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SWON News: Future of Libraries

“The Library in 2020” – Let’s Discuss (Second part of a multi-part post)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Melanie Blau McDonald
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In the first part of this discussion I introduced some of the evolution described in Jill Hurst-Wahl’s thought piece, “The Library in 2020.” I agreed with everything Ms. Hurst-Wahl described up to the management/staffing structure. This post explores a few management trends and how they’ve helped or hindered library evolution.

Library management. Sigh. Are new things happening in library management? Be honest, how many of you library managers/directors/supervisors/division heads read HBR (the Harvard Business Review)? How many of you attend management development programs to improve how you work with people? How many of you are happy within your bureaucracy? How many of you are not in a bureaucracy?

Prompted by Jill Hurst-Wahl’s article “The Library in 2020” I decided to revisit the literature on flat organizational structures and found that indeed, some headway has been made. And what is the takeaway? That if you want an organization that can change quickly, innovate and provide excellent service, a flatter structure is the way to go. (For a current opinion watch the video.) And we know that the converse is true. Bureaucracies are not known for being innovative, nor for being quick to change. But within a bureaucracy you can innovate if your small work team is allowed to operate outside the lines. And they can provide excellent service to customers. That’s what the whole self-managed team movement in the 1980’s was about.* That movement claimed that an organization would have greater excellence if everyone on the team had authority and organizational resources. They would innovate on their own and would serve the organization and their customer’s better than when given individual assignments. Therefore, fewer managers would be required which would result in a flatter structure. Bureaucracy would be eliminated or at least reduced and everyone would win; the customers, the employees and the organization.

We have some experience in Libraryland of the ‘everyone does everything’ model not working at all. One example is having catalogers work the reference desk.** This did not make for happier customers nor satisfied employees. Did it lead to innovation? The idea behind this management movement was so that catalogers could better understand the customer and that that would have a positive effect on their cataloging work. In addition, everyone was to learn everyone else’s job, a la the team approach and it supported a flatter structure. Flatter structures cost less and in the climate of round after round of budget cuts, reducing costs is imperative. Were the customers happy being served by a fairly surly cataloger who just wanted to be in their cubicle working with things? Does a hotel put their IT guy at the front desk when low on funds? What are the limits to a flatter structure in a library?


*Among others, but the seminal work could be: Tom Peters’ “In Search of Excellence.” For complete list of Mr. Peters’ books:

**This trend was enough in evidence at least by 2000, to prompt academic articles in “Library Collections, Acquisitions, & Technical Services”. For an example see: “Out of the nest: the cataloger in a public services role” by Sandy L. Fulsom.

Accessed January 16, 2015.

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