DRAFT November 24, 2001

On Managing column due November 30  for Spring, 2002 issue of LA&M.

“From the Gutter to You Is Not up”: Worst & Best Practice

That wry country-western song suggests the duality of my experience in finding best practice libraries. Certainly, amidst the many adequate libraries, there are best practice libraries, with highly motivated and productive staff earning a deserved recognition from their clients. But, in my experience, finding those best practice libraries is a bit like hunting for Euell Gibbon’s elusive wild asparagus – you can expend a great deal of effort and not have much to show for it. And, if we can’t find them, we don’t benefit from the lessons in their good qualities and achievements.

When we do look to other libraries it’s rarely for best practice per se.  Confronted by a new service problem we instinctively ask: “What are other libraries doing?” Unfortunately, this leads to imitation rather than best practice. It also promotes our adopting least-risk solutions. Worse, since we do not need to think very much about a solution we lose the benefit of grappling with the issues and being held accountable for our own decision. If everyone imitates, innovation has no chance.

Our preferred low profile style offers little to see through our best practice spyglass – the landscape is flat with few outcroppings of excellence. When we do something better than most we become exceedingly bashful. If we achieve major cost savings in how we process materials, answer reference questions or shelve our books, we exhibit a disconcerting modesty about publicizing the achievement.  One curious reason for this: fear of being labeled a “rate-buster”. Rate buster is labor’s derogatory term for people who exceed tacitly agreed-upon norms. For example, not too long ago the “productivity” norm for an original cataloger was 100 titles per month. Any cataloging department exceeding that “standard” risks being singled out for criticism by those many who stay within the norm. Invariably the critics will imply that quality has been sacrificed in the name of quantity. I remember an agitated history professor fuming about how we had “abandoned” standard library cataloging practices in our “misguided” streamlining. He was convinced (wrongly) we’d given up using AACR.

Public libraries, in the last few years, have the benefit of finding best practice organizations through a national stratified index. Thomas J. Hennen’s American Public Library Ratings (HAPLR) are based on data from nearly 9,000 public libraries. While not touching on electronic services, it is still a good index because it uses meaningful measures like “circulation per visit”, “reference per capita”, “cost per circulation” and “expenditure per capita”. Those that score in the top ten of these rankings are likely extraordinary libraries.

Indeed, if I wanted to find the “best” public library web sites, I would go to the top few libraries in the HAPLR list. Since these libraries are getting most things right, they probably have done a good job with their web page, especially in designing for the quintessential person to library interaction. I would expect that they would try to translate those positive elements into their web page, inculcating them into the growing number of virtual patron/librarian interactions.

Academic libraries do not have a comparable quality index. For many, the one driving quality measure this half-century is volume.  The drive for ever larger accumulations of books results in buildings bursting at their seams, crowded and disorganized stacks, and floors cracking from loads that exceed architectural codes. Relief is on the horizon - electronic resources and user demand is causing book budgets to spend more on electronic access and less on physical volumes.

My experience with genuine best practice in academic libraries has been limited but insightful. I have twice participated in what could be called a listing of best practice libraries. Both listings were productivity surveys (five years apart) among the technical services divisions in the 25 largest research libraries. The survey was simple enough - each of the several technical services work units, like serials check-in, divided its output by the number of staff to show how many pieces were processed annually by each staff member. Since it was a survey among homogenous institutions, skewing was limited. We all were pretty much doing the same kind of work, but the results showed some of us were far more efficient than others.

In the first survey my institution finished at the bottom. But sometimes bad news is good news - we were in our first year of trying to figure out ways to eliminate backlogs and become responsive to getting materials out in time for readers to use. In spite of external criticism about inefficiencies, our internal perspective was that we were the best. Indeed, in our own way, we had achieved a “best practice” condition. Somehow we had come to believe that our purpose was to produce exquisitely error-free records. To do that we added complexity to an already complicated process. The more loops and curlicues we could build in for checking and re-checking for accuracy the better we thought we were. It was like we had never heard of the Law of Diminishing Returns. The peer productivity survey jarred and shifted our priorities.

Importantly, we had administrative backing and mandate to make changes that would benefit the library user. Also, we used a participatory process in which all staff were expected to think about and to question workflow. By seeking improvements in this way we assured in-depth changes.

The survey results were coded (not surprisingly!) to be confidential, but I was able to ferret out the identities of the top performers. Onsite visits revealed how these libraries were better. While we borrowed a few workflow ideas; the most important takeaway was our knowing it was possible to streamline our work and retain good quality standards. That emboldened us to ask questions about what we were doing and why we were doing it. We reduced costs, eliminated all but a few exotic language backlogs, and radically improved turnaround times.

Five years later, a follow up productivity survey found my institution at the top. We had good cause to be proud. But, with the euphoria of getting to the top of the hill, came the question, “How do we keep getting better?”

Getting better, we realized, was something we had to want as a total organization – the notion of competing to exceed your peers’ “standards” will only get you a little above that level. To exceed and excel requires a genuine shared commitment in the organization to getting better. And, individual staff must understand what that will take.

In our streamlining we discovered that many of our redundant practices were developed in response to our internal customers. Unless they worked with us, we could not get better. For example, imagine the traffic jam when a public services librarian dumps a massive book order on Acquisitions at the end of the year. Or consider what happens to a promised one week cataloging turn around when book selectors remove approval plan books to their offices for weeks at a time.

These experiences taught me some fundamental lessons about creating and sustaining the “getting better” environment: Organizations that engender trust and value individual staff (each-to-all) have the best shot at continuously improving. The opposite organizational culture (self-only) may claim pockets of excellence, but that excellence will rarely flow across departmental lines because of low trust and that culture’s guarded and competitive qualities.

It is only the each-to-all supportive culture that encourages systemic best practice.

Beyond libraries:

At ALA , in a bitterly cold Philadelphia , I found myself between committee meetings. I was in the sumptuous Four Seasons hotel. A cup of coffee was what I wanted, but I could not find anything like a coffee shop. There was a sweepingly grand dining room. What the heck, I asked the maitre de if they’d serve me a cup of coffee. “Of course”, was the response. I sat at the bar and did some griping to the staffer there about the miserable weather and my inhospitable experience in checking into another hotel, which claimed no reservation for me. Meanwhile, a waiter-in-training had gotten a bottle of wine and began to tear away the foil around the neck of the bottle. She stopped him, explaining to him that was not how to do it.

What difference does it make?”

 “This is the Four Seasons!”

I was impressed.

Now it was time for my committee meeting, so I asked her for the bill.

“There’s no charge. Welcome to Philadelphia !” 

Well, I still can’t afford to stay there, but that was a best practice’s moment.

While there is no literal transfer from this story to the library, it is still relevant. What does this incident suggest about the hotel’s leadership? How did this staff member know she had the authority and the expectation to do what was right?

I tell this story to underline what we can learn about our own organizations from non-library organizations (NLOs). When I am impressed by a NLO, I look for clues, those intrinsic values or behaviors at the heart of the organization that permit them to be the best.


How then to track down those libraries that achieve performance break-throughs?  I’ve developed a personal guide to discovering libraries worthy of a second look. While not a sure fire, works-every-time methodology, these are some organizational qualities that intimate best practice. I look for the organization that:

1. Innovates.
2. Experiments rather than plans.
3. Emphasizes doing better.
4. Has positive staff attitudes. 
5. Has an unmistakable clarity of purpose in its published information.
6. Backs up accomplishments with quantifiable differences.
7. Is regarded as a maverick by its peers.
8. Has strong external community relationships.

An organization like this will offer fresh perspectives on how to do our work.

Happy Hunting!

Author’s note: John Lubans facilitates leadership and team building workshops for individual libraries and professional groups. E-mail: john@lubans.org. Web site: www.lubans.org.