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CHAPTER VI - Human Capital

In moving from the more conceptual discussion of innovation to the practical strategies for implementing new practices for library innovation, the discussion frequently returned to the theme of people. “I’m really struck by the conversation around training the next generation of librarians,” said Andrew Sliwinski, Engineering Lead of MIT’s Media Lab. “If we are talking about an institution that is built on people, and most libraries are in small communities, maybe we should focus on the individuals in libraries. The minimal viable culture can start with one person.”

A focus on human capital includes the development of both internal and external relationships and the allocation of resources to human capital needs in order to foster the right ecosystem for innovation that Walter Isaacson highlighted earlier. These are essentially issues of leadership inside and outside of the library profession, whether this leadership is exercised on a top-down or bottom-up basis.

Internal Issues

Permission Frameworks. Libraries individually and as a profession need to do a better job of enabling personnel at all levels of the organization to take risks and infuse innovation into the DNA of the institution. Support needs to come from the upper levels of library leadership so that staff at all levels recognize the institutional buy-in and openness to innovative experiments. Library leaders should develop and implement “permission frameworks” as part of an overall Innovation Playbook for Libraries—i.e., establish clear goals, objectives and values for employees to strive for, and then grant employees the flexibility to experiment and seek innovations in the way that duties are carried out consistent with those goals and values. As part of these permission frameworks, the Innovation Playbook should include allocations of time and the provision of structural support to library personnel engaged in collaborative work at the edges without the expectation that the work will be done “on the side.”

Bonnie Tijerina, Researcher at the Data & Society Research Institute and a library professional development expert, called on library stakeholders to create networks where librarians can feel that there is internal support for the “edge” work that they are doing. “In talking about the edge of the edge, what I’m noticing is that I have individual librarians that come to me to be a fiscal agent to do what they’re doing because they are not getting the support from their associations or organizations. Librarians want to improve their education and their network-building,” she said. Tijerina suggested the creation of communication channels to provide feedback to library leaders about those on the outskirts who are coming to professionals like her for support.

Julie Sandorf, President of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, reflected on the shift in New York City’s public libraries. “The three library systems in New York seemed to be totally top down and all about asking for permission. That has changed pretty dramatically, and I would say it had to do with leadership. So, it’s not just the edge. It’s about bringing in leadership staff to look at things from the bottom up. There are ways to take risks and have the confidence in your staff to promote cross-fertilization. The Bronx needs to know what’s happening in Brooklyn and vice versa.”

New Tools for Librarians. Mary Lee Kennedy spoke of the importance of giving staff tools to empower them to meet the new demands placed on them. When library staff saw the need to educate immigrant populations on financial literacy, NYPL provided “knowledge security” in the form of financial literacy experts who provided tools and training alongside the frontline library staff. “We give library staff permission to not have to be good at everything, and we bring users the expert skills they need,” said Kennedy. The example cited by Kennedy speaks to the ability of the library to identify the needs of its community and then align its resources, even to the point of engaging partners outside of the library, to meet those needs.

Library Workforce Pipeline. There are disconnects between the product that schools of library science are producing and the needs of the public library institutions who are the intended customers. Multiple participants voiced their concerns that library schools are not producing the trained personnel with the skills and dispositions that libraries need today. It reflects concerns over the types of people being recruited into library science education programs, and the curriculum of the schools of library science. This means that library managers are left to go out into the labor force and bring in the people they need. From an innovation standpoint, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it can introduce new expertise and new X and T people into the library workforce. In the longer term, however, a poorly aligned system for training the next generation of librarians should raise serious concerns not only within libraries but among the stakeholder groups that libraries interact with and serve.

“What I heard is that this has to come from library schools. These are big things that will take time,” said Bonnie Tijerina.

In response to participants commenting on the need for different types of applicants, Tijerina indicated that her non-profit research institute sees many resumes from people with library degrees looking outside of physical libraries in order to do work in the spirit of library values that inspires them.

“There are a lot of inspired, passionate people with library degrees or without library degrees,” said Tijerina. “Maybe we don’t have the organizations who are attracting them. Are libraries thinking about where the problems lies in terms of attracting the right people?”

Brian Bannon, Commissioner and CEO of the Chicago Public Library, cast the issue in a much broader way, as analogous to looking at the larger ecosystem for developing skills and talent for workforce development. “There is a whole series of interventions of preparing kids for kindergarten, for third grade, as teenagers, etc. That analogy for me is how I would think of the workforce challenge for libraries—thinking about the pipeline for libraries. Look for other feeders for institutions that are non-librarians. There is organizational work to be done…for analysis and improvement.”

Bannon said it is equally important to build a culture that people want to be a part of. He mentioned that CPL brought in an outside consultant to do a culture check. The results reflected a high response about mission. “Many people show up every day because they care about the mission,” he said.

Honoring Best in Class Library Staff. Julie Sandorf suggested that a relatively simple way to attract and inspire great library staff is to publicly honor and recognize the best in class. Sandorf detailed an annual awards program for library staff that the Revson Foundation supports that publicly recognizes the excellent work done by branch staff in New York City libraries and rewards the best in class winners with money to use any way they want use it. The program is designed to solicit community nominations and stories about their experiences with branch staff.

“The awards are from their patrons. It wasn’t just the money but the pride and recognition among their peers and community that they are special,” that has made this a special program, said Sandorf. “Last year we received 14,000 stories. The single most common theme was—my library is the place that I get to meet the other, like the new young mom who meets the old Polish grandmother. The library is the one place where people go that’s free and open other than parks. That social cohesion role should not be underestimated.”

“The opportunity for innovation to make a difference for their users, staff empowerment to do so and recognition of their contributions are what drive library staff to become the local superheroes that they are,” added NYPL’s Kennedy. “The Revson annual awards program is a super-connector on a relationship level. The recognition makes a huge difference. Librarians are very mission focused. Recognition by their constituents is so important.”

Librarians for America. Reed Hundt proposed a “Librarians for America” program, modeled on the successes of Teach for America and Code for America. The organization would attract people from outside of library organizations who would bring different skills and embed new DNA in the staff and culture of libraries.

The proposal to create Librarians for America speaks to a larger issue concerning the relatively weak national voice of libraries. Public libraries in the United States are quintessentially local institutions that are overwhelmingly funded and supported with local resources. (School libraries are also highly local. Other types of libraries tend to be highly specialized and focused on service to specific narrow communities.) But libraries present not only a local value proposition, but a national one as well. There is a tension in the local-regional-national outlook of libraries, librarians and their supporters that needs to be addressed by the field.

“I’ve worked inside and outside the profession. I think part of the tension around outlook is the public dialogue about librarians, brand perception, marketing and challenges with a truly national, coherent voice,” said Mary Lee Kennedy. “When you look at the top careers, librarians are way at the bottom of the lists. A public marketing campaign needs to show the cool things librarians actually do. Some of this has to come from outside of the library organization, from other people who use the library. The voice cannot be our own alone.”

One participant added, “The funding is very localized, the workforce is very localized; perhaps recruiting needs to be more national.”

External Collaborations

Libraries have a long history of working together and with external community partners through a variety of consortia, associations, interlibrary loan arrangements, alliances and other partnerships. However, the purpose driving these partnerships rarely has anything to do with nurturing ecosystems for innovation and learning. Roundtable participants considered issues surrounding partnerships and other collaborative relationships that can strengthen cultures of innovation.

There is no steadfast definition of what constitutes a “collaboration.” It is simply the act of working with someone to produce or create something. Libraries can collaborate with other libraries or with non-library partners around a common goal or set of goals. While partnerships can be hard—they take a commitment of resources, hold partners accountable to one another and require adapting to different styles and cultures—they are essential for public libraries to realize the vision of the library platform at the center of communication innovation. Partnerships and collaborations create opportunities for libraries to connect the edges of organizations and institutions across the community. They create the dynamic through which the right ecosystem for innovation can emerge.

The Readers First initiative is an example of cross-library collaboration. With close to 300 current members, the initiative was started by NYPL and a handful of others who decided to use their collective buying power to create competition in the e-book market where previously there was none. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is another example (see Hackathons are another type of successful collaboration in which libraries work with with community partners and perhaps other libraries to create an environment for inventing and making technology-based solutions for personal or community needs.

External partnerships can present their own set of challenges. Felton Thomas, Director of the Cleveland Public Library, noted that oftentimes libraries are treated like “the little brother” in these relationships when, in reality, the library is likely to have more power and influence in the community than the partner does. Urban Libraries Council President and CEO Susan Benton suggested that libraries and their partners in public-private partnerships build structures to ensure that the partnerships are living up to the objectives.

Library leaders from New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles shared examples of how their systems are taking action to reposition the library in the community while fostering a culture of innovation within the system.

Brian Bannon, Commissioner and CEO, Chicago Public Library
One of the things we learned from the work with IDEO was allocating the time to people to do the work, and to give them the support and structure around it. The original idea was that they can do it on the side. But no, you can’t do it on the side. You have to invest in people and give them the time. There was a huge change in our organizational culture as a result of doing this—allocating the time to the support line folks, and that’s how change happened.

What we have really been grappling with is doubling down on developing a more sophisticated system for identifying opportunities to improve the current state. We are also trying to build systems to identify those opportunities through people outside our organization and using these people to help us innovate and think in a new way. We have people on the ground to help us—how to test, how to question. Success in putting the structure there.

Mary Lee Kennedy, Chief Library Officer, New York Public Library
We put forth some pretty large objectives in terms of education in high need neighborhoods and in the digital realm. We had to focus on what we can uniquely bring into the ecosystem. We set a strategic direction, not a plan, and examined the value we bring in community. Can we build on our strength? Can it be achieved in two years? Can we create significant benefits for our users on our own or in partnership with others? NYPL is focused on four areas: Access, Reading, Learning and Creating. Additionally, thanks to the Revson Foundation we have a staff innovation fund. Staff are innovating at the edges. The intention is to enable staff, such as giving them the tools to address the opportunities they see to make a difference in their community.

Felton Thomas, Director, Cleveland Public Library
Being part of the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet, we started moving that way to put the Library at the center. We are the People’s University. We give people the opportunity to create a portfolio to take classes and create their own degree or certificate.

Siobhan Reardon, President and Director, Free Library of Philadelphia
The need for change and innovation came from the Free Library because we were so constricted with our budget. Our work of moving the library system is from the inside out. We had to change the internal structure so that staff knew we were serious about the need to meet community needs. We had to look at the staff and create the possibilities for the staff to get out from behind their desks and get into the communities. We created training labs in communities and hired anybody but librarians to run these learning labs. It is amazing who came to these spaces. All of this occurred because we went beyond the walls of the libraries.

There is so much internal restructuring that has to go on to get to innovation. We have been breaking the system down into six clusters so that the cluster leaders become mini directors for those six library systems. One of the jobs of the cluster leader is to establish community counsel and examine community health. Our cluster leaders have never learned how to organize communities so we are now hiring community organizers. With our Words at Play initiative, community organizers work in communities based on five museums/school districts to work to build vocabulary. They go to nail salons, barber shops and recruit families into the space. We consistently have 40 families every Saturday. The reality is that I have to hire a different cadre of people to support the community needs.

John Szabo, City Librarian, Los Angeles Public Library
It's absolutely critical that public libraries embrace their powerful role with immigrant integration and citizenship. We've stepped forward into this space in a big, bold way at the Los Angeles Public Library and the results have been outstanding. We have sought to establish our libraries as the first step on the path to citizenship. This feeds our other services as well, e.g., ESL, health programming, financial literacy, etc. Not only is this role appropriate for libraries and impactful, being a trusted, valued place for New Americans is in our strategic interests.

It's so important that public library leaders speak about their institutions in terms of how they impact the biggest issues our communities face. We are focused on workforce development, public health, financial literacy, sustainability, and active, even formal learning.

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