I always enjoy listening to Joan Frye Williams speak; she always gives me a slightly different perspective on topics I am considering. This series of podcasts are a great example of this, providing me with several good ideas that I hope to incorporate when I am looking to add new services to our library. At the latest Director’s Forum sponsored by the California State Library, one of the main themes that recurred throughout was the need to look at what outside agencies are doing right and figure out how to incorporate their ideas into what we are doing, or as Williams puts it “steal” from them. I have been trying to be more aware of how others conduct business and how I can use some of their techniques as a result. I appreciated Joan’s advice on how to know if a proposal should be pursued or not, especially the idea of choosing something that had been covered by the mainstream press as a criteria. Although she was speaking to academic library staff and I work in a public library, the same idea holds true: that your idea will be more readily accepted if your customer base is already somewhat familiar with it. I loved Williams’s ideas for making projects fun; at our library, I used to head up the “fun” committee which was in charge of creating monthly social events for staff (off work options to hang out with each other — one of the reasons I think my staff is so close-knit even today). I thought that all four of the work environments described were valid, and I appreciated the recommended techniques for presenting a plan to each of the contingencies represented as expert, accountant, risk-adverse, and consumer; something as simple as changing the order of the bullet points in a presentation — brilliant. The part of the podcasts I liked the best was her discussion about the “thank off.” I work closely with our Foundation Board, and based on her comments, we really need to revise our thank you letters that we send out for donations.
I have to say I did have a couple places where I thought, “that would never fly at my library” — namely when she was discussing allowing food and drinks in the library and when she was discussing having a young front line staff to wait on people. The issue at our library with food and drink isn’t so much about spillage; she is correct when she says that people eat and drink at home when they use our materials. The issue for us is two-fold: we are concerned about attracting vermin if crumbs are left about, and we are concerned about trash cluttering the library. Currently, we do not have janitorial staff for our building. We have one Public Works employee who is responsible for basic cleaning and maintenance of two facilities, but the library staff wind up doing a lot of the cleaning. Because usually only the main traffic areas in the library are vacuumed regularly, there is a real concern that if we allowed eating in the library, food scraps/crumbs would attract critters. As things are now, people constantly sneak food into the library and regularly leave their trash in the stacks, stuffed between the chair cushions, and on the tables (and yes, we have plenty of trash cans throughout the library); the concern here is that if we allowed eating in the library, this issue would increase dramatically. So, until we have more cleaning staff on board, we will not be changing our eating policy. While I get what Williams was saying about people wanting to consult with their peers when asking a question, and I get that she was speaking to an academic library group, to state that all young people feel like they are seeking help from their parents when talking to anyone outside their peer age group is somewhat simplistic. I believe that if (as Williams suggests) an emphasis on customer service skills is the focus when hiring, age is less of a factor. Although I have been working in the field for over 30 years, many young people feel very comfortable asking me for help in the library. On this issue, I think it is more a matter of how the staff approach the public rather than the age of the staff that is of importance.
Finally, one thing that Joan Frye Williams talked about that spoke to me is the topic of the perfectionist culture and a fear of making mistakes. One person I worked for had extremely high standards and was also very rule-driven, both for herself and for those she supervised. Many of those who worked under this person found themselves constantly wondering if they would measure up, and wondering what they would be in trouble for next. Unfortunately, this manager’s style of counseling her staff could be somewhat patronizing, so being called into her office was something like being called in to see the principal. As our library manager, I try to keep an open mind when staff suggest new ideas, and I do my best to encourage staff so they do not have to worry that their judgment will be constantly questioned.