Sustainable Public Libraries

Here’s a sneak preview of the article I am writing on sustainable libraries.

In this time of economic recession and national anti-tax sentiment, and with the changing nature of how people access information, what’s a public library to do? I believe this is the question on virtually every public librarian’s lips: How can we ensure that the public library will survive and thrive in the future?

The bad news is that there is no magic bullet. The good news is that there are principles and practices that can significantly impact our sustainability. We need to adapt our tools, develop new skills, and employ fresh thinking, discipline, and hard work. Three things in particular I believe to be important: strategic planning, community building, and advocacy.

Strategic planning should take us to the foundation of why we exist, not just build on what we already do. Community building is more important than ever, and will require us to be outside the library walls and at the table when community decisions are made. Establishing effective partnerships keeps us actively engaged and involved in our communities. And we need to train our users and others to advocate for us.

What do you think we should be doing over the next few years so that our children and our children’s children have public libraries to enjoy?



What a surprise to find out that I have been chosen as the 2012 recipient of the Elizabeth Futas Catalyst for Change Award, given by the American Library Association! When I was nominated for this award, I wrote the following post at my personal blog site. It still seems appropriate.

Don’t aim at success–the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued, it must ensue…as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself. ~Viktor Frankl

I was recently nominated for a national professional award. (Thanks, Kathleen & Wally!) I can’t imagine myself among the list of those who have received this award, so I have had a hard time getting my head around the idea. I’ve always been fairly suspicious of award winners, but maybe they’re as surprised as I by their nominations. Several people wrote eloquent letters of support for the nomination, which I admit will be inspiring to look back at on the “rainy” days of my life!

Whether or not I receive this award, I am heartened by the nominators’ efforts, and it makes me want to pay it forward by nominating someone else for something. Meanwhile, I’m trying to remember Einstein’s words, “The only way to escape the personal corruption of praise is to go on working.”

May you all have those in your life who believe you’re worthy of an award! Who would you like to nominate or otherwise honor?

Good to Great

What makes an organization great? I really like what Jim Collins has to say on that subject in his book, Good to Great. The concepts from his work seem highly applicable to libraries and nonprofits, perhaps especially in this time of lean resources. And he gives us hope with his statement, “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.”

It’s not how big you are, how much money or staff you have, or whether you’ve won awards that makes you great. This is very good news for organizations such as the Wayne Library Alliance (WLA) in rural Pennsylvania. I am currently working with consultants Steve Spohn and Karen Hyman on a LYRASIS project to help redesign libraries there.

What does conscious choice and discipline look like? First, you have to know your core values and the timeless purpose of your organization. What should never change? Even back in 2003 Marylaine Block said, “If we allow our libraries to become no better than the chain bookstores and no deeper than the internet, why SHOULD taxpayers support us?”

“First who, then what” is the phrase Collins uses to emphasize that we should concern ourselves first with getting the right people on the bus in the right seats. Only then do we figure out where to drive the bus. Collins says we waste our energy trying to “motivate” the wrong people to get on board with our direction and plans!

Other Collins wisdom is that the charismatic leader is at least as likely to be a liability as an asset. What he calls “Level 5 Leaders” have the combination of personal humility and professional will. I believe the WLA director, Molly Rodgers, is just such a leader.

Confronting the brutal facts (while never losing faith) is an important element of the discipline we need. Staring down sacred cows (or dismounting from dead horses, as Karen urges) is essential. This goes hand in hand with the concept that good is the enemy of great. When we believe we’re good, we stop looking, stop moving, stop thinking beyond the status quo.

What do you think makes for greatness?

Boards, Friends, and Staff: Keeping the Roles Straight

Has your board stepped up to the strategic planning and policy role? Or is it mired in detail, with a tendency to micro-manage?

Do your Friends seem more like “Fiends?”

Is your director unable to make administrative decisions without being second guessed?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, consider developing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) or memorandum of agreement to clarify and separate the roles of executive director, board, Friends, staff, volunteers–whatever groups you feel have potential for conflict or confusion.

Examples of MOUs may be found here. But remember, the process is more important than the product. Getting representatives from these groups around the same table to talk about their respective roles is the real benefit to this process. The MOU then provides a good tool for communicating to others.

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve used such a process or would like to try it.

Planning is the Board’s Job

Strategic planning is sometimes left to the executive director. If that’s true for your organization, you may want to rethink this practice. Yes, the director can usually come up with a cogent and relevant plan for the agency. But part of the board’s responsibility is representing the interest of stakeholders and steering the course for the library or nonprofit. Planning is best accomplished by the board-director team, with plenty of stakeholder participation.

When there’s conflict–between the board and director, the board and community, the funders and the board, the director and community–no one should be “going it alone!” A well-developed strategic plan includes all parties with a stake in the outcome. This helps ensure buy-in, is a great communication tool, and keeps the process open and responsive to changing community needs.

Don’t leave planning to one person or one group. It is the board’s responsibility to set direction for the organization. And to do that effectively takes many heads and hands!

Good Management Isn’t Always Enough

This article is reprinted with permission from Blue Avocado, a practical fast-read magazine for community nonprofits (and one of my favorites). [You can subscribe free by sending an email to or at] Here, editor Jan Masaoka helps us differentiate between good management and high impact:

September 22, 2010

Do you know a nonprofit that is always in some sort of chaotic state with everyone running around and no systems, but somehow still manages to do important, good stuff?

And on the other hand, do you know any nonprofits that are like smoothly running machines — checking off everything on the management audit — but aren’t really having any real impact on the world?

Most of know at least one of each of the above two types! We bemoan them both. We might dub the first one the “Disorganized Doer and Shaker” and the other one the “Orderly Chair Occupier.”

The fact that both types of organizations exist is evidence of something very important, yet seldom said: good management does not necessarily lead to high impact.

Good management is certainly a good thing, and good management can support high impact. But the organization with the up-to-date personnel manual, the gorgeous financial statements and the four-color annual report could also be the stale organization that is just coasting on its reputation and name recognition.

This leads us to the other question that we seldom ask ourselves in nonprofits: are our programs really as terrific as we say they are?

Great management systems hid a disconnect with community

We know a prestigious nonprofit serving low-income young people that became the poster child for good management by a large national consulting firm that worked with this nonprofit in strategic planning. Shortly after the case study was published, the nonprofit’s executive left to work at a large foundation. Her successor was shocked and dismayed to discover that this well-managed icon had very weak programs and impact. She commented in a newsletter, “I need to find out why kids don’t like us” (paraphrased).

The reality is that we seldom question the value of our programs. We are eager to critique our management systems, but we shy away from critiquing our programs. We are not embarrassed to say that our accounting systems are out-of-date, but we seldom admit (or even think) that our programs might be out-of-date.

In short, we need to work separately on management and on program impact. We cannot assume that focusing our attention on improved management processes will mean we have high impact.

 — Jan Masaoka  read more »

Reinventing the Organization

Jim Collins (author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t)  says greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness is a matter of conscious choice and discipline. This is really hopeful news, because it gives us control over our destiny in these uncertain times.

Here’s what I think conscious choice and discipline can mean:

Conscious: Know what should never change. Revisit your core values and timeless purpose. For tools to help you do that, see Collins’ Web  site.

Choice: Determine the strategic value of your organization in the context of your community. Know where you fit in, and be at the table when important community decisions are made. Don’t limit yourself to participation in kindred organizations. For example, libraries have traditionally aligned with education and literacy, but librarians should also be involved in economic development initiatives, community planning, recreation and other areas of community building.

Discipline: Create a culture of shared leadership and discipline in your organization. A recent partnership between the ICMA (International City/County Management Association) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation explored how local governments can use their public libraries in more innovative ways. Here are the leadership skills that may be important in this new environment:

  • Participate. Leaders belong “at the table” with other local decision makers, involved in overall planning for community betterment and service provision.
  • Share your mission. Service providers should know and share the strategic mission of local government. They should find areas of commonality and ways to share resources and efforts with government departments.
  • Build partnerships. Partnerships with public agencies, nonprofits, and the private sector strengthen programs. Effective partnerships require time and effort to establish, but they are worth the effort if they support the vision of the community.
  • Appreciate diversity. Differing cultural norms (organizational and community norms, for example) should be recognized, understood, and respected; and adjustments should be made as needed in program planning and execution. Flexibility and adaptability are key characteristics, needed by all involved in joint ventures.
  • Communicate. Communicating with partners, stakeholders, and the larger community is important to grow and nurture partnerships.
  • Foster champions. Champions and advocates are important to make programs successful and sustainable. Champions have a clear understanding of the organization’s services and the role it plays in the quality of life of a community. They can contribute support in any number of ways, including time, funds, influence, services, goods, and related items.

[Adapted from Donelan, Molly and Liz Miller. “Public Libraries Daring to be Different.” PM Magazine 92 (September 2010).]

How do you plan to reinvent your organization in this new economic and political environment?