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Flatter, Focused, and Community Led – Public Library Staffing Continues to Evolve

by on July 14, 2019

21st century public libraries are adapting their internal structures to serve their patrons and communities in new ways. An informal look at public library structures from around the country shows they are becoming flatter organizations. Middle management or “deputy director” positions are not common. Directors often have more than five direct reports. Many support functions, like human resources, collection development and technology, are structured within separate departments. Larger libraries are adding departments by strategic function, like equity and inclusion. This pattern is similar to innovative companies like Zappos and Amazon

Some libraries are creating departments specifically for outreach and community engagement. Several Canadian libraries are following a community-led model of service delivery. Edmonton Public Library’s service philosophy framework is “to build relationships, and to improve its ability to identify and meet customer needs.”1 They strive for Participative Engagement with their communities where local residents and organizations influence the library’s priorities. Another Canadian example is Saskatoon Public Library. Last year, Saskatoon restructured, leading to nearly 40 percent of the nine-branch system’s approximately 300 employees changing their jobs.2

“Customer experience” is being added by some libraries to add focus on providing user value. Libraries are splitting the public services function from their operations function. Human-centered design” is something Salt Lake City Public Library incorporated into their latest strategic plan. They aim to be a learning organization with lifelong learning focus on staff as well as patrons. Salt Lake created their strategic plan to be an “experiential learning tool that invites all staff to participate in the co-creation of meaningful outcomes and experiences for the community.”3

According to the FY2016 IMLS Public Library Data Survey summary, library staff size has decreased over time. The past ten years has seen an overall decline of almost one staff FTE per 25,000 people Libraries are rebounding from the most recent economic recession, but staffing levels are staying flat.4

For the past several years, the growth of Non-MLS librarians has outpaced MLS librarians. The FY2016 data showed the average percentage of MLS librarians increased at a rate of 0.71 percent. The average percentage of Non-MLS librarians increased at a faster rate (3.50 percent).5

There also seems to be a move toward not requiring the MLIS degree for the library director. In Minnesota this spring, the legislature changed the requirement for Hennepin County. Up until then, it had been the only library director position with a requirement in Minnesota state law. This change was a step toward recruiting a more diverse set of candidates for the position.6

Will these trends hold? It’s hard to stay. As baby boomers leave the workforce and are replaced with younger generations, skill sets will change. Changing technology is changing how people use their libraries as well as their information needs. A push toward a more diverse workforce may mean a change in job requirements and recruitment strategies. With the growing emphasis on customer experience and community engagement, there’s promise in what new library structures will deliver.

Thanks to Michele Cornelius from Washington County Library for sharing a wide range of library organizational charts with me and allowing me to reference them for this article.


1Martinez, Pilar. “One Library, One Staff: Innovation and Organizational Culture.” LLAMA Thought Leaders Series August 20, 2015. Accessed July 05, 2019. http://www.ala.org/llama/sites/ala.org.llama/files/content/8-20-15 slides.pdf.

2Peet, Lisa. “Saskatoon Public Library Readies for Staff Restructuring.” Library Journal. January 18, 2018. Accessed July 05, 2019.https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=saskatoon-public-library-readies-staff-restructuring.

3“Strategic Planning in a Deeply Weird World: The Flexible Roadmap Field Guide Approach.” WebJunction. March 26, 2019. Accessed July 05, 2019. https://www.webjunction.org/events/webjunction/strategic-planning-in-a-deeply-weird-world.html.

4Pelczar, M., Frehill, L. M., Williams, K., & Nielsen, E. (2019). Data File Documentation: Public Libraries in the United States Fiscal Year 2017. Institute of Museum and Library Services: Washington, D.C

5“The 2017 Public Library Data Service Report: Characteristics and Trends.” Public Libraries Online The 2017 Public Library Data Service Report Characteristics and Trends Comments. December 4, 2017. Accessed July 05, 2019. https://publiclibrariesonline.org/2017/12/the-2017-public-library-data-service-report-characteristics-and-trends/.
6Chanen, David. “Hoping for More Diverse Candidates, Hennepin County No Longer Requires Master’s Degree for Its Library Director.” Star Tribune. June 18, 2019. Accessed July 05, 2019. http://www.startribune.com/hoping-for-more-diverse-candidates-hennepin-county-no-longer-requires-master-s-degree-for-its-library-director/511408032/.

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