (@awrybrarian on Twitter) is a librarian in Denver, Colorado. In addition to librarianship, Megan's background is in nonprofit leadership. She would love to visit your library to talk about management, workflows, or customer service.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. How to Use Icebreakers in Library Meetings « Library Lost & Found - August 15, 2016

    […] enough that icebreaker haters get done with it quickly. The quick time also helps keep meetings short and effective – which we all agree is […]

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