A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

The Right Work

by Carolyn A. Anthony on January 8, 2014

Recently Skokie (Ill.) Public Library (SPL) engaged in another strategic planning process. The event kicked off at our annual staff day, with all staff members sitting at big round tables in mixed groups of librarians, clerks, shelvers, maintenance, and security personnel. They talked about the changes they had observed in the community over the past three years and where they saw opportunities for the library to make a difference. While we will continue to circulate materials, answer questions, and conduct storytimes, we have increasingly begun to look for the strategic intersection of gaps in community services or needs of specific groups with the library’s capacity to respond. These areas represent opportunities for the library to truly make a difference. We crafted a vision stating that SPL is “the heart of a vibrant village where people of all ages and cultures engage in lifelong learning and discovery while actively participating in the life of the community.” Meanwhile, our mission portrays the library “as a springboard for personal growth and community development.” Our planning team talked about our shared values, which in brief were articulated as: provide access, foster learning, and build community.

Multiple times during planning process discussions, staff members voiced concern about priorities, questioning how time could be allocated to a newly proposed project. I explained that our agreed-upon values of access, learning, and community could be used as lenses in the pattern of a Venn diagram for anyone to test the relative priority of an initiative. A service such as a digital training session for the public clearly has the priority of a learning initiative. If the session is offered in a language other than English, it also addresses the access value; and if it is offered at the English Language Learner Parents’ Center instead of at the library, it becomes a community initiative. As a project addressing all three core values, the digital training session would have the highest priority.

Our work in public libraries is changing and that’s a fact. Staff members are teaching digital skills, coordinating early childhood learning activities for parents and young children, and leading participatory discussions on current issues. They partner with community agencies and businesses to realize broad community goals in areas such as digital literacy, kindergarten readiness, civic engagement, and economic development. The pull of traditional work at the service desk, with the reward of an individual’s appreciation for a question answered or a book found, competes with the challenge of working with groups and engaging with the community.

Not surprisingly, a number of public libraries have been modifying organizational structures and rewriting position descriptions to better accommodate the changes in the type of work being done. San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) was recognized by the Urban Libraries Council as one of its 2013 Top Innovators in the category of “Organizational Change and Strategic Management” for implementing a variety of system-wide changes to augment community impact through renewed engagement.1 One development at SFPL was a new Community Programs and Partnerships division that combines youth services and community engagement. SFPL also expanded off-site services including a technology bookmobile, pop-up libraries, and classes in community agencies. Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library Director Pat Losinski replaced a deputy director position with a chief customer experience officer, filled by a person with a marketing background rather than an MLS. The position oversees areas of customer contact including branches, centralized selection, web development, and marketing/communications. Fresno County (Calif.) Public Library introduced a new e-services division dealing with content development and linkages.

Seattle Public Library has a high-level community partnerships and government relations position that reports directly to the city librarian. Multnomah County (Ore.) Library Director Vailey Oehlke conducted a sweeping revision of MLS librarian position descriptions, emphasizing project management, teaching, leadership, mentoring, and training staff while introducing a reduction of time librarians spend on the public service desk. At Lincoln City (Neb.) Libraries, MLS librarians also spend less time in direct customer service and more time developing relationships with outside entities, training, planning, coordinating, and leading.

Sensing a need for organizational change to support the changes in work and priorities necessary for fulfilling SPL’s mission we adopted a management goal: “Staffing and organizational structure will be used creatively to support strategic foci and goals, revising position responsibilities and cross-training staff as needed.” We have created new departments (Access to resources, Learning Experiences, and Community Engagement) with managers who will ensure that agreed upon values shape new programs and initiatives. Access to Resources includes all aspects of collection, whether physical or digital, from selection, acquisition, and cataloging to the materials handling component of the former circulation department, including shelving, but also merchandizing and discovery. Learning Experiences will be home to an expanded array of public programs for all ages as well as digital learning in various forms, whether provided by tech assistants one on one, group instruction, or coaching in the media labs. Community Engagement incorporates outreach activities, partnerships, and the promotion of digital community.

Will these new organizational units become as entrenched as the traditional technical services, adult services, and youth services? I hope not because we need to be much more nimble to respond to the continuing changes in our communities and in the broader environment in which public libraries operate. There has always been variation in the way public libraries are organized, with questions about whether materials selection belongs in Technical Services or Public Services, for example. But the changes in structure occurring now reflect support for the new work being undertaken in public libraries. Activities such as building a partnership between the library and a community agency, developing an online user community, and designing labs for teaching and sharing creative media skills is the right work for librarians and other library staff at the present time.


  1. Urban Libraries Council, “ULC Awards Top Innovators,” press release, June 28, 2013, accessed Nov. 4, 2013.