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Shaking Things Up at Your Library

by on November 22, 2016

As a leader in public libraries, how are you encouraging  nonconformity? Did you know that you should be? After reading the article “Let Your Workers Rebel,” I couldn’t help but link it back to our profession.

Let’s start with a gross generalization: Libraries as an institution seem to prefer conformity within our organizations; but librarians as a profession also strive to counter conformity. We cater our services to various nonconformists, and provide service to those who want to learn something new on taboo topics, or to have access to materials they may have been denied elsewhere. We will fight to the death for the rights we all have to express ourselves, and privacy is very important to us. But as a profession, we shy away from change. Even the most forward thinking librarians can be afraid to rock the boat. Let’s face it, we embrace the rules.

According to the article, humans feel better when we stick with what we know. That makes sense, right? We believe the potential loss associated with a change is greater than the gain that may result from the change. We ignore information that challenges long held beliefs. But this has a downside in that we do not create environments where feedback is welcome, or new ideas are celebrated. Yes, a new idea here and there may be praised, but the overall environment is stagnant. When I visit libraries, I often encounter bored staff members. They share the glazed-over look that comes from repeating the same tasks; frustration with disengaged managers; and a general feeling of disconnect from the work they are doing. How can nonconformity help these staff members re-engage? By encouraging them to break rules? Of course, we know that not all conformity is bad. But to be capable of cutting-edge library service, perhaps we need to look at striking a balance between the necessary structure that comes with any organization and the freedom to be creative in their jobs that can inspire and excite employees.

I once asked a staff member to create a flyer for a display. I needed something quick and dirty. This person was usually assigned to assisting with checking out books. He reacted with fear, then disbelief in his own skills, then acceptance, and the final outcome turned out great. We later talked and I said something along the lines of, “Hey, it’s fun to be creative and engaged at work.” He actually thanked me for the opportunity. Something so simple was a big deal to him. So, in the interest of shaking things up here are 7 ways to promote nonconformity in your library:

  1. Ask staff members – What makes you unique? When do you feel at your best? Use the information you glean from these questions.
  2. Don’t tell them how to do it, tell them what the end goal is.  For example do not say “You need to take the following steps to increase programming attendance (insert steps).” Do say “We need you to find ways to increase attendance at programming. Please think of a few ways to accomplish this goal and present them at the next meeting.”
  3. Have staff members define their own mission. An example: I will advance the library system by actively seeking out opportunities to share our online resources with every customer I encounter.
  4. Give staff members the freedom to choose their responsibilities. I prefer to give a list of initiatives and have them choose one to work on.
  5. Lead the way by asking why. Why are we doing things this way, why is that policy in place? Keep staff thinking about updating, changing, moving forward.
  6. Variety keeps people motivated. Remember the bit about asking someone to create a flyer? Yeah, those moments are pretty important. The benefit of having people switch up their tasks is that now you have people cross-trained on different jobs.
  7. Get out of your own library. Go to other libraries or shops and look around at their displays, read blogs, send out ideas to your staff. Make it your goal to send out one great idea from another library system each week.  Implement these ideas. And here’s a bonus suggestion – read this article, you’ll gain awesome insights on this theory!


Gino, Francesca. “Let your Workers Rebel.” Harvard Business Review. October 24, 2016. Accessed October 25, 2016.


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