NELLS Discussion Questions

Many of our most lively and productive discussions during NELLS came out of asking questions; a single question could launch an hour-long conversation. I have included several of these questions below, including snippets of our discussions, but first, a definition:

Leader: a person who influences others in an identified situation or group to obtain a particular result that will benefit the organization. Such a position does not depend on a title or on some recognition of formal authority.

That is the definition of a leader from Developing Library Leaders by Robert Stueart & Maureen Sullivan (Neal-Schumann Publishers, 2010). The difference between a leader and a manager is not purely semantic; not all people in management positions are leaders, and many leaders are not in management positions. Thus, when a question is directed at “leaders,” it can apply to managers and non-managers alike.

What do you want to do/become? The scope of this question can be as large or small as you like, but keep in mind: “This is not a dress rehearsal – this is it.” As Maureen Sullivan said, “We are adults in development throughout our lives.” At the same time, she reminded us, “Perfection is not possible.”

What are the three greatest challenges that you face as a leader in your work? Identifying and articulating the challenges is a first step in beginning to address them in a productive manner.

Questions managers can ask those they are managing: What is one thing you would like to change and how could we do it? (One NELLS participant, a library director, said her approach was, “We’re not brain surgeons, no one’s going to die, let’s try it.”) What about [our library/this process] would you like to change? Managers can empower those they manage by saying, “Okay, try that.”

Where and when do challenges become opportunities? “Innovation happens most often through adaptation,” Maureen Sullivan pointed out.  Sustained change does not happen by a revolutionary process, but by an adaptive process.

Who are you, what do you bring, how can you sustain it over time? Consider your strengths. Also consider how you can stay energized and focused. (“Work-life balance” was mentioned here.)

Why are we doing what we do? There was a flood of answers to this question, put to the group by Rob Maier. One participant said that patrons frequently approached the desk at her library and prefaced their question with the phrase, “I don’t know who else to ask…” As a group, we determined that libraries are (or can be): the heartbeat of the community, a community center, a social good, access to information and resources, a nonjudgmental space, a path to citizenship, the cornerstone of democracy. Some of these answers sound lofty, but all are true.

Would you rather have a boss/employee who is passionate or effective? This was one of the best discussions of the week. Ideally, of course, you work with people who are both passionate and effective: people who are inspired, energetic, and visionary, and who have the ability to get things done on a detailed, day-to-day level. In reality, however, most people fall toward one end of the spectrum or the other: some see the big picture but aren’t great at the details, while others excel at getting things done efficiently and effectively, but aren’t overflowing with big ideas. The solution? Not everyone has to be everything, but make sure your staff has some of each.

Why aren’t libraries on the radar of non-library users? In every community, there are people who don’t use the library – not to check out books or movies, not as a quiet work space, not to attend programs for themselves or their children, not to access the internet. What can we do to convert more non-library users into library users? Is it a matter of advertising what we offer, or offering different things?

Questions to ask when assessing a new process or program: What went well/what worked? What didn’t work? If we did it again, what would we change? Evaluation is an important part of trying new things and improving them for the next time around.

What if you’re happy where you are and don’t want to get to “the top”? Most libraries are hierarchical to some extent, but what if you have no desire to be a library director? We discussed how to grow within your current position, and considered the question, What do you need to know to do your work?

What steps can we take to prepare for the future and ensure that our libraries thrive? Like many organizations, it can be difficult for libraries to move with agility and speed to adjust to change. This question bypasses reactive steps and encourages proactive ones. Libraries are ideal environments to foster a culture of experimentation and learning. We can help – in nearly every case, are already helping – close the digital divide. We can take more risks, without jumping on every new trend. Libraries can be like nimble little goats, surefooted on a rocky surface.

How is 24-hour access to the web changing your library and how do you want to lead that change? Again, the focus here is on leading change, not reacting to it. Library websites, accessible 24/7, are patrons’ only portal to library services when the building itself is closed. What resources can we offer, and how can we present those resources in a clear, organized, attractive way?

Do you feel barriers to political or community engagement? Can you overcome them? Librarians can and should be advocates for the library, which means community engagement and political engagement. The OCLC report, From Awareness to Funding: A Study of Library Support in America, is a good place to start. (For those in Massachusetts, Krista McLeod, co-chair of NELLS and director of the Nevins Memorial Library in Methuen, can provide additional resources.)

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