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Sunday, March 22, 2015

The practice of leadership

A couple of days ago I attended the retirement party of my friend and colleague Rochelle Logan. Rochelle was one of my associate directors at Douglas County Libraries for 14 years, and wow, she was a good one.

After I left (in January of 2014, after 24 years there!), I entered the world of writing, speaking and consulting. Much of the time, that meant talking about leadership. And it turns out I was not alone. A lot of people make a living talking about leadership.

But I was surprised by some of the people who wanted to hire me.  Often, they had their own talkers - university professors and professional speakers. Why didn't they just use their in-house talent? The reason, it turned out, is that although those people could talk about it, they hadn't actually done it. 

At Rochelle's party, I found myself thinking about the practice of leadership.  Before and during our time together, we built and grew a team (many teams, really). We made plans, saw them through, then built on them. We forged, had conflicts with, and resolved hundreds of relationships with our authorizing environment: citizens, elected officials, vendors, leaders, and followers from everywhere. We secured resources (we exploded our budget from about $688,000 to over $20 million annually), and managed them thoughtfully. By the end of my tenure, DCL moved from one of the lowest ranked libraries in the state to one of the top 1% in the world. (I'm talking about such output measures as circulation per capita, visits per capita, and so on, about which Rochelle was unusually knowledgeable.) We built or renovated seven modern, green, busy, highly functional libraries - and all without a dime of debt.  We launched innovative and game-changing initiatives, like our ebook platform and what we called "community reference." We saw many of our staff move on to their own positions of successful leadership, a matter of particular pride for me.

Not only that, we made major improvements to the lives of those around us. We aided in academic accomplishment, we helped establish businesses, we strengthened a host of civic projects. We connected people around ideas and stories. We made our community stronger and smarter.

As a child of the sixties and seventies, I was inclined to distrust authority, and, yes, anybody over 30. But it turns out that experience makes a difference. We got better over time, with practice and mutual support. And we did big things.

It's kind of like when your parents tell you to practice the piano if you want to get good. Talent is very nice indeed, a gift worth celebrating. But it's practice that leads to achievement.

So I learned two big things from my time as director. First, public institutions are not evil, despite the relentless harping on that destructive theme over the past decade. They can, and in the case of well-run libraries, usually do make real and positive contributions to the lives of individuals, families, businesses, and communities of all kinds. Second, experience matters, especially when disciplined by honest feedback, mindfulness based on values, and the will to improve.

I mention all this because, as a candidate for the presidency of the American Library Association, I've been responding to a lot of written and oral interviews lately that eventually ask, "so why should we vote for you?" It occurred to me yesterday that my answer, in part, is that I not only know how to talk about leadership, I have real practice in it, in making change for the better, not only for libraries, but for the wider world around us. In fact (with a little help my friends), I'm pretty good at it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Gale Cengage interview and blog

On February 6, 2015, I gave an interview on "Libraries as Agents of Change" for Gale Geek. You can find the audio here.

Afterward, I was given the opportunity to blog about it. You'll find that here.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

LaRue ALA presidential statement

[As published in the March/April 2015 issue of American Libraries.]

Librarianship is at a tipping point. We have challenges. But there has never, not in human history, been a time so thrilling to be in our field.  A new generation of librarians - more diverse, more tech-savvy, bringing a new kind of social energy - is joining us and our colleagues at just the right moment. Every day, we are working together to make a difference to our larger communities - school, academic, public, and an emerging global culture.

I have spent my career as librarian, community leader, newspaper columnist, radio and TV show host, writer, teacher, and a leader of statewide, regional, national, and even international efforts in positioning the library for tomorrow. If we are to survive and thrive in that tomorrow, we must shift public perceptions of our roles.  As ALA President, I will not only communicate the services we provide, but also highlight our value in strengthening our communities.  Here are three ways I will focus public attention:

First, we must elevate librarians as community leaders.  We should turn outward, build on the exciting work of "embedded librarianship" and take it up a notch. Imagine librarians who catalog their community (school, university, or civic) leaders, conduct in-depth conversations to identify shared aspirations and concerns, then pick and deliver high impact projects that move whole communities forward.

Second, we must unleash our power in the marketplace. This means we should define digital publishing agreements that enhance our purchasing power, increase access, and honor creators. This is a time of experimentation: we need larger scale, statewide or regional infrastructure, library-run repositories that make common cause with our scholars, students, authors, musicians, and artists. We need to embrace the disruption of digital publishing by stepping into the heart of the revolution. We must move from gatekeeper to gardener, along the lines of the Digital Public Library of America, the Douglas County Libraries model, Califa, the statewide experiments of Massachusetts, Arizona, and Colorado.  With the explosion of independent and self-publishing, we have an unprecedented opportunity to give voice to those who have been ignored or marginalized for so long.

Finally, we must showcase our leadership as 21st century literacy champions. This starts with early childhood literacy. Children with an abundance of books in their homes are healthier as children, and live longer as adults. They stay in school and stay out of jail. They make more money and enjoy a better quality of life. information-literate adults are armed with the skills and knowledge they need to live, learn, work, and govern in communities that can compete and flourish in an information society. Our message must penetrate the culture of our media and public policymakers. It must communicate how we make our society healthier, and increase the freedom, productivity and creativity of our constituents.

A vote for me is a vote toward this new reality of librarians as bold, deeply engaged and informed community leaders--valued partners in the work of discovery and creation.

And do vote! I am honored to be among the candidates for your president. Speak up about the kind of leadership you want ALA to demonstrate. ALA needs your thoughtful participation. Together, we can position the library of tomorrow to make a real difference in the future of our many interrelated communities.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A haiku journey

I've been writing haiku since my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Smith, introduced them to me. I generally follow conventions: three lines of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and a final 5 syllables. Usually there's a seasonal reference, and often I try to make connections between up to three distinct images. But sometimes I break with convention.

Last week, I drove from Castle Rock to Saint Paul and back for a memorial service of one of my best friends, Bill Johnston, who died of cancer at 64. The memorial, the loving labor of his wife, Claudia, and 150 of Bill's many friends (he not only never lost a friend, he never even fell out of touch) happened a few days after what would have been his 65th birthday. 

These poems don't really talk about that. Instead, they were about just being open to the rolling vignettes along national highways. But Bill was also a poet, and a fine one. So this is my tribute to him. It's also worth noting that I left amid dire predictions of Siberian snowstorms, and returned to their aftermath, without ever experiencing anything but cold.

at Kansas truck stop
such intense concentration
on weather channel

white windmills on ridge
snowless late winter wheat field
and scattered cattle

horizon at dusk:
from shadow-stippled clouds drop 
weaving lines of ducks

midwest river land:
empty farmhouses wail with
February wind

cloud crosses jet trail:
a loose sketch of phoenix on 
western horizon

God said here you go:
an infinite canvas and
single drop of ink

snow, steam and sun stretch
into broad canvas of sky:
backlit stand of oak

bare branches over
the Winnebago River's
careless white ribbon

silos and smokestacks:
crossing state border from north
on this winter day

spinning windmill farm - 
the three or four that have stopped
seem thoughtful

I-35 sign
for Manly / Forest City:
home of Robin Hood?

billboard announces:
"we're cooking up something new:"
a Spam Museum

across Nebraska
I drive this late afternoon's
highway into sun

see trees, find water:
tangled cottonwoods border
the North Platte River

beside the highway:
my eye is drawn from dry fields
to orange plastic fence

approaching Denver
the day after big snowstorms:
steam on highway's edge

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Defragging ALA

So I'm running for ALA presidency. And I'm trying to listen, and trying to make sense of what I hear.

One of the big, recurring issues I heard at midwinter was a sense of a fragmented membership. ALA is a large, complex institution serving members with a multitude of highly specialized interests. How then, can they communicate not only to and from ALA leadership, but coordinate their activities with other divisions, committees, and roundtables?

Yet there's also a lot of duplication in ALA. Almost every group I talked to mentioned "advocacy." But to frank, we have different understandings of that word.

Effective advocacy, in my view, is based on three things:

  • marketing strategy (reach and frequency);
  • the findings of neuroscience (emotional appeal);
  • the importance of planning (pulling it all together).

Let's break those apart.

Reach and frequency means getting a message to a target audience (that's the reach), as many times as possible (that's the frequency). How many times do you have to see something before you really see it for the first time? Estimates range from 7 to 13. All of this argues for focus: if you sent to someone 25 messages 4 times each, not one of them gets communicated. They just never rise above noise. But if you send 4 messages 25 times each, people start to recognize them. Arguably, the marketing of ALA's many subdivisions falls more often into the former category than the latter. As information professionals, we just can't help ourselves from slipping in one more program, service, or value statement. And so our advocacy (even in the very limited sense of promotion) tends not to get very far.

Neuroscience tells us that changing attitudes and behavior isn't easy. But it can be done, first, with target messaging and frequency, as above. Second, we have to slip past the filter of people's "frames." So how, for instance, do you persuade a mayor or principal or dean that the library is worthy of support when he or she has already decided other things are more important? Answer: begin with a story, a very specific case of a real person who had a powerful experience. As humans, again we just can't help ourselves: we suspend our value system and prejudice in the thrill of the tale. Change begins with feelings. Then, when the message is clear, and not a second earlier, we trot out just one or two brief statements of fact, just enough to assure the listener that this is real. Finally, we need a "phrase that pays" -- a memorable tag line. Research has already given us some very good, short, clear ones. Two of them are just three words each: Libraries transform lives. Libraries build community.

Finally, ALA has come up with three broad goals that should speak to every ALA group:

  1. Advocacy. There is not a single library in the United States (and beyond!) that doesn't need to strengthen its connection to its authorizing community (that would be the people who write the checks, directly or indirectly). But some manage those relationships better than others. Let's stop having a series of half-hearted and unprofessional initiatives, and really do it right, together.
  2. Information policy. ebooks, 3D printers, copyright in the digital age, net neutrality -- the list of new services stumbling into new policy ramifications goes on and on. Librarians remain one of our society's most credible and passionate voices for the right of intellectual access. This one, too, cuts across all library types.
  3. Professional and leadership development. Again, every single one of us wants to develop the skills of our staff; we want to prepare them to lead, particularly in this moment of generational transfer. But some of us, again, are much better at accomplishing this than others are. There have been big breakthroughs in instructional methodologies, in which engagement rules. We have members and roundtables who should take the lead on this.

The point is: instead of asking what ALA can do for each division, committee, and roundtable, it is time for each of those groups to ask what they can do for ALA. (Yes, JFK said it first and better.) That is, by budging up under these three strategies, we'll do a better job of communicating our value, positioning ourselves for the future, and growing our own expertise. That's more efficient and effective than trying to build a mosaic of initiatives from the bottom up.

Note that these three goals may not be the ones we're still focusing on ten years from now. But I think they're pretty sensible for now.

Monday, February 9, 2015

ALA Membership: the rhythms of change

Shortly after I got my library degree, I joined the American Library Association (ALA) and went to my first conference. It was, for a young man of my modest means, insanely expensive. I don't mean registration and membership dues, I mean travel, lodging, and meals. I got a little help from my employer, but not much.

And ALA was big. It was impossible to catch everything I wanted to, and I spent a lot of time running between things.

In retrospect, I think I could have planned better. But at the time, I concluded that ALA activity, particularly involving conferences, was simply out of my reach. So I paid my membership, read the magazines and a couple newsletters, and that was about it. I focused my attention on local, then statewide and regional professional groups. I wound up in leadership positions in many of them (the state chapter's public library division, the state library association presidency), which was terrific experience.

I came back to ALA in a big way when two things changed: first, I was further along in my career and had more money; second, I had an issue (ebooks) that urgently required national action. ALA president Molly Raphael appointed me to the Digital Content Working Group (DCWG). I had the pleasure of working with a high level committee dedicated to getting things done. And we did.

My experience is neither unusual nor definitive. Not everyone follows the same path of professional involvement. But ALA, finally, is our biggest room, our strongest collective voice. It's where we do, or should, wind up.

At midwinter 2015, a lot of ALA members were very worried about declining membership. There are a few bright exceptions:  YALSA and ALSC have managed to grow -- reflecting a surge of interest in youth.

But to me, the issue isn't really about ALA. It's about that sometimes awkward moment of generational change. Boomers are moving out. Millennials are moving up. There are Gen-Xers in the middle, but despite their many gifts, their birth numbers are less than half of the generations on either side.

And what do we know about the Millennials, the next generation of librarians?
  • They are coming into the profession just as a near-Depression wreaked havoc on libraries of all kinds.
  • Many of them accepted less than professional positions, often at less than full time wages or benefits, just to get their feet in the library door.
  • Many of them have staggering student debt.
Why is membership falling? Give me a D. Give me a U. Give me an H.

They're broke!

But they won't always be. And eventually the Boomers, kicking and screaming, will make way for their successors. (To be fair, that same recession meant a sudden erosion of Boomer retirement savings. Scary.)

What to do about it? Well, many divisions, committees, and roundtables have already figured it out. We need a continuum of professional engagement.
  • Sign up, get emails.
  • Get info about local meet-ups.
  • Get invited to inexpensive local or regional workshops.
  • Get encouraged to present at them.
  • Get celebrated for your successes. That might be institutional recognition. It might be state association awards.
  • Get introduced to the next level conferences - and on the strength of past presentations, get free registration, or greater institutional support.
  • Get invited to an ever larger sphere of professional activity and engagement.
Along the way there are so many free tools to connect people. And being connected is part of what it means to be a Millennial.

But I want to underscore something else: it is the duty of leadership (supervisors, department heads, and directors across the board) to invest in professional growth, the essential asset of staff. There are, in fact, best practices of budgeting in this regard, and not just for libraries. How much should an institution spend on a combination of tuition reimbursement, continuing education, and conference expenses? Answer: two percent of the salary budget (exclusive of benefits).

That's not an ALA problem. That's the demonstrated need for a professional commitment by our members. Don't look for a national association to solve a profoundly local problem. Step up. Support your staff.

And have faith in the rhythms of change.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Listening at ALA

Listening is not waiting for the other person to stop talking. It's paying close attention both to the person and the topic.

I'm just back from American Library Association's midwinter 2015 conference. It was in Chicago, which happens to be not so far from where I was born and raised (Waukegan, to the north). 

I am a candidate for the presidency of the ALA. I met with some 30-odd groups in my time there, as well as speaking with dozens of conference attendees in the halls.

My spiel (the 10 second intro) was something like this: "here come my flyers, articulating my background and platform. But I believe that leadership begins with listening. So I won't read to you what you can read for yourself. My question to you is this: what do you want your next ALA president to know about your key issues or initiatives?"

And then I shut up. And I listened. It turns out that there are a lot of insightful and articulate people in the association, well worth paying attention to.

It's funny and sad how many people tell you that listening is important, but somehow never get around to it. 

What did they tell me? Next post(s)!