Concurrent Leadership and Advocacy in the School Library

I’ve been reading about leadership and advocacy this week and I got to thinking about how these things in successful school library programs really are concurrent activities. As you behave as a leader in your school library, you become an ambassador for the school community and even the wider local community (or state). When people see enthusiastic programming and a positive welcoming environment, they are more likely to value the work that you do and less likely to offer your position up to the chopping block when budget cuts come around.

For example, I have a colleague who announced that she would be leaving the district at the end of the school year. She has been sharing ideas and resources with the entire district (through the mass email list) all year long. She hasn’t said as much, but I suspect her very visible efforts are a conscious way of demonstrating her and her program’s worth to the district. If the administration values her role, perhaps they won’t decide to have us go down a librarian due to attrition. Nothing is certain, but this kind of program advocacy doesn’t hurt—and the approach is to simply do exemplary work as an instructional leader.

In fact, my principal told me himself that [an instructional leader] was what he needed me to be in his school. I had been cautious in my interactions with staff as the new kid on the block, not wanting to step on toes or make a bad impression, and I told him that I didn’t want to tell anyone how to do their job (at least not while I’m still new). He encouraged me to push the staff to think critically and be someone who sees the big picture. If you are working hard side-by-side with other teachers, the respect and even loyalty is sure to follow.

I’ve actually had the opportunity to see my predecessor in action a few times at conferences. She’s a very dynamic person and dives right into the action. I understand a little better now the kind of leadership that she brings to the table, and to which my principal was alluding. She and I are very different in quite a few ways and I worried a lot at first that I was a disappointment to the staff as her replacement. It’s not that I am not just as dynamic or haven’t already had success in my new role. Some of my hesitation though is due to the humility I have toward the profession—I am not a seasoned veteran in the library and don’t even have my full license yet. It’s hard to proceed with confidence and, yes, leadership when you’re not sure if you’re even “doing it right”!

I have given myself permission to feel out the situation and scramble around in survival mode for now, but it can’t last for too long. Unfortunately, the attitude around the state is that school librarians are optional. A librarian friend of mine works in a district similar to mine that had someone leave and instead of rehiring a librarian, they reassigned a non-librarian teacher to be a tech integrator to fill the role (and my friend has to cover the missing duties). I met some librarians from Milwaukee Public Schools a few months ago—they have something like 12 librarians now for the entire district, covering something like 165 schools. They said that they basically go from school to school and select books. There are similar situations in Sheboygan and Menasha.

This isn’t just happening in Wisconsin—I read a newspaper article earlier this year about Philadelphia Public Schools going from 176 certified librarians in 1990 down to 11. One of the principals there fought back to restore the librarian position at the school saying, “The library was the center of the school program. I just don’t see a library as an extra,” which is amazing—but the advocacy and leadership necessary to preserve school libraries has to also come from the front lines, i.e. the librarians who convince the leaders, community and decision-makers that school libraries are, indeed, not extras.

Helping Google stifle Black Hat SEO

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) seemed to me a strategy that web vendors and spammers used to generate traffic to their sites. As a web user and novice web designer, understanding how Google separates white-hat and black-hat SEO—literally, the good guys from the bad guys—helped me make sense of it a little more.

Google also depends on regular searchers to help by pointing out when something is wrong with your search results. If you do a search, and there is something that doesn’t fit or is sketchy, you can point it out to Google. Kevin Purdy, in his TechRepublic article “Give Google better feedback and get better results” shows us how. 

screenshot of Google Feedback link and popup

Have you ever noticed the “Send feedback” link at the bottom of your search results and thought, “Yeah, no thanks. I’m not writing an email to Google or going to another tab to fill out a form. I just want some better search results, so I’d rather spend my time trying it again.”? As it turns out, it’s Javascript that keeps you right in the page, where you describe in words and then show Google by highlighting what was wrong. And you can go back to your search. Google takes the feedback seriously and uses the user feedback to improve its algorithms. Maybe you don’t see the direct results, but it’s for the “betterment” of the web!

I also have to give credit where credit is due, I learned the most about SEO and what Google does from this article I read in another library school course, LIS 451 (but liked Purdy’s visual view of one of the biggest takeaways I got from the article): Cahill, K., & Chalut, R. (2009). Optimal Results: What Libraries Need to Know About Google and Search Engine Optimization. The Reference Librarian, 50(3), 234-247.


Purdy, K. (2012, February 21). Give Google better feedback and bug reports and get better results. TechRepublic. Retrieved December 5, 2014, from 

Eddie Bauer’s Survey-Game Marketing

I got the following email from the other day, because I had been “selected to help them choose new styles for the upcoming season…”

Eddie Bauer survey email

I followed the survey link because it sounded appealing to participate in. This is what I got:

survey landing page

survey instructions page

Basically, they had gamified the survey process by trying to make it feel like The Price is Right as if you were guessing the prices of the items instead of offering feedback. Clever, because it kept me engaged in the process, even if it was apparent early on that the things I shop for at Eddie Bauer (trousers and long-sleeve shirts) were not the items being survey (mostly cargo pants and running pants). I’m afraid because the survey was set and not adaptive to focus in on the few things I did respond to positively, they missed the “target” by targeting me!

I was a little disappointed at the end of the survey when there was no fanfare or results on if I had “done well” with the What Would They Pay? survey-game. Missed opportunity, Eddie Bauer! (It would have been neat to see the average results of what people stated would be appropriate pricing–though I’m sure this would mess with their marketing if they decide to price higher than the average when potential items launch.)

Sink or swim.

When Brian Matthews of Virginia Tech started talking about vacuums and Roombas in his “Think Like a Startup” article, I felt like giving him a big high-five. Because if businesses (or libraries or schools or lots of other places) that want to be successful, this is exactly how to approach forward motion: it’s not just about building better features; it’s about new processes.

Matthews warns of all of the the ways that the traditional academic library could be dismantled by transferring and outsourcing services to other departments of a university. For example:

  • What if the Office of Research managed campuswide electronic database subscriptions and ondemand access to digital scholarly materials?
  • What if the majority of scholarly information becomes open? Libraries would no longer need to acquire and control access to materials.
  • What if local museums oversaw special collections and preservation? (p. 2)

Maybe I don’t love graduate-level academic research enough, but I didn’t really disagree. [Almost] all of his transfers of domain seemed reasonable to me… Yes, this probably confirms that I’m not really cut out to be an academic librarian in a university at this point (or else I would be more protective of them, maybe?). These are, however, examples of how libraries in general are going to be deemed obsolete and no longer valuable as institutions if the stakeholders don’t step forward to find their new roles.

It starts with attitude. And loving your academic library is not enough. You have to ADVOCATE for it.

Allow me to step up on my soap-box [again].

Last Saturday, I completed my first (and only) triathlon in Pardeeville, Wisconsin. It was a sprint triathlon, so don’t be too impressed: I’m no IronMan. The triathlon was purely a Bucket List thing for me. I HATE SWIMMING. Hate it. I don’t swim well. I would rather pick up dog poop. I hate it that much. Did I mention that I hate swimming? Because I really do hate it.

So in my triathlon, I had to swim a quarter-mile. I was a novice, which meant that I was slow and inexperienced when it comes to triathlons, so they basically give you a head start and don’t mix you in with all the rockstars. I guess, usually, they let the novices have about 10 minutes to get going in the water so they can watch attentively for struggling swimmers (like me) and try to protect them from being trampled (or whatever the word for a water stampede would be). The problem for me was that this time, the head start wasn’t really an actual head start, it was the normal three minute spacing they do between all of the age groups. So soon there were like a hundred strong, fast, young men churning toward me and I was faced with a choice: Panic or not? Sink or swim?

Sink-or-swim is more than just a clever saying, as I can attest. It’s real. And sinking is especially unpleasant in real life because you can die. Or be in agony for a couple minutes until some lifeguard hopefully pulls your panicked self out of the water.

By the way, I swam. It was scary and not pretty, but I made it. In our professional life there are so many strategies to handle a sink-or-swim situation, no matter if you work in a school or a library or a business. The choice is simple–you swim. Hard. You choose to work while you’re at work. You choose to perform your job with an eye for improvement and intentionality. Like Matthews said, you think like a start-up.

You do NOT just show up to collect your paycheck. You do NOT just go through the motions. Yes, I’m talking to you, the one standing by the door with your coat on a minute before closing time. What are we, in middle school, waiting for the bell to ring so that we can rush into the hallway and gossip–you know, where the “important” stuff is? I don’t care if you have a kid to pick up from daycare. Your lack of commitment shows. Yes, family comes first, fine, but other people with families still manage to be professionals and not middle-schoolers.

So contribute. Use your brain. Pay attention. Work together. BE FULLY PRESENT.

Can you tell that I am a Millennial? (I guess I was born on the cusp, but close enough…) I think my rants, which stem from the observation of colleagues early on in my career, are pretty typical of the frustrations that young professionals have been experiencing. Ty Kiisel, in his Forbes article, “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme–Millennials in the Workplace” said:

For the most part, the millennial generation is responding to the workforce in the way we’ve trained them to—they question, they challenge and they want to do it better. Sure, sometimes it makes their older colleagues a little uncomfortable. We probably want the same level of respect we gave our bosses—back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. With that said, the challenge for business leaders today is harnessing the talent and drive of the younger workforce to create the products and technology that will change the world. As the times, and the workforce changes, we need to reconsider how we lead people and get work done along with it.

When it comes to libraries, as Lisa Kurt, William Kurt and Ann Medaille put it, “Those libraries that do not adapt to Millennials’ expectations about work and play may find that they are unable to retain talented young librarians” (p. 11).

There are a lot of people out there trying to encourage a giant wake-up call to libraries. I think it’s that movement called Library 2.0… We don’t really want libraries to fail and close. We do want to retain talented young librarians.

Motivated by their creative fervor, start-up librarians are an exuberant bunch. Nurture that exuberance. They are a pivotal asset to your library. Their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and experimental nature might be the key to unlocking the “next big thing” at your library. (Jones, K.)

Amen, Kyle Jones. I just think it’s sad that we have to say this kind of stuff out loud. Over and over. I guess there will be a certain point that we might look at a sinking library (or school or business or whatever) and we will have to just shrug our shoulders and say, “We tried to warn you. You could have listened. We were trying to help.”

Personally, I plan on swimming. Even if it’s hard sometimes and I hate it. It’s the best thing for me. And when it’s over, you look back and say, “Yeah! I did that! And I’m kind of proud of myself now too!”

Is what you see really what you get? I hope so…

David Weinberger starts out Chapter 5 of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, entitled “The Hyperlinked Organization,” with the words: Business sounds different these days. I thought, “Yeah, it really does!” as he went on to explain how things have evolved from “Fort business” into the hyperlinked organization. I was feeling very positive and upbeat about the potential of the future and how lucky we are to rid ourselves of the old “business pharaohs [who] build their pyramidal organizations out of fear of human fallibility; they’re afraid of being exposed as frightened little boys, fallible and uncertain.”

We are seeing, then, a realignment of loyalties, from resting comfortably in the assumed paternalism of Fort Business to an aggressive devotion to making life better for customers. The business isn’t a machine anymore, it’s a resource I alone and we together can use to make a customer happy.

Yes! It seems we really have wised up. Most quality workers I know would agree, simply because it is the “right” thing to do. You know—work while you’re at work. In other words, take care of business. This makes me happy!

Weinberger also talked about information and understanding:

We don’t need more information. We don’t need better information. We don’t need automatically filtered and summarized information. We need understanding. We desperately want to understand what’s going on in our business, in our markets. And understanding is not more or higher information…

…Here’s another example. I worked at a company that tanked for lots of good reasons. When a bunch of us ex-employees get together, some of us say that it was because the product got too inbred and complex; others say that Marketing failed to predict the platforms the software would have to run on; others say that the management team was too focused on new products and ignored the bread and butter. None of us tell the same story. And that means that we, as a group, don’t understand what happened.

I went through a nasty breakup a few years ago that left me reeling. We ultimately reconciled, but truthfully, I had no idea what happened. I still don’t, actually. I don’t think he does either (even though it was his idea to split.) I mean, we were both there, and obviously contributed to the mess, just like in Weinberger’s failed company, but the connections never got made. While we may have learned from some of our mistakes, the drama of the failure also left some marks.

I think that happens in business too. As workers, when we are burned by a situation, we are automatically just a little gun-shy. I’m not referring to committing the errors that Weinberger applauds as useful and necessary to ferret out the new ideas. I’m talking about getting spanked because you have put yourself out there as counter-cultural in the enthusiastic and optimistic way that has been so encouraged by this incoming era of the hyperlinked organization.

We often use the phrase “knowledge is power” to make it seem that hierarchically granted power is justifiable. In most hierarchies, however, knowledge isn’t power, it’s a weapon. Being right advances you and being wrong is a defeat. That sucks.

You can see the politics of “being right” throughout most organizations. People win arguments — and thus secure their position in the hierarchy — through the cutting remark, through megatonnage of evidence, through agreeing with industry consultants, and through the smug refusal to ever admit being wrong.

Unfortunately, as Weinberger described the politics of “being right,” it made me consider the sad truth that there are still a lot of those “kings of the fort” left out there who would be threatened and hostile toward the idea of relinquishing their power and control. The only thing is, you don’t always know you’ve run into one of these people until you’ve stepped on their toes. It’s gotten better, but it’s left me cautious.

This is where I diverge from Weinberger when he basically says: It’s coming and we’re going to be better off for going down that road. I want to be as positive as he is about it—it would be so cool to always be allowed to use my “real voice” at work.

If the work environment within an organization such as a library is to become more transparent, it only makes sense that, externally, being honest with users and the community is ideal tool. It’s an opportunity to endear yourself as an organization to them: to show that you have their interests and needs at heart and in your mind as you are making decisions or planning new services. Casey and Stephens, in their article, “The transparent library: Living out loud” in Library Journal , say it best: “Your public, your customers, expect it and will hold you to it.”

It’s nice to think that you can control the outflow of information and discussion, but the truth is, you can’t. Those days are gone. Staffers talk to customers, and customers talk to customers. It’s no longer possible to control a solitary message from one central location…

…Remember, if you don’t participate in the story, it will be told without you.

Here, Casey and Stephens (from “The transparent library: Library 2.0.” in Library Journal) remind us, as Weinberger did, that the way we need to approach the organizations we work in is changing. I agree, but I think we all need to tread with care.

What we really want

When I was in grad school the first time (2005-2007), I got my Master’s in Teaching English as a Second Language from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Man, I’ve got to find a better way to describe this period in my life… it was epic and I have lots of stories, but it’s just awkward now that I’m “going back for more” grad school torture.) I imagine this is pretty common knowledge in the library world, but in case you didn’t know, Illinois’ LIS program is consistently highly ranked (number one in 2009 by U.S. News and World Report). It also has the biggest public academic library in the country. It crossed my mind while I was at Illinois that maybe I should’ve been working on a MLIS instead of my MATESL, but hindsight’s 20/20. (I felt a little better when I discovered that Wisconsin is actually ranked just a little higher than Illinois for a specialty in School Library Media, which is my thing. On Wisconsin!)

Anyway, to get to the point, as a grad student with one of the premier academic libraries at my disposal, I wanted nothing more than to never set foot in the library at all. As I was reading Dempsey’s “Always on: Libraries in a world of permanent connectivity”, I kept thinking about how and what I used the library at the University of Illinois for.

Here were my uses:

  1. Digital reserves
  2. Online searches of academic databases of scholarly articles that I didn’t have access to outside of being a university student. (For the record, at the time, accessing the online academic article databases at Illinois was a major pain–it was really hard to remember how to “get in” and definitely not intuitive or teach-yourself. Even the librarians complained about how obtuse it was. I hope it has improved, because for my program there was no way around it.)
  3. Meeting in the physical library for group projects when we needed computer access and my TA office was awkward or crowded.
  4. The occasional hot beverage or snacks from the little coffee kiosks in the entrances while working on said group projects.

Never once did I enlist the services of a reference librarian for anything more useful than to point me to the whereabouts of whatever section of the library. Oh–I guess there were two semesters where I took my “Academic Writing for International Graduate Students” classes on a field trip there for a library tour and orientation by the reference librarian. If I needed a real book, I had the option of requesting it online and having it “routed” to me in a padded envelope and delivered directly to me to my TA mailbox/office. I think I did this twice.

I’m pretty sure that I was not alone in these feelings/habits, at least among my grad student friends. I wonder if grad student attitudes toward libraries have changed since 2007. I suspect that the perceived usefulness of an academic library to its users really depends on convenience.

On a side-note, I was really please that Dempsey mentioned marketing for libraries in his paper… in fact, in light of a scholarly conversation I had in class last week, I think I foresee a budding interest in this topic for me. I haven’t had any ah-ha! moments on the subject quite yet, but my antennas are up.