Reimagining Libraries in an Increasingly Fractured Marketplace

Posted on February 6, 2018

In this series, guest columnists write about what’s working at their library, how they are adjusting to the digital age, and what their community expects from a library. Spencer Smith, Director of Libraries, City of McKinney, Texas, writes how libraries must operate in the digital age.

Recently, Fox reached a deal with the NFL for the rights to broadcast their Thursday Night Football games. The deal is estimated to be worth 3 billion dollars, or 600 million per season, a true indicator that NFL football is one of the most widely viewed television programs. Yet, NFL viewership has declined by nearly 10% over the last year, and 8% the year prior. It seems that even the most popular television program isn’t immune to the increasingly fractured nature of how Americans choose to spend their time.
What does that have to do with libraries and how we must operate in the digital age?  A lot.  The NFL is one of the few things more popular than public libraries.  In 2016, approximately 48% of American adults visited a public library- and that number jumps to 53% for those aged 18 to 20.  We compete in the same marketplace and the currency we crave, in the end, is the same eyes and ears of the people. So, if the most popular viewing event in the country is suffering at the hands of the fractured marketplace, what chance do libraries have? We must change how we operate to keep from suffering the same losses as the NFL.
How do we do this?  We experiment. It is now incumbent upon us to be increasingly nimble in an environment based in a history of rules and policies, procedures, and bureaucracy that feel as if they were written in stone. We need to offer people the materials, programs and services where THEY want to spend their time, not with what and how WE think they should spend their time. This is nothing new, but we need to take it another step.  We need to utilize our skills to anticipate the materials, programs, and services where the people don’t even know they will want to spend their time.  Serendipitous discovery is still important and is a true and intangible value, but kismet isn’t a business plan.
We need to dive deep into the data and develop the skills of a salesman to go along with the skills of a researcher, analyst and performer. We must constantly prove our value and sell our services and take a holistic view of the library in every decision we make. This means ownership and leadership of the library is felt at all levels of staff. I work with staff to set the mission and curate and environment where we can try things out, correct course, try them again, and continually work to fine tune our actions and processes depending on the feedback we get from our customers and environment.  Authority and responsibility are spread amongst staff to accomplish the library’s mission. My job as a director is not to micro-manage, but rather to ensure all employees have the tools and skills they need to accomplish the mission, and cultivating the culture where they can actually do it.  This is, I am convinced, the only way libraries can thrive in the fractured market.
What does this look like in McKinney? Materials selection responsibilities are distributed to those most closely working with the public at their location- even non-degreed and non-librarian positions.  To select materials to satisfy an audience of unprecedentedly diverse tastes, we ensure the selector pool is equally diverse. We train them on expectations, process, and selection skills and allow them to start small. We also hold them accountable for the performance of their selections. Shelvers make suggestions on the layout of our children’s department based on their experience in the stacks.  Library assistants refine, as needed, the claims returned process, the checking in process, and the shelving process.  Everyone has chance to give input on everything. More than that, everyone is encouraged and EXPECTED to give input on everything.
Communication is essential, but seeking permission is not.  If someone who orders fiction wants to spend their entire budget on first time authors, they are allowed to do so.  If a DVD selector wants to start collecting premium cable television on Blu-ray, they just need coordinate with tech services so they can plan on how to properly process the items when they come in.  Staff undertake such initiatives with authority and accountability, and typically don’t make rash decisions or commit the entire library to a new course all at once, but rather experiment and move nimbly in such a way that missteps and failures are absorbed and learned from. Most of us embrace such ownership and autonomy.  In fact, our library is thriving with it.
I would like to say that we operate 100% this way at our libraries.  Of course, unfortunately, we don’t.  Some skills are harder to train than others, some people aren’t comfortable with such responsibility, and sometimes the discomfort is all mine.  There are many times we are simply afraid to fail, but we cannot hold ourselves back to assuage our unfounded fears.  In a world where we are in stiff competition for our community’s time, we can ill afford to sacrifice what is required for success in exchange for comfort. As we seek to thrive in the modern marketplace, our solution does not lie in one person at the helm, but in an organization that is nimble and can adapt in a way that can only be achieved by embracing the diverse skills, talents, and passions of its entire staff.

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