7 Characteristics of Thriving Libraries

Is this what you feel like when you go to work?

“When people join the legions of the walking dead, they begin to live lives of quiet desperation.” (Spreitzer & Sutcliffe, 2006)

Or this?

“Thriving is about being energized, being enthusiastic, feeling valued…” (Spreitzer & Sutcliffe, 2006)

In my 15+ years in public and academic libraries, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. I haven’t seen it all, but I’ve seen enough to know what works and what fails miserably. I’ve had the best of times. I’ve had the worst of times. I’ve experienced wisdom, and I’ve experienced great foolishness.

Most libraries are good at surviving. But, the best libraries are thriving. Here are 7 characteristics that embody thriving libraries:

Evolving. Thriving libraries are continuously evolving their library services. They are in touch with the ever-changing needs of the community they serve. The easiest way to find out what your community needs? Ask. Simple.

Innovative. Thriving libraries think outside the proverbial box. Innovation is not about jumping on the latest bandwagon. It’s about determining if the latest bandwagon is a good fit for your library. Innovation is the willingness to experiment and fail. Innovation is about identifying the things that your community doesn’t yet know they need.

Outreach. Thriving libraries meet their patrons where they are. But, first you need to know where they are. For example, social media is a staple of outreach for most libraries now, but it only works if your patrons are on the same social media that you are using. If the community you serve doesn’t use Twitter or Facebook or Pinterest or YouTube – and your library does – your outreach efforts will fail.

Outreach is the mindset that everyone in the community should know about library services. And the mindset that library services aren’t limited to the virtual and physical walls of the library. That might mean taking a van full of books to the local senior living facility. It might mean partnering with local schools and businesses. It might mean roving reference on campus. It might mean hand delivering items to faculty.

Communication. Thriving libraries are good communicators. Communication goes hand in hand with outreach, but it also refers to intercommunication within the organization. Communication usually reflects organizational culture. Poor communication is a pernicious plague that creates a toxic environment of distrust and disgruntle. Good communication is the antidote. It makes everyone feel valued.

Trust. Thriving libraries foster trust among employees and the community. Trust is the result of good communication and respect. Trust is how you get the community to support your library’s needs (e.g. increased funding). Trust is how you get employees to buy into change.

Multiple sources of funding. Thriving libraries don’t put all their eggs in one basket. Multiple funding sources are needed to ride out the ups and downs of the economy. Budgets shrink. Grants dry up. Thriving libraries don’t give up. In terms of funding, I’ve observed that the one thing that separates the thrivors from the survivors is a strong Friends of the Library group. Be it public or academic, the Friends are truly your friends. But, a strong Friends group is really the end result of a library’s efforts in outreach, communication, trust and evolving services.

Leadership. Thriving libraries recognize the importance of leadership when hiring managers. Peter Drucker had it right when he said “One does not ‘manage’ people…The task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.” What makes a good leader? According to Drucker: “The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say “I.” And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say “I.” They don’t think “I.” They think “we”; they think “team.” They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but “we” gets the credit. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done.”  I absolutely agree.

And here’s an interesting observation: Best practices in organizational design and instructional design have something in common – an underlying constructivist viewpoint.

For further reading on thriving organizations:

Spreitzer, G., & Sutcliffe, K. (2007). Thriving in organizations. In D. Nelson & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), Positive organizational behavior (pp. 74-85). London: Sage.


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