May 19, 2002

 

A Portrait of Collaborative Leadership:

Donald E. Riggs and Nova Southeastern University’s Joint Use Library

 

The signs of growth and development leap up as you descend into Ft. Lauderdale: ridges of excavated gray gumbo dirt along black and white ribbons of roads that run past building cranes reaching into the sky.

Buildings, like the population, palm trees and Bermuda grass, grow quickly in Broward County, home of Nova Southeastern University, <www.nova.edu/>. Founded in 1964, its campus growth, with more than 19,000 students, corresponds to that of its community.

NSU is located on what was Forman Field, a training base for aircraft carrier fighter pilots. According to Bob Bogorff, NSUs Archivist, the new Library is built just about dead center on what was a wheel spokes-like arrangement of intersecting runways. At its time, Forman Field was in the far west of Broward County; that location with the NSU campus on it is now in the center of the ever-expanding County.

Don Riggs, Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian at NSU, met me at the airport. As we drove out we talked about the new “Library, Research, and Information Technology Center.” His 10th library building, it is remarkable in several ways. Foremost is that it is a shared use facility. Jointly funded by Broward County and NSU, this $43 million dollar academic library is open to the NSU and Broward County communities, offering a full array of academic and public library services.

The building:

A fifty-four page legal document spells out the terms of this unprecedented collaboration between a public library and a private university. Single space, the legalese covers every anticipated contingency from the per hour parking rate in the 1550 space parking garage to force majeure calamities during the next 40 years, the term of the agreement.

The agreement between NSU and the Broward County Board of County Commissioners includes only the joint-use library; it does not include NSU's other major libraries (e.g., law, medical, oceanography). The public may use materials in these other NSU libraries, but cannot check out items out.

When I asked a few library staff about what they thought of the new library, one librarian told me the big plus is the building with the public library part a trade-off. The public librarian in that same session countered with her take on how there are extraordinary benefits to both sides of the equation, with each partner realizing more than if they were to act independently.

The county benefits through:

The University community benefits through:

The building opened to the public on December 8, 2001. Since then, according to Sam Morrison, the Director of the 30 branch Broward County library system and Don’s proactive counterpart in the collaboration, the relationship is going well with public use of the building exceeding expectations.

The circulation of library materials to public users is already at 53% of the total of all materials checked out. A recent Broward County literary event at NSU brought in 4000 people and, as another sign of high use, on weekends seating in the library becomes scarce.

Broward County is no stranger to collaboration. In 1996/1997 BC received Library Journal’s Library of the Year award. This recognition was for BCs record of successful partnerships. One example is Florida Atlantic University’s half million dollar funding supplement for BC Libraries to assist FAU students with their information needs.

Given this tradition, when Don first proposed the joint-use facility idea to Sam in 1997, Sam’s response was a decisive, “Absolutely.”

He expects “In 3-5 years people will be saying (we) were really smart to do this.”

What do the users think? Don is an inveterate seeker of input from users, querying students and parents with kids in tow. During our library tour he asked, with visible pride, “What do you think of the library?” on the elevator, in the study spaces, in the art gallery and in the Connections Café. “Awesome”, “Wow”, “ Fabulous” were the frequent rave responses.

Don told me how sometimes he gets carried away in asking people about the new building. One student he queried in the elevator looked at him oddly, then said: “Sir, do you know this is the third time you have asked me how I liked the new library?

Overall, there’s a great pride in the library among the community - students, staff and the general public. NSUs President Ray Ferrero, Jr. says the library is the soul of the university.

Unlike most academic libraries that are out of space on their first day in a new building, NSUs library is commodious, housing a collection of 200,000 volumes with planned growth for up to 1.4 million volumes. User space is generous, with group study rooms on the 2nd – 4th floors in heavy demand by public and academic users. There’s enough space for book trucks to have their own closed storage on each floor. And in anticipation of future growth, the fifth floor is not finished out, but ready for quick completion whenever extra space is needed.

In recognition of the dual purposes of this building, the organization chart features a Public Library Department. It provides services for children and young adults at the Public Library Services Desk, collaborates with other library departments and serves as an effective bridge between general public and academic needs.

A collaborative leader:

In collaborations, leadership can either help or hinder goal achievement. In my experience in library cooperatives, I rarely saw leaders rise above protecting their turf, and letting go of their egos for the greater good. Worse, these leaders would dis-empower their designated staff from taking action on cooperative issues. Not surprisingly, it was often a struggle to reach agreement on even transparently beneficial actions. How Don practices leadership offers us instructive clues for successful collaboration.

Don is self-effacing.  He is the first to give credit for success and the last to take it. His satisfaction derives from accomplishing a mission, rather than parading his importance. But, while Don takes a back seat whenever credit is given, that does not mean he shies away from promoting and advancing the library.

An incident from his pre-NSU days illustrates the difference between keeping a low profile and taking a stand:

The University’s Provost, in a Deans meeting with the President, was giving a report on new budgetary initiatives. Don was there. When the Provost did not mention an agreed upon staffing commitment of 28 new positions to the library, Don spoke up reminding the Provost about the positions.

Afterwards, the Provost summoned Don to his office. The Provost fired away: “You embarrassed me in front of the president. There are two deans who always ask for more money, and you are one of them, etc.”

Well aware his job was on the line, Don still explained the what and the why of the promised library positions. Then he asked the Provost, “What kind of librarian do you want? One that rolls over?”

The provost pondered that for a long minute, then relented, begrudgingly, “Oh hell, how many positions did I say I’d give you?”

Don thinks big and looks for opportunities. For example he mentioned to me the idea of replicating the land grant universities concept and applying it to information grant institutions, including information grant libraries. That idea could take the e-village concept to an achievable level.

He also is able to articulate his personal vision. Others may share that vision or an approximate version, but Don’s clarity helps others get past the ambiguity to see the big picture. Don does not mind ambiguity, actually I think he likes it. There’s an inherent ambiguity in the initial idea of a building, then decreasingly so as the idea becomes concrete.

Don let’s people contribute. Not only does he expect his staff to have a say, he works steadily and regularly at being approachable and open to all views.  He is aware that the new building, its joint use aspect, and the rapid growth in staff numbers combine to put extraordinary pressure on all staff, new and old. The NSU staff is in the midst of genuine, not hyperbolic, white water change.

There’s uncertainty in their having to develop policies on the fly and to resolve the many differences between the BC branches and those of the NSU library. There is no comfort zone in this organization. The vastness of the building contributes to the unsettled feeling. Several staff commented on how the daily check-in with each other and Don is now practically impossible and something they regret slipping away. Issues once resolved in brief spur-of-the moment meetings in the small library now demand a more formal approach.

Understandably, not all of the staff are fully convinced of the wisdom of the joint use facility. At the same time, I got the sense that even for those uncomfortable with the organizational turbulence, the  benefits outweigh the frustration. Don’s highly personal style of leadership, even in a building with 500 doors, helps the staff stay afloat in the white water. One staffer told me,  “He knows everyone’s name and he makes a daily effort to say hello and to inquire about my projects.”

Even the staff with reservations, express pride in what they are doing, in being part of an exciting purposeful organization. They are gaining an appreciation for their own opportunity in an organization in which, according to Don, “We are only limited by our imaginations”.

Don’s leadership is, just like for the rest of us, shaped by personal experience and observation. One influential lesson comes from his first job while in high school working in construction.

His contractor boss, Frank by name, was patient, fair, honest, and hard working – an overall good leader.

One day, Frank could not meet the payroll. He explained to the workers what was happening and that he would pay them as soon as he got past the hard times.

One of the workers confided to Don, “I’d work for Frank even if he didn’t pay me”!

I think that’s the kind of loyalty Don works at earning from his staff.

Author’s note: John Lubans gladly added this voluntary assignment to his writing of the On Managing column. He first met Don Riggs in 1977 when Don directed the Auraria Library in Denver, a collaborative academic library serving three institutions.  

 

Captions for pictures:

1. Samuel F. Morrison, (left) Director of Broward County Libraries, joins Don Riggs in reading to children during NSUs and Broward County’s opening day celebration in December, 2001.

2. Grand opening, on the library’s first floor with its vista from entry way through to the back windows overlooking the University lake. The “awesome” and “fabulous” inspiring atrium soars 85 feet above the limestone floor. Stairs lead to Reference Desk.

3. Exterior of NSUs Library, Research, and Information Technology Center. Built in 15 months, at five stories and 325, 000 sq. feet it is the largest library building in Florida.


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