Monday, June 22, 2009
There's something to be said for Fearless Leaders
I'm so excited! In two weeks, the Los Angeles Public Library will have a new City Librarian, almost a year after the retirement of Fontayne Holmes. All I know about Martin Gomez are the bits and pieces I've read in articles and online, but I have very high hopes.
First of all, Mr. Gomez is a big supporter of the library out-of-school-time (OST) movement, which he helped to develop as president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council. Partnering with other neighborhood youth agencies to offer services and programs based on sound research about what kids need and the best way to meet those needs - it just makes so much sense. And Mr. Gomez's obvious interest in youth services can only mean good things for LAPL.
Mr. Gomez also seems, to judge from an interview that ran in the December 2006 American Libraries, to be a proponent of outcomes-based planning and measuring. LAPL, like many library systems, currently measures the effectiveness of its programs and services mainly by output - how many kids sign up for the Summer Reading Club, for example - rather than outcome - figuring out the goal or outcome to be achieved and then figuring out if that outcome was achieved. As Mr. Gomez says in the AL interview, "We also need to take on the rigor of acountability and not be afraid of where that might lead us. Funding requires accountability. you may have programs in place, but the challenge is to benchmark your outcomes." We need to plan our programs more effectively, targeting specific outcomes based on our community's needs, and then be rigorous about collecting data about our programs. If we do this with thought and care, our community will benefit - and our funding agencies and donors will be impressed.
I'm also hoping for a wee bit of innovation. We are one of the biggest library systems in the United States, but we are far from being on the forefront of innovation. Early adaptors we are most emphatically not, and (like a huge and unwieldy ship), we don't change our course easily or quickly. What we need is a strong leader who can set us on a course toward the future and encourage us to try out new technologies and ideas. Right now we are cautious to the point of outright fear, and it makes us look bad. We shouldn't have to pitch, over and over with absolutely no luck so far, the not-particularly-outrageous idea of an internal wiki for the children's librarians in our farflung 71 branches. This is 2009, for pete's sake. Let's embrace technology that helps us do our jobs better, not push it away out of ignorance.
What does Mr. Gomez say in the interview about innovation? "Maybe there are things we can let go of so we can embrace new needs. In some ways, our traditions encumber us. We need to balance tradition with innovation." Yeah, that's a little scary - but it's also rather thrilling because our need to change and grow is so great.
There are many ways Mr. Gomez could take our wonderful library system and make it truly great. Communication would be my own number one priority - if our powerful administration could learn to feel comfortable with sharing the decision-making (or at least the rationale behind the decision-making) with the rest of us and and with inviting real input from the truly talented, smart, and creative staff members who don't happen to inhabit the upper echelons of our organizational chart, LAPL would be a much stronger institution.
A library system that look out at trail-blazers in the field to observe what other libraries are doing and then adopted and adapted the best practices for our own use would be a wonderful thing, and I get the feeling that Mr. Gomez is aware that a whole amazing world of libraries exists outside of LAPL. We are so big - and so good at many things - that many of our adminstrative folks seem to forget that books, articles, conference programs, and blog posts are regularly promoting new ideas about everything from library management to strategic planning to early literacy to AV formats. I comb professional literature and the internet voraciously and read up on everything I can - and sometimes I feel that LAPL lives in a separate, alternate universe from the rest of our profession. It would be nice to utter the phrase "library 2.0 for kids" and not have folks blink at me with incomprehension or alarm.
Mr. Gomez, I suspect that LAPL and Mayor Villaraigosa did a truly wonderful thing when they hired you. It's going to be hard, sweaty work shaking up this venerable, stodgy institution - but it will be worth it. We have three huge assets - our excellent library buildings (Central and the branches alike), our strong and diverse materials collection, and (most of all) some of the best librarians you'll ever find anywhere. Harness these assets, treat them with the respect and honor they deserve, and there is no limit to the greatness the Los Angeles Public Library can achieve.