Public Libraries: Dancing through the Minefield of Change

change will reinvigorate libraries

Libraries are at the forefront of Organizational Change.

If you had to put an underlying theme on my career, or even my life, its that I try to level the playing field by clarifying the rules of the game for those who are outside the “in-crowd.”

That’s why I love public libraries. They are an attempt to provide information to those who might have no access to it otherwise. If you go back as little as 100 years you’ll see how rare it was for many people to own more than one or two books or get an education past the 8th grade level. Libraries gave people a chance to catch up, or be exposed to what they had missed.  And if you couldn’t afford private tutors or travel to a large city to buy countless books on a subject, libraries brought the world of knowledge to you, if you wanted it. Is learning to play the violin from a book the same as learning from Itzhak Perlman? Heck no, but it’s a start.

Libraries also try to purchase and source credible materials for their collections. Best practices include buying well-researched books that promote opposing viewpoints.  For every “pro this” book, you were to also purchase a “pro that” book. There was a certain trust factor with the collection at the library offered scholarly, balanced, validated information. How can Librarians curate the internet? Every whack job in the world can publish on the internet if they want to (Exhibit A right here).

Now libraries are having to change with the times, caught in a squeeze between decreasing funding, new technology and a changing user pool. Do they invest their scant funds in books? Or in computer systems to grant internet access? Or do they lease “ebooks” in order to increase the availability of titles for their patrons but then not “own” the book?   Some libraries are now promoting the use of their space as a community gathering spot, a learning hub type environment, but others, stuck with a limited budget and small facilities are having to get very creative.

And how do you decide? If you were the head of the library system or on the library board, what choices do you make?

Five years ago you could make the argument that there was still a significant portion of the population without internet access. The advances in smart phones changed that. There are still many people in the US without access, but the overall curve has moved significantly (its not unusual to find someone whose electricity has been cut off but they won’t let their phone get cut off!).

So, do you provide more internet access? Or offer more e-books? Digitize the current collection? Do you clear out the physical books to make room for your own servers? And do you even keep a physical “library” building anymore?  Will school age kids still make the obligatory “field trip to the public library” to get library cards? What new advances will we be seeing in just five years, most likely the timeline it would take for most public institutions to execute a major change? (You haven’t lived until you’ve had to work through a government RFP or RFQ process).

How do you get public support for an institution that served such a vital function for so many? Is there some new, magnificent function that libraries can serve that will somehow allow for those who don’t “have”, to at least glimpse the world of “what can be”?

I don’t know the answer for public libraries but an Oscar nominated film team is exploring how some libraries are coming to terms with finding their answers. Here’s a sneak preview:

What would you do? What do you think libraries should do? Share in the comments.

book by Jeanne Goldie

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Are you selling what they need to hear?

Calculating ROI

Sure, you’ve got a great idea. What’s the ROI for them?

” It surprises me that most fashion buyers know everything there is to know about which trend and hemline we’ll be wearing in six months but can’t tell me what the density of their sales floor is, what the return is, what the dollars per square foot is, what their top-selling stock-keeping unit is and how many times they’ve reordered it in the season.  However fashionable the brand, we always start and finish with the numbers—the sell-throughs, the margins, the returns, the contributions—and then we talk about the pleasantries.” Marigay McKee, President Saks Fifth Avenue. From an interview in the Wall Street Journal.

How are you pitching your story? In business, your internal pitch needs to show the return on investment, not solely the brilliance of your vision or the cutting edge of your design.  Because vision and design can drive returns, but not if you can’t articulate them in a way to get your vision built in the first place.

At a recent workshop I listened to one female entrepreneur outline her next steps in growing her wellness business, which involved partnering with some other brick and mortar businesses. The first five minutes of the pitch outlined the wonderful community benefit, the sense of empowerment, the size of the mailing lists and the ambience of the event. Nowhere in the pitch was what the measurable benefit to her business would be, or the benefit to her brick and mortar partners.  A business coach kept probing, asking, “What is the benefit, where is the return?” and got more answers about wellness, community, and the overall specialness of the event. It took three tries for the business coach to get the entrepreneur to outline her plan for getting revenue from the event.

Lest any men be laughing and saying “typical female approach,” I’ve noticed many male-led pitches wax on endlessly about the speed of the technology, the sleekness of the interface, the inherent scalability of the product, while never addressing the paying market for the product.

At some point we all do it, fall so in love with our grand plan that we think everyone will buy in. And passion is a good thing.  Passion and drive keep you going at 3 am, when the 16th version is just not working the way you planned, and when you know in two hours the kids need to get up to get ready for school and you’re operating on no sleep. But we have to be mindful of our audience. Your significant other, your mom and your dog will love your idea, and think its brilliant, but unless they can finance it, eventually you have to sell it.

How are you pitching your vision? And are you selling it in a way that those who are buying can hear it?

book by Jeanne Goldie

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Rule# 6: Build a Measuring Stick.

Find a way to measure the benefit of your plan, bonus points if you can tie it to costs or revenues!

Find a way to measure the benefit of your plan, bonus points if you can tie it to reducing costs or increasing revenues!

I was raised to be “of service” to others. My mother is the first to volunteer for any task that needs doing and we all developed a strong sense of duty towards others.  Most likely that is why I spent much of my early career in government and non-profit work before turning to the corporate world.

I was very effective in getting financial and executive support for my projects because I had a secret weapon. I majored in accounting in college, and it gave me a firm grasp of the numeric value of any activity and the importance in being able to attribute activities to the revenue or expense ledger. At a non-profit or government agency I was always the person trying to measure our results, determine the activity’s value relative to costs or expense and then find someone who would be willing to pay for it.  We were famous for having all of our employees able to recite chapter and verse how many people we had helped at what cost and with what results, preferably tied to a monetary measurement. Later, when I worked for an insurance company and had to evaluate non-profits for partnership opportunities, an instant mental “No” was rendered when they couldn’t reasonably demonstrate some quantifiable results or outcomes, and the “No” was doubly reinforced if the staff gave me significantly different answers than the director or development director.

It’s not easy to measure things, some defy easy quantitative measurement.  If I keep fifteen teenagers in an after-care program that keeps them from going home alone in the afternoon and possibly getting into mischief, how do you quantify it? Graduates of your program may not have made it to college yet, so you don’t have a warm fuzzy story for the fundraising brochure (but as soon as one of them does, put that kid in a college t-shirt, on campus, holding a bunch of textbooks and get that picture! Sells ’em every time).

In for-profit businesses there are initiatives that can also defy easy quantification. What does “deliver better customer service” translate into in dollars and cents? What about community outreach or sponsorships?  What exactly does reducing customer response time yield that will make a dent in earnings season?

Find a way to measure it. There is almost always a way.  Talk to people in similar arenas, and talk to some not in the industry.  Talk to your Human Calculator, give them all the approaches you came up with and have them get creative.

If you can measure the value it adds or the costs it saves, and if you chart incremental progress, you can demonstrate success, which keeps enthusiasm high for your project, even if there is a bobble along the way.

So how DO you measure the Teenager After-Care example?

One approach:

Studies show that kids between 13 and 15 are X times as likely to get pregnant  and Y times as likely to get into trouble that will do Z to their criminal record when they go home alone after school.

A pregnant  teenager costs the American taxpayer (or county taxpayer or city taxpayer) $___, while a juvenile arrest costs the taxpayer $____.  By funding aftercare for these 15 teenagers we are greatly reducing the odds of these things happening, and saving taxpayers $(all of the above multiplied by the results expected if the 15 kids weren’t in care) which is ten times (or hopefully some other ridiculously high number) the cost of providing funds for the program. So we save our community 9 times every dollar we spend!

How have you found ways to quantify things that defy easy measurement? Share in the comments below, you’ll be helping everyone!

By the way one of my favorite Albert Einstein quotes is “Everything that can be
counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily
be counted.” Very, very true. But to sell your idea, you need to try to count it!

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book by Jeanne Goldie

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© Jeanne Goldie 2015