In her thought provoking essay for ItLwtLP, Kim Leeder shared the following reflections on library vision and leadership:
It seems to me, and I don’t mean to criticize any of our great library leaders, that most of the “vision” I see in the library field is just an expansion of what already exists. Building on our strengths is a great thing, but it is a different thing than having a vision towards which to build our future.
Who is our Henry Ford, our Steve Jobs? Who is leading us to a place where libraries will thrive and succeed in an uncertain future? Some may argue that we don’t need visionaries to lead us, but I disagree. Most of us work day to day with our heads down, just trying to get everything done. We need leaders who have the time and space to be constantly looking ahead, watching the clouds, and anticipating the storms and sunshine to come.
How true this is. And even if libraries identified an impassioned and capable leader, where would the person work? How would s/he develop a team of talented people to help make our libraries all they can be? A fundamental weakness of our public library system is that it is not structured to hold the human and technical resources we need to meet contemporary needs in a robust way. Our libraries are structured to hold books and local meetings, and that won’t be enough for the public or the profession much longer.
Other large, non-profit entities with similar missions and dispersed physical locations have strong leaders. Think about NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, for example. She has reinvigorated that organization since taking the helm last January. Under her direction, NPR has enhanced its value proposition by creating new distribution channels1 that make high quality content easy to access and well worth supporting. Moreover, Ms. Schiller has brought a real industry presence to the broadcaster. NPR is now seen as an important media player and my impression is that professional journalists and publishers refer to the organization more than they have in the past 25 years.
Schiller’s experience running successful commercial organizations is a key part of her success at NPR. Another factor is the time she spends in public dialogue to hear people’s praise and criticism and educate them about NPR’s mission, goals and funding mechanisms. Her March 2009 address to the National Press Club on what NPR can learn from its “commercial cousins” holds valuable lessons for public libraries. My comments are below the lessons, in italics.
1. More bottom-line thinking about return on investment
In 2007 the U.S. had 9,214 public libraries and a total of 16,604 outlets including branches. They employed 145,000 people full-time and had operating revenue of $11 billion.2 At the risk of angering every hard-working library director who needs to sweat over the smallest budget line item — I believe our public libraries can deliver a lot more value than they currently do given their tangible resources and the level of public investment in them each year. What’s needed most in this vast enterprise is room for executive leadership to drive priorities and manage resources more effectively than the current structures allow.
2. A sense of urgency, which will help it stay nimble in times of economic flux
Kim Leeder has said what everyone knows about public libraries: they’re “turtles among a race of hares when it comes to moving with the times.” Without bold leadership to rapidly put forth an action plan that leverages the incredible brand loyalty and resources behind our public libraries, I fear they will not remain viable beyond the next 10-15 years.
3. A focus on what the audience truly wants and needs from NPR programs
In An Inflection Point for Public Libraries, I argued that professional librarians and well-meaning volunteers cannot achieve the financial results of professional fundraisers. The same is true for product development. It’s really difficult to ascertain what people want that isn’t delivered by another organization (now or in the future) and turn it into a product or service offering. And that’s only the beginning. Once the offering is out there, it’s an on-going process to monitor performance and adapt it to maintain viability. I appreciate how foreign product development concepts are to the library community. I also appreciate the need to start enacting them in the next 2 – 3 years.
4. Greater diversity of listeners
Many months ago, I reached out by phone to a librarian blogger whose work I admired. After hearing a few of my ideas, he interjected “People use public libraries when they’re children and in high school. We lose ‘em during their working years and they come back when they retire. That’s just the way it is.” I wouldn’t count on those patterns holding for much longer. I also wouldn’t count on the people that use libraries today due to the recession remaining users once their circumstances change. Some will, of course, though not enough (IMHO) to justify continued taxpayer support.
5. Shout from the hilltops about accomplishments and offerings.
Be honest. Would you really want to see any of the folks currently advocating for libraries3 on Oprah … or at a White House dinner? Public libraries really need someone, like Vivian Schiller, who can get to the hilltops and shout.
1The NPR website has had a makeover, but more importantly NPR has created technology tools to enable local stations to syndicate content on their websites. Check out the website for WBUR in Boston. It’s a really good news site and I’ve made it one of my browser homepages. Additionally, NPR and strong member stations make audio content available via the web and iTunes.
2Institute of Museum and Library Services. (2009). Public Libraries in the United States: Fiscal Year 2007.
3From left to right: Lou Reed @ GeekTheLibrary; Michael & David @ Library101; Jean Costello @ TheRadicalPatron blog.