During a recent Lyft ride to the airport, I was greeted by a driver who turned to me with a huge smile asking about my travel plans. It was quite early for an intense discussion, but with my mind full of thoughts on my upcoming work, and the current state of the world, I carefully asked her a question: “With all the divisiveness in our country, do you think that libraries have the power to affect positive change and bring people together?”
From the President
This will be my last column as PLA President, and I want to take the time to thank four special groups that have made my tenure so memorable. First, I want to thank my staff and board at the Cleveland Public Library for their support of my leadership journey. Second, I must thank my wife and daughters for their patience and love during the past twelve months. Third, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank you: the great people I have met this year, who work at and support libraries. You have been phenomenal. I’ve heard such great stories about how you are dedicated to making your communities better, it really reaffirmed my love for libraries. Finally, I want to thank the extraordinary PLA staff. Under the leadership of Executive Director Barb Macikas, the organization has made tremendous strides toward making PLA all that it can be, and I’m just thankful to have been a small part of this transformation.
If you’ve read any of my previous columns, you’ve probably noticed that I prefer to impart life lessons by telling stories. While this is a practice that drives my teenage daughters crazy, it has been effective for me in getting my point across. I’d like to reveal an important lesson that all librarians need to understand by telling a story that opened my eyes to the power of libraries and of librarians. There are a number of lessons to be learned from this story, but most important may be the realization that we can’t keep underestimating our community’s respect and love for what we provide them.
The focus of this issue is on fantastic failures, and boy, do I have a lot of those. To narrow it down, I will seek to define a “fantastic failure” for this column not as an instance of being extraordinarily unsuccessful, but rather as an instance of being unsuccessful that led to an important learning breakthrough. I’m fortunate to have many fantastic failures of this type, as well. I’ll focus on one in particular that stands out from deep in the past. The lessons I learned many years ago from this misstep serve as a foundation for my professional leadership and the lessons I pass on to others today.
PLA President FELTON THOMAS is Director of the Cleveland (OH) Public Library. Contact Felton at firstname.lastname@example.org. Felton is currently reading Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe. The focus of this issue is on fantastic failures, and boy, do I have a lot of those. To narrow it down, I will seek to define a “fantastic failure” […]
If the election has taught us anything, it is that standing quietly on the sidelines simply emboldens those who oppose our values. Join me and PLA as we ensure that public libraries are a safe place—free of intolerance for our communities and our staff.
Success today is judged by the outcomes displayed by those who attend our programs. Please join us as we seek to document how we make our communities better. Get more information at www.projectoutcome.org or email email@example.com.
Nearly twenty years ago, I made one of the best professional decisions of my life and joined the American Library Association. Soon after, I became a PLA member and began to volunteer with this fine organization. Even then, I could never believe that the young boy who had started working in public libraries at the age of thirteen to escape gangs in his neighborhood would one day lead the organization representing more than nine thousand public library workers and supporting more than 16,000 public libraries throughout the country. There have been many mentors over the years, and I begin by thanking them for their belief in me and their great counsel. I also want to thank my staff and board at the Cleveland (OH) Public Library for their support of this leadership journey. Finally, I must thank my family in advance for their patience and love over the next twelve months.
PLA President Vailey Oehlke is Director of Libraries for Multnomah County (OR) Library in Portland. Contact Vailey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Vailey is currently reading Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. As I write this, I am reflecting on the fabulous PLA 2016 conference in Denver. I’m so proud of the exceptional […]
We all know the ways in which a public library contributes to personal learning, growth, and fulfillment. As they have for many of us, libraries played an important role in my childhood. My family moved nearly every year of my life until I got to high school. The library was the place I could go where it didn’t matter that I was the new kid in class, where my clothes weren’t judged and, most importantly, where it was perfectly OK to spend time alone with my nose stuck in a book. However, it is as an adult that libraries have had the most profound impact on me, personally and professionally.
I knew just how I was going to begin this column. And that’s the problem. I was going to talk about the critical juncture in the history of public libraries at which we find ourselves today. I knew this venue would offer an opportunity to create urgency around how we in public library service must band together and shift the narrative about public libraries to ensure the lasting relevance of libraries to the communities they serve.
They say that good things come in small packages and I have often found that the advice and wisdom of others that best stick in my brain come in small phrases and sound bites. Over the years I have accumulated many of these and thought I would share a few of my favorites below.
As a polyglot I have always thought of myself as someone who was fairly globally aware. I received an undergraduate degree in Spanish and German, and my original career goal was to work in international business. I enjoy personal travel to explore new lands and cultures. I am the person who, when expecting to meet someone in or from another country, is rushing to learn a few key phrases in the person’s native tongue and social graces to attempt or avoid. I have also thought of myself as curious and eager to learn from colleagues about new ideas on service delivery, building design, planning, programming, and more. Yet I recently found out how limited my professional knowledge was of a whole public library universe that exists beyond the confines of the United States.
Sometimes our library jargon sets us up for negative customer-service experiences. How many of us have a “claims returned” status in our automation systems or even a “claims returned” form that we have customers sign? I challenge anyone to use the verb form “claims” with a positive connotation. Put yourself in the shoes of a customer who can remember plain as day returning five items to the library only to be told that one was not. In the customer’s mind the item has been “lost” or is “missing” from the library. In our minds it has become lodged between the front passenger side door and seat when the customer sped too fast around a corner. Yet in response we invoke the “claims returned” process. I can see the cartoon now, “this customer ‘claims’ to have returned this book and discovered a cure for the common cold.” No wonder we set our staff and customers up for an unpleasant confrontation. Although statistically likely, why have we fallen into a “guilty until proven innocent” approach with our customers? In my rethinking of my library’s policies this is one whose days I believe are numbered. We still need a procedure, of course, but framing it as an unfortunate circumstance and sending out a joint search team comprising staff and customer without pointing fingers seems like a much more positive and productive approach.
Although I have to admit feeling a bit self-conscious about wearing Mickey Mouse ears with a tassel after recently “graduating” from a workshop at the
Disney Institute (DI), the training from that day was nothing to laugh about and really got me thinking about the Aspen Institute’s (AI) “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries” report released in October.1 Disney’s workshop was targeted to a broad range of attendees from the private and public sectors with a focus on leadership, creativity, and innovation. AI’s report is focused on public libraries and offers a call to action for library leaders, policy makers, and the community. The following are some of the interesting parallels I observed between the two institutes.