Staff-focussed Librarianship

In the private sector, organizations usually choose one of three targets for their mission: shareholders, customers or staff. The choice of focus will always depend on what the organization does and how it can best survive in its particular industry.

If securing capital is the most important, a shareholder focus might be the best approach, since being able to secure capital can result in better products for customers and more competitive wages for staff. I can’t say I know industries well, but I would say that a mining company might be a good example of an organization that could end up with a shareholder focus.

If attracting revenue is the most important, then a customer focus might be the best approach, since revenue brings dividends to shareholders and competitive wages for staff. A retail chain might be a good example of this sort of organization.

If attracting great minds is the most important, then staff focus is probably the best approach, since great staff attract customers and encourage innovations to bring value to shareholders. Can you say “Google” anyone?

Why am I bringing this up? Well, I read Sophie Brookover’s article on work-life balance in libraries. I am quickly learning that us X-gen folks are going to have to mediate between the boomers and nextGen for alot of things. In this case, I thought the boomers would look at this article and start a tirade that would go something like this:

Are we going to have a generation of librarians who sees the answer to every problem as “give us more of everything and less of work?” How are libraries going to survive when those who have the answers to our bad policies refuse to take the positions where they would make changes themselves? Flat organizational structure? How flat? A library board doesn’t want to have to call 20 people just to implement a decision. And I haven’t even chimed in on accountability yet.

Of course, we all know the boomers are going to retire eventually and the NextGeners will begin to take over. But the rest of us “in-between” folks are going to be struggling to help boomers understand the NextGen-er’s penchant for egalitarianism while at the same time explaining the devil in the details to the NextGen-er.

At the same time, it is clear in my mind that attracting great minds will be key to the survival of libraries over the next few decades. As I spent my time in the 90s hearing about how important the “customer” is, I believe the people coming into the profession now will be hearing how the path to the customer will be in the minds of the people libraries hire.

Unfortunately, with public officials with big carving knives looking at libraries as if they were a big fat Thanksgiving Turkey, a “more pay/benefits/power with less work/accountability/responsibility” model is just not going to work. Work-life balance is important, but you need both a life AND a job to achieve this effectively. And do I have the answers to these problems? No way! The pressures of the profession are going to require the innovation of millions to solve.

But I do think I can help formulate the problem a little better. Here are some of the issues raised by Sophie and my re-frame. I am not trying to say I disagree with Sophie on this because, again, there are so many permutations of this problem it is hard to generalize effectively. But I am calling on Sophie and NextGen-ers to bring some “how can we give you what you want” to go with the “what do you want?” Somehow, boomers, NextGen-ers, x-Geners, managers, non-managers, professionals and paraprofessionals have to find a way to be facing the problem together, rather than seeing each other as the problem.

Work-Life Balance

My wife works for a private sector company in a highly-competitive and demanding industry. The pay is good, the benefits are few, and people do get fired for not meeting the company’s high standards. In the early days of her job, she worked long hours, took work home, worried about work things while at home and had little life-work balance.

Like Sophia, we have a small child now and family is very important to us. But even before we had our son, Wanda had decided enough was enough. Did she quit? Nope. Did she ask for concessions? Well, not really.

What did she do? Well, she made a commitment to herself. She has set work hours and does not take work home. She sets work priorities in order to meet her expectations and engaged in a discussion with her boss about the limitations of what she could do in the average work day. She worked smarter instead of harder. Her reports became more concise and she planned to keep her meetings short.

The result? The stress and panic stopped. She became more productive, not less. She recently got a promotion and her boss’s assessment was even more glowing than her own. Last year she won an award for a “winning mindset.”

My thoughts? A work-life balance is a personal commitment that employers can support. In fact, employers should insist that employees hold this commitment to themselves.

Daycare benefits, time-sharing and other things are separate from work-life balance. You do not need children to have a life, although children do result in changes of priorities. I’d love a daycare policy. Many of my next-door neighbours would see it as useless. In Canada, where we have a less-than-sustainable birth rate, there are all kinds of government-sponsored benefits to support work-life balance. In the US, the birthrate is sustainable, so fewer benefits. (I was absolutely shocked to discover that my friend’s wife only had 4 months leave after giving birth to her daughter. We get a year that can be shared by both father and mother.)

The bottom line is that a free daycare policy is ultimately a “have children” policy. It says “we want young mothers and fathers in our organization,” it does not necessarily say “you should have work-life balance”. I think it is great if an organization wants to attract young mothers and fathers (or wannabe mothers and fathers). I also think it is great if an organization wants to attract people who don’t want to be parents, or whose children have already grown up. Benefits policies will always depend on attracting the right staff for the positions you hold. Work-life balance is a completely different monster.

Public Service and the Decision to Manage

This one is short. People who do not vote hold a dubious position when they complain about governments. I will say this as well. People who refuse to think about themselves in decision-making positions hold a dubious position when they complain about organizational policies.

I used to think public service was just providing the best possible experience for the public. Now I see it as a duty or a calling. When I was on the front-lines serving the public, I got to feel like a big hero. People told me outright how thankful they were. Now I see that those were the days when I got to take the credit for all the planning, decisions and implementation a great deal of folks in the organization did on my behalf.

People who truly value public service ought to consider a management position. There are more headaches, yes. But, given my work-life balance example above, I think they are manageable, even for people with children. There are fewer (non-monetary) rewards, yes. But if you feel called to a profession that values information, and you feel that you are able enough to make decisions that bring people and information together, you should accept the responsibility to stand up and hold a position of power when the opportunity comes.

Organizational Structures

“Flat” vs “Matrix” vs “Top-Down” organizational structures is what I was taught in school. “Centralized” vs “decentralized” is another. It is like an organization is a pile of dough to be squashed, rolled, stretched or shaped in wonderfully creative ways so to produce unique results.

The standard call suggests that flat organizational structures result in devolved decision making, a more “team” oriented approach. “Top-down” is more controlled, even micro-managed, where departments turn into “silos” of ineffectiveness, where bosses make arbitrary decisions that serve only to cause headaches for everyone else.

Here’s are a few ways to see org structures. The first is as a distribution of wealth. Through the collective effort of the employees, libraries managed to get capture a big fat deer for their meal (we call this an employee budget). Somehow, a decision must be made about who gets the biggest piece. There are a billion ways to make this decision, but a good one is on something called merit. Futher, in order to maintain loyalty in the organization, you want to have a path towards advancement.

This vision of an org structure is probably excrutiating in the eyes of a NextGen-er, because, we are told, NextGen-ers aren’t likely to consider loyalty important. But if every library organization is flat, where are the rewards for staying in the profession? Librarians might move from public to academic for a change of view, but while there are differences enough to satisfy for a year or two, the similarities are staggering enough to make a series of lateral moves a living hell.

But you do not have to see organizational structures totally in terms of distribution. Organizational structures are also coordinated through knowledge sharing and are practical things. For one, a CEO does not want to receive emails (or blog comments or phone calls or whatever) from 300 people every day, so s(he) divides the organizations into divisions and gets one page summaries from the “next level down.” It may not be that a director/CEO does not want to hear from the front lines, it’s just that she cannot open that door to everyone and get her own work done too.

Org structures also encourage expertise. Even in the world of super multi-taskers, there are still advantages to some specialization. For one, I know that my organization does not want me to be their finance person. It is much better to let other people know about that stuff while letting me focus in on what I do best. For public libraries that cover a wide geographical sphere, flat structures simply mean sitting in more irrelevant meetings, and using up the travel budget in the meantime.

Does this mean libraries cannot have more flat structures? No. These points are merely to highlight that org structures are complex things. In fact, more often than not, they are created through the actions and behaviors of employees more than they are “designed” by managers. When someone makes recommendations about org structures, he or she really ought to have more to say than “flat” or “hierarchical.”


As NextGen grads enter the workforce and Boomers prepare to leave it, a shift from “customer-focussed” strategy to “staff-focussed” strategy seems inevitable. Right now, the discussion appears to revolve around “what do NextGen-ers want?” leaving the “how do we give it to them?” up to the people in the organization.

But, as I hear about increasing enrollments in library schools, it is obvious to me that many NextGen-ers want to be happy being librarians. It is paramount, then, that the “staff-focussed” strategy turn from a “how do we give it to them” conversation to “how do we work together to get what we — new hires and organizations —  want?” If anything is to change in organizations — to the flatter or to the more hierarchical — we need to be looking together at the common problem.

Right now, it seems that everyone is looking at themselves on opposite sides of the same mirror.


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