Monday, August 13, 2007

Get Staffed!

Further reports from the Public Libraries Australia Conference. These sessions on the workforce were particularly informative - the first by an "outsider", Julie Sloan of Julie Sloan Management Pty Ltd talking about Workforce Planning, which she claims is a wholly different discipline to traditional Human Resources Management. Julie pointed out what we all know by now - a looming crisis in recruitment and retention of library and local government staff. Julie points out that the HR approach is likely to jump to (possibly ineffectual) strategies before any actual research into causes and effects has been done. Julie suggests we should be finding out first:

- Who will be retiring/leaving soon?
- What would make these people stay? (retention strategies)
- Identify supply source of new recruits
- Identify competition for supply (in librarianship, is it IT? How do you make a job in libraries attractive to an IT type?)
- Job re-design. Pull it apart, call it something different.

Julie had a couple of very apt examples from her own practice. Apparently there is a shortage of plumbers in Australia, and a huge shortage of wannabe apprentice plumbers. Julie was commissioned by the plumbing sector to research why this should be. She questionnaired lots of apprentice plumbers and boys at high school, and found that many were turned off because "they didn't like to dig holes" and "they didn't like to get their hands dirty." Pretty fundamental to the job, you might think. But no, maybe there are opportunities to pull the trade of plumbing apart - give hole digging to the currently disengaged workers, and hand over skilled "finishing off" to the tradey.

Two other speakers coincidentally touched on the topic of libraries not necessarily being populated by librarians - Rivkah Sass inherited a library system that was top heavy with librarians checking out books; and Christine McKenzie from Yarra Plenty champions RFID and librarians getting around in the stacks helping customers (sounds pretty common sense these days doesn't it?), and also controversially promoted a library tech to branch manager over librarian candidates. Seems there might be parallels to the plumbers' plight for library workers too.

Julie reminded us as a sector to be on the lookout for people going through 2nd or 3rd career changes, and tailoring pre-retirement jobs to pre-retirement aspirations eg part-time work, more time off, long periods of leave etc. She tells of an Australian bank's successful strategy of luring nurses with good people skills away from medical jobs.

Julie also identified some reasons (based on research) of why people leave jobs:

- Bullying
- Fatigue (note: NOT due to age)
- Ageism

The next speaker was Moira Deslandes from Volunteering South Australia. She pointed out that we use the terminology "use" volunteers, and this was all wrong - as Julie said before her, volunteers should be seen as a legitimate part of the library work force - and treated that way. Not that they should replace paid workers - but rather recognize that they require an investment of time and money to recruit, retain and reward, much the same as the paid workforce. Interestingly, research shows that only 5% of volunteers have been recruited due to paid media advertising - most volunteer because they have personal contact with another volunteer. Research shows that volunteers' main reasons for volunteering include: Help others; Personal satisfaction; and Something worthwhile. Apart from the traditional volunteer-ers, Moira pointed to a couple of potential non-traditional sources of volunteers: the grey nomads - sure they're only in your area for a short while, but they could still be a great resource (in my area we experience the annual migration for around 2-3 months each year of probably a couple of thousand "grey nomads" from cold old Vic to sunny Queensland - definitely potential there!!); and the rising phenomenon of the "corporates" - businesses who let their staff go off and volunteer for a few hours on work time, to show what good corporate citizens they are, and to give their staff extra skills and motivation. I'm trying to rack my brain as to what local businesses I could target, and to do what? in the library ...there must be something...

Friday, August 10, 2007

Libraries in 3rd Place!

Third place is not such a bad thing, as you will see in the second part of this post! This is another post about papers delivered at the Public Libraries Australia conference, and not about Council amalgamations (don't worry my blatherings on THE BIG A will surely follow soon enough!). The first speaker (Graham Sansom from the UTS Centre for Local Government) gave a great overview of trends affecting local government as a whole, and thus by direct association, public libraries. This session really reawakened my fundamental interest in all things governmental and political (having been a government major in my first degree and more recently completing a Grad Dip in Local Govt Management) and reminded me that I should build on my post grad studies by keeping up with this overview stuff. Graham pointed out the now obvious shift from "government" to "governance" - a recognition that decision making is more diverse. Good governance (who would advocate for bad governance?) displays the now familiar attributes (or at least rhetoric) of transparency, partnerships, community engagement, informed decision making, and social capital. This is in contrast to the now maligned "managerialist" approach which implied that there was always a best answer to be found in the disinterested and logical assessment applied by bureaucrats (pretty much the approach my first degree lauded 30+ years ago!) (in which case we wouldn't actually need elected representatives - but of course, no-one actually thinks we can do without them, even though at times it would be easier to just get on with things without them!) Graham also pointed out the very obvious "infrastructure backlog" hanging over the heads of local authorities in Australia - amounting to $6.3 billion in NSW alone, I assume he means things like the aging pipes, run down road networks, creaky bridges etc (and old libraries?) that eventually will hit the governments and presumably tax payers of the near future with a nasty thud. He stated that there were 3 possible responses to this situation:

1. Minimalist - the back to basics approach of roads, rates and rubbish
2. Optimalist - try to maintain services but delivered via partnerships and contracting out
3. Maximalist - continue to expand functions and services, while expanding the revenue base - bluntly, in the absence of higher level government largesse, putting up rates by 25% + (NSW would need to put up rates by 23% just to cover the infrastructure backlog)

There followed an interesting discussion about the rightness of putting up rates - anathema to local politicians who often campaign on the basis of lowering rates! And thus the importance of citizens and their political representatives being enabled to make decisions based on judgement rather than "public opinion" as a driver of policy. (And the role of libraries in assisting citizens to arrive at good judgements...)

If Councils adopt a "back to basics" approach, Graham's advice to libraries was to vigorously redefine what is "basic" in a 21st century economy and society. And remind local governments that libraries are a vital plank in the "quadruple" bottom line - the fourth pillar of sustainability being culture.

Which segues nicely into the following session presented by Kate Meyrick of the Hornery Institute titled "Public Libraries as the 3rd Place". I have had the privilege of meeting and working with Kate when she took an interest in our little library redevelopment back in 2005. Kate was an associate of the architecture firm Hassell who she had worked with to develop the highly innovative and successful North Lakes Library on the outskirts of Brisbane. Hassell assisted Council to develop the master plan for its proposed new cultural precinct including the new main branch library as the flagship facility (alas with amalgamation I don't know if it will ever see the light of day, but that's another story...). Without any false humility, I believe Dennis from Hassell recognized in me a librarian who doesn't think in straight lines, and linked me up with Kate who was sufficiently impressed to offer a rare "freebie" consultancy (under the aegis of the Hornery Institute). Kate conducted a number of workshops with young people in Yeppoon basically asking them what the ideal library would look like, resulting in the document "Yeppoon Living Library." To cut a long story short, this lead to the development of our award winning library for young people, verbYL. So at this conference in my particular case, Kate was pretty much spruiking to the converted. Nonetheless, her motor-mouth and high energy presentation was still electrifying. Here's the main points:

Definition of 3rd place: “An informal public place where the main activity is conversation.” (Ramon Oldenburg). People come to 3rd places to reconnect with life, community – (particularly important for baby boomer retirees.)

Practical ways of achieving libraries being recognized as 3rd places:

*Create a brand with an open invitation
*Respond to community identity
*Allow for planned and chance encounters
*Lead with programming
*Don’t dumb down the vision due to lack of funds – doing nothing may be better
*Aggregate and cluster eg parks, playgrounds, barbies etc
*Make a cluster of streets a destination eg cultural precinct
*Energetically support creativity
*Encourage discovery
*Always open and always on – high rhythm of activity sustained over time
*Fantastic design, fabulous people
*If nothing else, have the best coffee in town!

Phew! Sentiments taken to heart and largely achieved with our youth library verbYL (demonstrably a 3rd place for a large number of regulars who practically live there!), and aspirational for our current and future mainstream libraries.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Pushing Towards Greatness...

...was the title of the keynote address at the Public Libraries Australia Conference just held in Adelaide this week. Rivkah Sass is currently director of the Omaha Public Library, and also (US?) Librarian of the Year in 2006. If you would like to read a very good article see here for a summary of her career (I'm lazy - it's the first hit if you Google her name). And a very good and funny speaker she was too, just right for opening the conference, which attracted a very respectable 300+ delegates (of whom I was 1 of only about 10 delegates from Queensland - and I didn't manage to meet even one of them!! ie my fellow Queenslanders. But I did meet a very friendly and interesting bunch of people from Victoria and South Australia).

Some of the things I took away from Rivkah's talk:

"Money allows you to innovate with things; not having money allows you to innovate with ideas." How true. We do heaps of programs on shoestring budgets - and we are in the main very proud of them. Not that we don't seek/accept real money - but it's true, it tends to be for purchasing things - refurbs, computers etc that don't necessarily return a very innovative result.

One of her greatest challenges is tackling 'community ennui' - you know, books are obsolete, we have Google - she does this on a very personal level, beating a path to every local group or opinion maker, selling the idea and excitement of libraries at every opportunity. Has encouraged me to lift my game in this area too.

"Retool, rethink, reorganize" - as the article points out, Rivkah inherited a bit of a dinosaur library with too many librarians doing low level work, and too much old crap on the shelves (yes she uses the word crap liberally - ah a librarian after my own heart). I could relate to a sister weeder, I am a very heavy weeder, in fact I don't necessarily think that a library's collection needs to keep getting bigger over time - it's OK for a collection to remain in stasis as far as size goes (removes the pressure for ever more expensive library space) as long as the collection is changing, dynamic, turning over. And as long as there's at least one archiving library that you can freely borrow from (the role of the State Libraries/National Library I think.)

"Make it easier, make it better". A practical difficulty for Rivkah was the plethora of different and hard to remember opening times across all the branches - I found it extremely interesting that they found that this impacted negatively on library patrons' use of the library - I can relate to this - I have experienced as a borrower a library system that had different hours every day of the week, including being closed some mornings (of course you can never remember which mornings) - this actually discouraged me from going to the library "in case" it was shut and I had made a wasted trip. One of the first things I did (20 years ago!) was to simplify our hours - they are basically 9-5 + extended hours at some branches on a predicable pattern eg Wednesday nites to 8 pm.

Rivkah also emphasised leading with programming, which I think we do pretty well in the main in Australia. She pointed out that sometimes the outcome is building a relationship (especially with youth programming), and not always the expected resources-related outcome, that's important.

I was able to have a quick one-on-one chat with Rivkah at the airport (poor woman couldn't escape librarians even after an exhausting conference and visiting program!) and I found her to be every bit as engaging and sincere as she appeared on the podium. Of course I couldn't help but do a little infomercial about our own library services. As Rivkah pointed out, it's the similarities between Australian and American libraries, and the concerns of its librarians that is remarkable, not the differences.

More insights from the PLA Conference to follow...