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What’s Right With Libraries?

changing life bulbs

image via DyanaVphotos on Flickr

There are no shortage of problems in librarianship. Publisher’s and libraries are wrangling over ebooks. Higher education and the academy is under siege. There are regularly stories of funding cuts. And apparently libraries are in crisis. It’s easy to see only what’s wrong and what problems are facing us, especially if that is what we are looking for. But what if we flipped that around?

What if instead of only focusing on solving problems, we focused on creative initiatives happening right now? What if instead of putting out fires we looked at proactive ideas to the issues facing us? What if in the place of managing crises, we looked at the distinct strengths of and the vast human potential of libraries and started building there?

There are clearly challenges facing libraries, and they can’t be ignored, but we default to looking at the problems and become overwhelmed. Instead of focusing on deficits and what is wrong with libraries, we need to look at the myriad opportunities for innovation and build on what is going right in libraries. This is a shift in perspective that could make a significant change, but it also takes a shift in action.

What could we do to shift our organizations, workplaces, and selves from problem and deficit-based thinking to potential and strength-based thinking?

Ask Better Questions

The questions we repeatedly ask determine where we direct our energy. If we ask in meetings or in strategic planning, questions like “how can we better market our services” or “how can we improve our service” then we’ll likely get incremental improvement with more problems following closely on the heels of those questions. But if instead we are constantly asking “how can we inspire human curiosity,” or “how can we be radically relevant to our users lives,” or “how can we amaze people everyday,” we are more likely to get transformational change. In questioning, we need to start with what we genuinely want, not what we want less of. “Don’t think about better vacuum cleaners, think about cleaner floors.” Asking better questions, like in Brian Mathews’ recent whitepaper Think Like a Startup, is the first step to coming up with better, revolutionary answers.

Build on Strengths

The management guru Peter Drucker said “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths, making our weaknesses irrelevant.” Too often we spend time trying to improve our weaknesses, and correct what’s wrong. There are so many things that libraries don’t do well, and that’s fine. But if we spend our energy focusing on what we do poorly it will be wasted. Libraries and librarians have distinct strengths like nurturing curiosity and creating unrecognized connections. If we can identify and amplify those current strengths our work will be much more focused, and the resources and services we provide will be much more effective.

Create Potential Rich Work Environments

Daniel Pink in his book Drive talks about two different ways of looking at work and motivation. In the first type (Type X) motivation stems from external desires and rewards. In the second type (Type I) motivation arises intrinsically out of challenge and a sense of meaning. Librarianship is a career path obviously focused more on the intrinsic rewards and the moments that make it all worth it, but work is not always structured that way. Instead of focusing on purpose or challenge we get caught in the day to day of maintaining the systems, answering emails, and teaching classes. What if we could find strategies that regularly got us out of our routines and got us focused on why and challenging us to grow? What if we instituted a FedEx day for our next work retreat where the point was to create a new service or offering in the course of a day? Library leaders need to find ways to focus on not only maintaining and getting our daily tasks done but connecting our work to the powerful reasons we got into this profession in the first place.

There are plenty of voices asking what’s wrong, what’s broken in libraries. A much more generative question is what’s right with libraries, and how can we start building there?

Andy Burkhardt

One Comment

  1. I think now-a-days people are not going to libraries, instead they are browsing Internet and reading e-books. Technology overtakes all traditional things. That is the sadness of technology.

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