How can libraries transform and thrive? Dorothy Stoltz and James Kelly on successful collaboration

How does a library amplify the skills and enthusiasm of its staff while also identifying what the community wants? In their new book Transform and Thrive: Ideas to Invigorate Your Library and Your Community, Dorothy Stoltz and her coauthors Gail Griffith, James Kelly, Muffie Smith, and Lynn Wheeler argue that adhering to a handful of straightforward principles will point the way forward. We spoke with Stoltz, director for community engagement at the Carroll County (MD) Public Library, and Kelly, library director of Frederick Public Libraries (MD), about their prescriptions for library success.

How did the book come together?  What was your starting point?

Dorothy Stoltz: People inside and outside the profession ponder whether libraries are on the verge of becoming extinct.  My experiences at Carroll County Public Library and observations of many other libraries demonstrate the opposite result. However, not all librarians are awake to the kinds of tenets that can nearly guarantee long-term success.  I wanted to pull together a team of colleagues who promote and activate a strong, thriving relationship between their library and their community. The starting point was to write a book that debunks the notion that libraries are coming to an end. A library is not just a wonderful resource, but also a crucial component in any community that values the talents of its individual residents.  A library can thrive only if the community as a whole thrives.  If a community is declining, its library may well be declining, too. Yet the library can be a source for reinvigoration, if it can inspire its citizens. 

James Kelly: Dorothy was part of some truly inspiring work that was taking place at Carroll County Public Library and she was starting to note some trends in libraries across the state of Maryland and nationwide. She invited co-authors to consider questions about our own practice and to share examples. In this way, the book started to take shape.

What are some positive examples from the book of library leaders who have found ways to set the right tone for library staff?

DS: A great exponent of a thriving community was Benjamin Franklin – one of my library heroes – who sought to bring out the best in himself and in others in order to improve the community. Today, we have library leaders such as Felton Thomas, Cleveland Public Library director, who practices the golden rule by treasuring the people he serves and thus discovering that they – no matter their walk of life – in turn use and support CPL. Brian Bannon, commissioner of Chicago Public Library, practices how to make room for creativity and apply enthusiasm through experimentation and patience – striving to help uplift the community a day at a time, a person at a time. This is where Franklin is such a wonderful role model.  This book is something of a wakeup call, to be applied in different ways in different communities, but always with the idea of transformation. Imagine Plato being called in to rescue a library from dullness. What would he do?  Perhaps the library should be declared a “no dullness zone.”

JK: I think the conversation in chapter two about the importance of values is critical for library leaders who want to undertake culture change in their organizations. Strategic plans are important, but they are short term and concerned only with “what we do.” More important than the “what” in my opinion is naming the “how.” Values set the expectation we have for ourselves and for our teams, for the experience we want our internal and external customers to have, for how we will interact with our community partners. Naming and committing to those values is a powerful exercise. Hiring with those values in mind is the quickest way to affect culture change. Values are also the bar to which leadership should hold themselves accountable. As a piano in the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimoreleaders, if we live these values, staff see that and that helps us set the tone. If we name those values, but conduct ourselves counter to those values, staff will see it and we erode morale and trust.    

Can you offer a few tips for leading a productive brainstorming session?

DS: Brainstorming is often used to generate a list of ways to solve a problem with the hope to find one workable solution. It may be helpful to up the ante by viewing brainstorming as an act of creativity. Human creativity is not confined to artists, musicians, writers, or inventors. Creative thinking is about challenging our assumptions. It’s important to note that many of us may think of “challenge” as criticism, when it is actually constructive help.  In conducting a brainstorming session, you might consider discussion prompts, such as, how many alternate ways of thinking can be generated?  And, after a promising answer appears, keep asking, “What is possible?” Anyone who enriches a discussion or conversation with wisdom, respect, and dignity is creative. By challenging our assumptions or traditions, we can spark curiosity in ourselves and others in order to find several top-notch solutions. We don’t accept the first encouraging solution, but pay attention to possibility – and thus we can discover an answer far superior than we at first imagined. A library in the role of community anchor can be a great stimulus to creative thinking and activity.

One of your chapters is about taking intelligent risks.  How do you define that?

DS: Librarians are far more experienced in intelligent risk-taking than we might realize. The Latin origin of the word “intelligent” means “the power of discerning.” The Proto-Indo-European origin of the work “risk” means “to leap, climb.” Putting these words together we can define “intelligent risk-taking” as using our ability to discern how to overcome obstacles that seem to be in the way. In other words, we can develop the skill to ask the right questions to prevent short-sightedness and help us think through and understand the book cover for Transform and Thrive: Ideas to Invigorate Your Library and Your Communityobstacles. Each situation requires a different approach and its own set of questions. For example, Bob Kuntz, director of operations and innovation, Carroll County Public Library, asks questions that help staff think through the risks with new and emerging technologies. How might our customers benefit?  Is this a fad or does it have staying power? What should we invest in? What has the best chance of success?

JK: You want to make sure to be aware of the priorities of elected officials. In my experience the alignment of the values of the community, library board, and staff together lay the foundation for taking intelligent risks.  Decisions made which are in alignment with those priorities and values – even if they seem to run counter to traditional views of library service or roles – are intelligent risks to take.  

What’s one of the most persistent barriers to collaboration, and can you give some advice for overcoming it?

JK: One of the most persistent barriers is one that has been with organizations, not just libraries, forever. It has to do with communication and our willingness to actively listen, to be vulnerable, to have honest and direct conversations in a profession where many of us go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. I feel there is strength in vulnerability and when we allow ourselves to build trust, then to be vulnerable and speak directly, the bonds that are built between us are strongest. I believe that our work is about people, not about stuff. Our degree of success, in my opinion, rises and falls commensurate with our ability to connect to coworkers and community members. Teams that can do that, can build something great together.

DS: Many of us have a default tendency or habit of focusing on what is wrong in a situation, but if we tap large or abstract ideas of life, such as respect, discernment, and helpfulness, we can stay in tune with the bigger picture. We can develop a habit and steady attitude of looking for what is right – we don’t ignore problems and challenges, but we try to see the good in people and think about how to correct issues.