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The accidental library manager – Instalment 3

Managing change


Once you have made it through the initial transition period, settled in, and begun laying out your vision for your library or department, it’s time to set your sights on managing change within your institution. Libraries are far from static organizations – and your very presence as a new manager will be an unsettling change for library staff.

As a manager, you have the responsibility to manage both internal changes, those that you deliberately implement, and external changes, those created by outside events. Both types have the power to strike fear into your staff, but each must be handled a bit differently. Because you have more control over internal changes, you can choose when and how to implement these, can execute them gradually to give staff a chance to adjust, and can take the time to plan, train, and otherwise prepare yourself and your people for an upcoming transition.

You may have been brought in specifically to "shake things up" in your new position, or you may have ideas for how to improve library services or workflow. Hang onto that enthusiasm, but take time to get to know the lay of the land and determine the best way to proceed before jumping in.

Facing fears

While few dispute that libraries are in a period of rapid change, people’s ability to adjust to change hasn’t quite kept pace; we evolve a bit less slowly than technology. People’s main concerns about change, however, boil down to the simple fear of the unknown: people most fear change when they are uninvolved in decision making and when they fail to understand the reasons behind a given change. When change is imposed, seemingly randomly, from above, staff don’t know what to expect and become uncertain and frightened about their own future. When change is imposed with little or no explanation, staff become concerned that their opinions are discounted, that they won’t be able to keep up, that they will lose power, that the change will be less than beneficial for your library or their own part of it.

Effectively managing change thus depends in large part on the effectiveness of your overall management style. Managers who embrace participatory management and involve staff at all levels of the organization in decision making reap a number of advantages – chief among these, staff’s becoming invested in policies, programmes, and services they have had an active hand in designing and implementing. (See more on this in instalment 4, on management in the time of Library 2.0.)

Along with this, communicate every step of the way. Let staff know how plans are proceeding, what the time line will be, the reasoning behind changes, and that their input is welcome at every step of the process.

Building excitement

Getting staff involved at all levels of decision making also helps build excitement about your library’s future; staff will anxiously await changes they have personally advocated for. Also get staff on board by making change exciting, accentuating the positives, and showing them how any upcoming changes will make their jobs easier. Use concrete examples: The new automation system automatically creates X report with one push of a button, whereas it currently takes ten minutes to manually create and run it; the new reference desk schedule now allows everyone to eat lunch at a decent time and no one has a longer than two-hour shift.

Be sure also to stress that changes are necessary to meet shifting demands or adapt to changing circumstances; they’re not meant to disparage the way your library has "always done it". Staff who are comfortable with existing policies, procedures, programMEs, and services – or who had helped create these! – will not appreciate the implication that their previous efforts have been inadequate.

Give people the tools they need to handle change effectively. If you are upgrading your automation system, ensure that staff have extensive training on the new tools and procedures. If you will soon be requiring department heads to enter their own website updates into a blog or content management system, show each of them how to do this, walk them through the process, create step-by-step instructions, and make sure each of them can successfully create and edit a post.

Securing stability

Change inherently moves people out of their comfort zones, and change in libraries can be particularly difficult for those who originally entered the field due to its perceived stability. Both you and your staff will weather change best when you maintain a firm foundation of stability. The ability to draw on the familiar goes a long way towards mitigating the fear of the unknown, and people are most unsettled when rapid changes occur simultaneously.

So, for instance: if you’re in the process of transitioning to a new automation system, this might not be the time to also rearrange the collection. If your library or department has experienced recent turnover, it may not be wise to choose this moment to switch to a new e-mail and calendaring system. This is another reason to avoid implementing widespread change when first entering your management position – not only do you have to get to know the people, workflows, and environment, you need to give staff a chance to adjust to the changes your very presence brings before instituting more deliberate transformations.

I once worked in a library that lost its long-term director and assistant director within a few months, replacing them with new managers with very different styles. At the same time, we were in the process of switching to a new automation system, and the new managers almost instantly began instituting sweeping changes (including new Internet signup and printing procedures, moving large chunks of the collection around, changing collection development responsibilities, changing schedules, and changing policies), all without any front-line input. Within no time, morale was down, staff began job hunting, and patrons began noticing the overall bleak mood about the place: the overreaching changes left people with no foundation to draw on and no reason to believe that their opinions or expertise mattered.

If possible, think about building change incrementally rather than making sweeping edicts or implementing dramatic overhauls. Over time, small changes can build to have a huge impact; gradual change creates less stress and allows staff to get used to each difference before having to adjust to the next. Change works best as an ongoing process, rather than a dramatic event. Instalment 4, on management in the Library 2.0 era, talks about additional ways to encourage innovation at all levels and harness the power of ongoing, transformative change in your organization.

This series is based on Rachel Singer Gordon's book The Accidental Library Manager (Information Today, Inc., Medford, NJ, 2005;