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.
November 10, 2004 - Scaling the Organization
I do a lot of reading about technology. And philosophy. And management. They're all connected.
Take, for instance, Linux, the computer operating system. It began as the hobby of a Finnish college student. Linus Torvalds wanted to wring a little more work out of his new DOS-based computer, so tried to program a free clone of Unix. He launched this project on the Internet.
Today, Linux is a collaborative, truly international project. It runs the web servers of Amazon, Google, and IBM.
But along the way, Linux hit a couple of walls. The first was wholly human. One guy, Linus, just couldn't keep up with all the corrections (or "patches") people were submitting. Some important new features weren't being picked up or adequately tested. Linus seemed to have reach his administrative limit. He was getting cranky, too.
The second involved what was called "the scalability" of Linux. It was marvelously efficient at some tasks. But when those tasks got to a certain size or complexity suddenly there were unacceptable slow downs. To be successful in big business, Linux needed a redesign of some core functions -- and it looked like Linus wasn't up to it.
Same problem. Scalability of administration. Scalability of function.
The odds are good you've seen this in any organization you've ever belonged to. Strategies that work, well enough, in your own family, don't work in your church group. The communication style that was so efficient you didn't even have to think about it when your business was small ("hey, everybody, come here and look at this!") stopped working when you had people in four different locations, on three different shifts.
The library has had its challenges, too. I'm an intuitive manager, which worked great when our district was small. Then, some years back, in a period of rapid growth, I started dropping appointments and project details. I was becoming, in my own judgment, an organizational problem.
I had to sit down and retool. I took time and project management classes, read up on the topic, designed my own date book, and eventually moved to the Palm Pilot. I'm still an intuitive manager, but now I have a skill set, and some technologies, that help me keep up.
More recently, the library's administrative and communication structure -- the operating system of an organization -- started running into those unacceptable slowdowns and dysfunctions. Again, that's not a criticism of a previous model; it USED to work.
Over the past year, we've been working on addressing that. And I think we'll solve it -- for the period of time that such things can BE solved. (I don't believe in the perfect administrative structure. Things change.)
Linus, incidentally, did pull out of his funk. There was a slight reordering of the administrative structure -- with a little more trust and decision-making authority placed in the hands of a few subordinates. He also adopted some different software tools to manage the various versions of his kernel hacking.
And Linux is a big success.
As Linus said in a recent interview, "So start small, and think about the details. Don't think about some big picture and fancy design. If it doesn't solve some fairly immediate need, it's almost certainly over-designed." Wise words from a programmer -- and excellent management advice.