For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
March 3, 2004 - Colorado Library Boards Set a National Example
Along with Mark Weston (past-president of the Douglas County Libraries' Board of Trustees), and Eloise May (director of the Arapahoe Library District), I have just returned from the biannual (every other year, not twice a year) conference of the Public Library Association.
The three of us presented there. The conference, held in Seattle, drew over 5,000 attendees. Our session pulled in almost 400 of them, about evenly divided into trustees, directors, and other staff. Our topic was "board self-assessment."
It's easy to see that the library has buildings, and books, and all the other stuff that people check out or use.
It doesn't take much work to see that the library has another asset: the people who work here. For most libraries, that's our biggest expense.
It isn't quite as obvious to say that the Board of Trustees is also an asset. Just like the building, the books, and the staff, however, it's only as good as we make it. It needs the same kind of thoughtful management.
Douglas and Arapahoe County are fortunate in that we have attracted highly qualified people. I've learned that the best single question to ask an incoming board member, incidentally, is "how many community groups do you regularly connect with?"
Our interest, of course, is not only to represent the library to them, but to represent them to us. The library that is most vital is the one that is most connected to its community.
But even a well-connected board needs all the things that staff need. That is, it needs clear expectations, as documented by job descriptions. It needs orientation up front, and continuing training throughout.
And it also needs feedback -- an at least annual evaluation, beginning with a self-evaluation, and formal enough to cover the bases.
But evaluating volunteers is different than paid staff, right? Our response: "Wrong."
Sure, good board members may not get raises, or benefits, but they can get the intelligent praise of their peers, and the public recognition their many hours have earned. They can have the knowledge that they have made their local library institution more effective, more useful to their communities.
We were asked, "What about bad board members?"
Well, what about bad staff? If we make a bad hiring decision, and we can't train or coach people into competence, then we let them go. But our PURPOSE isn't to seek out bad people and punish them. Our purpose is to help good people do good jobs. That applies to Board members, too.
At the end of our session, we learned that several libraries are out there working on this subject. Many more expressed the intent to adopt our forms and process. Colorado libraries, our boards, are leaders of a national trend. That's a good thing for libraries.
I have to pass on a good quote. One of our conference keynote speakers was Bill Gates, Sr., father of the richest man in the world, and a successful lawyer in his own right. I found him to be wise.
Many libraries in the United States, Seattle Public among them, have been hit by city budget cuts, resulting in severe cutbacks of hours. Gates talked briefly about the important, now almost forgotten, role of libraries during the Depression. Then Mr. Gates said this: "It doesn't make sense to close hospitals in the middle of an epidemic. And it doesn't make sense to close libraries in the middle of an economic downturn."