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Managing your relationship with the community

[The First Year Director: Strategies for Success, 5 of 8]

I've written in many places about one of the key shifts in librarianship. We are moving from being library-centric to being community-centric. This movement is based on two core ideas: first, that libraries will perform better when they understand the environment in which they operate; and second, that true advocacy is about solving problems together, about helping to build an agenda for the community, then helping to get it done. Libraries that make their communities stronger get stronger support from the community.

So how can directors systematically inform themselves about community players and issues in the first year, especially in a new town? (Assistant Directors moving up within the same organization might have a handle on this, or might not.)

I propose a method that can be personal or institutional. Either approach begins the same way: work up a list of community movers and shakers. Who are the influencers in your community? When you're still new to a place, finding that information may seem hard. But a simple exercise, conducted once with staff, once with the board, quickly generates 40-50 names. The exercise is this: as you think about these broad areas of the community, who makes a difference? The categories are in alphabetical order.
  • Business. Who are the main employers, or activists within the business community?
  • Civic. Every community has civic groups like Rotary, Optimists, or the Lions.
  • Education. Who are the prominent leaders--principals, superintendents, communication directors--in the community?
  • Elected. Who are the key elected officials?
  • Faith-based. Who are the leaders of some of the larger or influential churches, synogogues, mosques, or other houses of worship?
  • Government. Who are the non-elected, or appointed officials who get things done?
  • Media. Some of my most enlightening interviews have been with people who do interviews.
  • Non-profit. There are many, many not-for-profit groups, often with deep expertise about various issues.
The second step is to interview them. If done on a personal basis, call them up, at least one a week, with maybe two weeks off in a year. That's at least 50 people a year. Schedule two a week and you can meet 50 people in six months. Introduce yourself and say that you're the new director, and would like to pick their brains about community issues. I recommend having that discussion either in their office, or on neutral ground, like a restaurant. Some directors bring lunch-for-two with them to the interviewee's office. (If being done on an institutional basis, I recommend sending two reference librarians out to conduct an in-depth reference interview at the person's place of business. Obviously, this is more formal.)

What do you talk about with them? These three questions, with probing, will easily get you through an hour lunch:
  1. As you think about your constituencies (and getting clarity about those constituencies is part of the probing), what issues do you think they will be most concerned about over the next 18-24 months?
  2. What decisions do you think your constituents need to make over the next 18-24 months, and what do you wish you knew before those decisions?
  3. Who else should I talk to?
The third step: Make notes. If done on a personal basis, I think it's enough to keep the information in your contact database. What is their contact information (preferred name, email, phone, full titles, etc.)? When did you meet with them (and who paid after you pay the first time)? What did they tell you about their family, or hobbies? What were their answers to your interview? What immediate upcoming project are they working on (that maybe you need to track)? I also recommend calling this out on your calendar: "community interviews (or CI or whatever tag that makes sense to you), with the person's name. Together, contacts and calendar can provide a searchable record of the process.

If done on an institutional basis--as the beginning of a planning process, for instance--this note-taking should take place on a more formal, shared, internal tool: a relational database, a blog, a series of staff debriefs.

Fourth and finally, stay in touch. Depending on the other demands on your time, it's probably wise to book a follow-up meeting, no more than six months from the first, and preferably quarterly. This gives you a chance to report back on your own progress, and to ask follow-up questions. Staying in touch might also be noticing community news that matters to that person. For instance, an interviewee might mention an upcoming fundraiser; after seeing that the event was successful, the director might send a congratulatory email or phone call.

This staying in touch not only keeps you out of the bubble (where you only hear what you already know or believe), it might also lay the groundwork for lifelong friendships.

Taken together, this approach for the first year director accomplishes three purposes:
  1. It builds relationships with the powerful. You will know their name and interests. They will know yours. (Be prepared to share, succinctly, your own personal information and institutional issues. But this is more about listening than talking.)
  2. It orients you to community issues. Most people  do not seek that, and even more rarely, do so systematically. Be forewarned: If you thoughtfully interview 50 movers and shakers, you're liable to become one.
  3. It lays the ground work for significant institutional contributions to the community. There is both an opportunity and a threat here. The opportunity is that you just might find an issue that the library can significantly assist with. The threat is that you might find so many that it's overwhelming. Then the task, institutionally, is to pick a project that not only really helps the community, but deeply aligns with library values, direction, and expertise.
The bottom line is this: public library directors cannot be successful if they don't know their communities. And building a network of contacts and supporters is a shrewd investment of time that might be useful in many circumstances (funding crises, intellectual freedom challenges, or simply identifying potential partners ).

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