Keeping Things Nice for Company

On the heels of Matt’s “What Does Your Building Say?” post, I stopped in at a couple of libraries while traveling recently, and there was one library branch in particular that told me a particular story.

I could tell that this library was recently built/renovated, probably within the last ten years–the furniture was sleek, the light fixtures minimalist–but wear and tear were also evident. There were stains on carpeting, stains on upholstery, veneer peeling off of table edges, and cobwebs on lights throughout the library. While it wasn’t crowded at the time, I could see that the library had been well-used throughout the day–empty cups and used napkins on tables, receipts on the floor in a couple of spots, chairs askew, abandoned materials, scattered toys in the children’s area.

A mid-day photo of our early literacy area--not perfect, but reasonably contained.

A mid-day photo of our early literacy area–not perfect, but reasonably contained.

Seeing this kind of usage makes me feel good for libraries (we are not dead yet!) and also makes me cringe, because pride of place is one of my triggers as a library director. I saw a library that did not make upkeep a priority. I saw employees walking past chairs and not pushing them in, walking past toys and not straightening them, and walking past garbage and not throwing it away. As a visitor, my impression was that this library isn’t very concerned with how their community treats them, and that their community picks up on this, which feeds into a grimy spiral.

Our patrons are our guests. Company comes to visit us at our “house” every day, and we should always be ready for company. My staff will tell you that I really hammer this home; for my first couple of years here, I talked about cleanliness and pride of place at least twice a month with staff, and pretty much weekly with my managers. I am sure they all thought I was being ridiculous (and maybe some of them think I’m still ridiculous) but I am adamant that the patron who comes in at 8:00pm is just as deserving of a nice-looking library as the patron who came in at 9:00am. We (yes, this includes me) make patrons feel welcome throughout the day by keeping the library looking fresh–pushing in chairs, picking up abandoned materials, and throwing away trash.

We have an early literacy area and tidy it up several times throughout the day; while it never looks as perfect as it does at opening, we have experienced the added bonus of kids and families who see us picking up and will pitch in to help us put toys away, or will put toys away themselves.

We cut back on the frequency of window cleaning, carpet cleaning, and upholstery cleaning due to our budget reductions, but we still do them several times per year, because a) I don’t want our patrons to think we accept dirty windows, carpets, and upholstery, and b) it helps prolong the life of those items. If a spill or stain occurs in between scheduled cleanings, our cleaning crew will spot-treat it. Our Building Supervisor has a rotation he’s worked out to maintain the library on an ongoing basis–dinged corners, chipped paint, loose carpet, and outside the library, too–to keep the library looking nice.

Keeping the library neat and maintained for our patrons shows them that we care, and that we take pride in our work and in ourselves. I want our visitors to feel that warmth and pride in our personal interactions with them, and to feel it in the library’s surroundings. That’s the story I want libraries to tell.

Share Your Mistakes

oopsOur natural impulse when we make an error is to hide or minimize it. This is understandable, especially in a professional setting. But what if we openly shared our errors, flubs, and gaffs just as readily as we do our successes? What does that do for us as managers?

For one, it humanizes us. You don’t have to cry or mope about making a mistake, but you can show that it’s not how you would have liked things to have gone. Show your coworkers that you’re committed to avoiding and fixing your mistakes.

Another reason to share your missteps is so that others can learn. I have sent department or even staff wide emails that started with “So, here’s something that I messed up on…” plenty of times. I follow up a description of the error with how I solved or plan to solve the problem. It alerts my coworkers that this is an error *anyone* could make and that someone did! I think these stories are more productive than second hand ones or just simply sending out a reminder of a policy or procedure. Plus, doesn’t everyone love hearing about their boss screwing up occasionally?

Sharing mistakes can also prompt others to do the same. Maybe someone you supervise has been too embarrassed to admit that they think they’ve been giving library cards out to patrons that shouldn’t have them. This is a problem you’d like to hear about. If you share a flub in a way that admits fault, suggests a solution and keeps it as light as the situation allows, he/she may follow suit. You can take big strides toward creating an atmosphere of trust, honesty and problem-solving. The best thing about creating this kind of atmosphere is that you’ll work together to not only correct your mistakes, but put fail-safes and procedures to keep those mistakes from happening again.

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When Nerds Collide

iStock_000010371820XSmallI have a complicated relationship with the volunteers in library land.  In my career, I have probably worked with hundreds of volunteers.  These range from enthusiastic, sharp folks looking to make a serious contribution to their local library to those less than gifted.  (I have stories, but that is another blog post.)

Recently, I was lucky enough to have a group of people who wanted to contribute time as a team building exercise.  It is difficult to create meaningful work on short notice, but a co-worker and I came up with some projects for this group.  We had weeding, shifting and inventory projects ready to go.  I was sure we had this under control and that I had thought of everything.  That night, we had 15 volunteers show up.  A good portion of them were engineers.  They pride themselves on efficiency and organization. You would think this would be a match made in nerd heaven.  It’s not.

We had a couple of projects going and we split the volunteers into groups. One group was shifting and inventorying the fiction and others were pulling things to weed in biography and youth nonfiction.  Still another group was doing inventory on nonfiction. Books were moved to workstations for inventory and then re-shelved, and the collection was shifted in the process.  We used empty boxes and tables when the carts were full.

Within minutes of everyone working, I had suggestions on proper utilization of shelf space, library layout, and the necessity of inventory and weeding projects.  One well-meaning man told me that leaving space at the end of a shelf was a waste of space.  I explained that nearly a third of the collection was in motion.  (I admit, I might have rounded up to illustrate my point. So sue me. )  Leaving space at the end makes it easier to keep the shelves in order.  Still not convinced this was efficient use of shelf space, the discussion continued for 15 more minutes.

Another asked if I had heard about RFID technology.  Libraries should look into that.  Did I know that would be such a cool application of the technology?  (I really wanted to say OMG! That is SO 2004!)

While debates on library efficiency went on, carts and workstations were being appropriated. There were people everywhere and books were starting to get mixed up.   Within about 30 minutes I was ready to start drinking.  After an hour, I was considering suicide.  I had no idea how I was going to put the library back together.

Here is where I went wrong:

I failed to consider the impact of fifteen people swarming our library with boxes and carts. We are a tiny library with no space for anything.  We have barely enough room for staff.  Fifteen additional people jockeying for a work station and book carts made for a huge traffic jam.

I failed to understand who I was leading.  Engineers are a unique breed.  They have their own way of doing things.  In their mind, you probably aren’t doing it right.  (I speak with authority, having been married to an auto engineer for more than 30 years.)

I failed to communicate the “why” of this project to the volunteers.  Before turning my volunteers loose, I needed to explain the general workflow of the library.  By saying, “here is a list of books to pull” or “adjust the shelves so they look like this” wasn’t enough information for them to grasp the bigger picture.  Taking a moment to discuss how the library functions, sans library jargon, would have helped them understand the overall goals for the project.

So here is your take away for leading volunteers:

  • Plan for all levels of volunteer intellect, maturity and motivation and have a list of “always need to be done” chores at the ready.
  • Know your audience.  Any volunteer should be vetted so you can better prepare.
  • Communicate the why and how of library workflow. Civilians don’t always see the big picture.
  • Be cheerful and show gratitude.

In the end, it wasn’t as bad as it looked.  The waters receded and things returned to normal. The work done that night did give us a big jump on some collection maintenance and I will probably take their help again, if offered.  Next time I will be ready.

Epic Fail

Recently I have been thinking a great deal about the value of failure. I could lie and say that I have been thinking about this because of all my projects are going splendidly, with high numbers and lots of happy patrons and librarians participating. But of course, that would be a lie.

I bring up a lot of ideas, on a daily basis. Some work. Some don’t. Receiving accolades from the projects that work feels amazing. I am satisfied that I created something that clicks with my community, and of course, I can share this success with my friends and co-workers. But what about those other ideas? You know, the ones that don’t really pan out? It hurts when we fail but is there anything to take back from it?

To truly be a good leader, you must willing to put yourself out there, and open up to the possibility that some projects just will not work. And here is the most important part: IT IS OKAY. To lead, is to occasionally stumble. It will happen.

If you don’t follow Beck Tench on Facebook, then you really should. She recently posted,

“What if babies were afraid to fail? Let’s go back to the point when we were learning to walk and talk… if we approached the concept of failure in the way we do about our work now, back then, we’d never have learned to do anything at all?! What appalling lie of logic convinces us that there is nothing more to learn about the world? Our communities? Ourselves? A quick tip — if you’ve got it figured out, you aren’t learning anything. Failure is an indicator of learning. It is evidence of growth.”

My favorite part is her quick tip: if you think you have everything figured out? Guess what – you don’t. In order to learn and grow everyday, we must accept our failures – both small and great. It is hard because let’s be honest, we can sit here and talk about how great failing is but when it happens, it hurts SO much. You doubt yourself. But that right there is what makes the experience valuable. Failing keeps you curious and questioning. And makes those successes even more of a win.

Listen to Finn & Jake.