For the second post in this series, I spent time with Deb Drury, Director of the Elizabethtown Public Library. The first thing you’ll notice about the Web site that I’ve linked to, is that there are no names–not even the director’s–listed anywhere on the site, at least not that I could find. Instead, there is a “team” tab that explains the philosophy of the library’s work environment. And as you’ll see as you read the story below, this pretty much explains Deb’s overreaching goal as a library director. In fact, she has two overreaching goals–one as a director and one as a librarian, both of which will become clear. Deb likes to keep things simple and get to the heart of the matter.
The whole point of doing this series is so that I can listen, learn, and grow and then share that information because we all learn from each other. One thing I’ve quickly learned is that one format is not going to work for these posts because the view from each director’s desk is so different, which is what makes all of this so interesting. I’ve learned new things from both Kathy and Deb, and what I learned this time is that Deb is interested in having her message mingled with my own because she values individual voices. So what follows contains much more of me than the prior post–more of my take on our conversation. It’s empowering to be asked to use your voice to interpret someone’s words. And as Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker (Spiderman), “With great power comes great responsibility.” I take that responsibility very seriously.
As you may know, I’m not particularly fond of rigid structures, formats, or consistency anyway. Our conversation would be difficult to contain within the format that I’ve outlined for myself since Deb basically took my ten questions, turned them upside down, and set her own agenda–in a very good way. Our discussion was encompassing and far-reaching (I have about 1 hour and 40 minutes of recorded conversation), and so I will turn my format upside down to match–summarizing the gist of what was said using actual quotes to illustrate specific points. Deb asked a team member–Aimee Nelson, Director of Operations–to sit with us, too, so some of what Aimee had to say will be included.
What follows is the view from both sides of one director’s desk.
The Elizabethtown Public Library has been situated at its current location–“a multi-level facility in the heart of the downtown community”–for almost 12 years. Upon entering the building, which is part historic and part renovated to code, I noticed three things immediately–it is a bright, open, airy space with welcoming signage. And I smelled coffee, which we’ll get to later. As I was waiting for Deb to come and meet me, I also noticed one sign in particular sitting on part of the front, large, rounded desk that quoted Walt Disney as follows: “Around here, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” I’m actually not certain, from memory, if the sign used the entire quote, but I am certain that is used at least the beginning portion of it. You get the idea.
The first thing Deb did was to take me to the basement level. The basement serves multiple purposes. The library is hosting a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) pick-up site for Lancaster Farm Fresh. As we walked by the drop-off table, Deb snatched one lonely pint of strawberries, which was the only item left on the table and which would not have survived much longer. Along the same hallway, we stopped to admire a pile of huge burlap bags that contained green coffee (coffee in its natural state) that is bought a pallet at a time from various countries all across the central band region. The coffee is all small-farmed with the exception of one variety that is only grown on large farms. The basement provides optimal conditions for storing the green coffee for up to 2 1/2 years, if necessary. Why does the library store coffee? Because the library is also home to the Elizabethtown Coffee Company, which roasts its own beans on the premise. More on that in a bit.
Next we entered a room that housed a variety of leftover items from various programming events. The room serves as a staging area for evaluating material that can be removed from off-site storage. The room is also the venue for board meetings, or “meeting in the closet” as Deb called it. She said that a lot of places give their boards “This kind of lush view of the world. We don’t do that. They get to be in the least favorable place because we want the favorable places to be available for the public.”
We went upstairs to the ground level and looked around the stacks as Deb stopped to introduce me to team members along the way. And then we headed directly for The Coffee Company, where Deb showed me the roaster. Deb explained that because “coffee is kind of part of who we are as people and one of our biggest priorities is connecting people to each other. So, we connect people to each other, to the information they need, and then to whatever resources are required to do what it is they want to do.” The library has a roastmaster as part of its team, but among other things, Deb happens to be a certified barista trainer. The roasted coffee is stored in containers separated by variety on shelves nearby. The beans take anywhere from 12-27 minutes to roast (the longer, the darker). The roasting process is actually like popping corn, as the beans “crack” several times before they are fully roasted. And it smells so good.
Then up to the second level. On the way, Deb showed me their “collection” of folding tables and chairs, which are cataloged (I can attest to that) and circulate. They are wildly popular. Deb said they could probably double the quantity and still not have enough to satisfy demand.
The second level is where the children’s area is housed in another equally bright, open, airy space with lots of windows. There is a great room dedicated to the YA collection, which looks like a comfortable hangout for teens. There is an attractive display for the shape cake pans that are available to circulate.
Still meeting and talking to team members along the way, we head for Deb’s office. After Deb kindly provided me with a cup of freshly roasted coffee (delicious), and after she invited Aimee to take a seat with us (in case I needed to know anything “traditional,”) we started the “formal” part of our conversation, and I went through my list of ten questions, although as I stated at the outset, the content of our conversation doesn’t necessarily correlate well with my questions. So, as a reminder, these were my 10 questions-
~How long have you been the director here and how did you come by the job?
~How long have you worked in libraries?
~If you could say only one thing about your library, what is it that you would most want people to know?
~If money were not an obstacle, what is the first thing you would change about your library and why?
~How have funding cuts in recent years affected your library?
~What do you believe are the greatest challenges facing your library today?
~What do you say to someone who believes that the library is not essential to your community and no longer relevant in society?
~What aspect of your job do you find most rewarding, and what are you most proud of having accomplished here and why?
~If you had to weigh against each other the following facets of the library: physical space, collection, services and programs, which element would you say will be the most essential for libraries to maintain or grow in the future and why?
~If we sit down again in ten years, what do you hope you will be able to say to me about the library?
~Anything else you want to add?
And this is the story that unfolded from the answers-
As stated previously, Deb has two primary goals as a director and as a librarian–to take care of her team and to help make dreams come true. The tagline for the library is Making Dreams Come True. “Educating, empowering, enriching, stimulating. Those are the words we use when we talk about who we are. We don’t have an agenda. It’s not about us. It’s about whoever you are. We should almost be like an invisible tool that enables you to achieve whatever it is that you want to achieve.”
This is Deb’s first permanent library position. She has been at Elizabethtown for ten years and it was an “accident.” She got her MLS while working as a consultant for library turnaround projects out of the area, which is where she realized that in order to actually work at a certain level in this profession you had to have this degree. Family issues brought her back to Lancaster County, where she thought she would remain for six months. Instead, after working at the library for a time, the board asked her if she would become the director because they liked what they saw. Deb said, “Yes, for a while. But a while hasn’t ended yet.”
As the director, CEO, and “facilities manager” (“It may say CEO on my business card, but I’m really the facilities manager.”), Deb’s primary goal is to “take care of my people–my team. Their responsibility is to take care of those people who come in from outside.” What happens as a result of that is that Deb’s people, in turn, take care of her even though “it’s not on anyone’s job description.” “It’s a lot of never-ending work to achieve that kind of culture. It’s like family stuff. You work at it every single day, and it’s usually the stuff that looks like it doesn’t even matter that matters the most. Showing up. Just being there. My job is to empower my people and to give them what they need to do their jobs. And if I do that, we all win. I hire good people and hold them accountable to doing good work.”
As a librarian, Deb’s focus is most certainly on defending “the freedom of people.” “We will not judge you. We’re not going to keep a record of it. Chances are we won’t remember it, not intentionally, though.” Deb’s focus is not on the day-to-day like story time or the summer reading program. That’s because her team has clear direction and they care about those things so that Deb can “care about what our purpose is. And our real purpose is that we defend people’s freedoms to do whatever it is they want to do. That’s what we do. Where is the only place on the planet that you can go, get information, and somebody else comes in and says, so, what did so and so request? And we look at them and say, Who? Protecting personal freedoms–that’s what gets me out of bed in the mornings.”
Deb does get frustrated, though, that while the ultimate purpose of the library is to help people reach their goals, there doesn’t seem to be enough people with goals anymore. “I’m disturbed at the diminishing capacities of humans to utilize their potential or even recognize that they have potential. Motivation is sometimes lacking. “I also get frustrated with the disconnection that some of my peers in this profession have to their purpose. Who cares about the color of a label? How about asking if we really need the label in the first place?”
Deb believes that part of that disconnection comes from the failure of library schools to teach the things that are central to the success of a library. “They don’t talk about budgeting. They don’t talk about fiscal control, facility management, empowering teams, organizational culture, outreach, or fundraising. And I don’t think ever once did anyone ever mention why are we doing this? It was all about the task-orientation.” Deb strongly believes that the library/information science degree should be an undergraduate degree. However, she does believe there should be a “graduate component,” which could be something like an advanced degree in childhood education or nonprofit management, social work, business administration, accounting…whatever would be relevant and helpful in taking the library to that next level.
Deb also understands that in the traditional library world, “What we have is what matters. We count what we have and that matters. And here (at Elizabethtown), we’re much more about community and outreach and engaging and then that other stuff happens. But it’s the way we do things, not what we do. But in the typical library world, what matters is what we do not how we do it.” I asked whether her board was okay with her non-traditional approach. “My board rocks. Aimee, do you want to tell her what I say after every, single board meeting?” Aimee said, “She looks at me and takes a deep breath and says, what other group of people could get together and talk about this stuff and have so much fun?” Deb continued, “We have a culture of high trust. Fun matters (evidenced by the fact that during our entire conversation, Deb was playing with a Rubrik and at one point fashioned an awesome green dog). We get a lot done. That’s the kind of environment we have and should have. I did a lot of board consulting before for not-for-profit turnaround, and I get frustrated when I see ineffective boards because it doesn’t have to be that way.”
As you’ll hear from most library directors, Deb believes that most obstacles eventually all go back to funding, or the lack of it. Funding and lack of time, which also goes back to funding. When the funding cuts hit a high in 2008, “We closed on Fridays. I fired some people. We spent less on collection purchases, although we’re starting to ramp that back up (because declining circulation drastically affected their state funding last year thanks to a revamped funding formula, which unfortunately [my commentary] relies heavily on circulation statistics. It’s particularly unfortunate for a library like Elizabethtown that sees its primary goal as “outreach–services and programs,” which are more difficult to measure and value.) Aimee added that they’ve had to be “more careful with all spending.” Deb continued by describing the unfortunate timing of the decision to launch the Coffee Company four days before funding crashed. When I asked if she regretted it, she said, “Oh, no. I don’t really have any regrets at all in life. Regrets don’t really get you anywhere.”
If funding were not an issue, the team at Elizabethtown would include in its priority list of “must-haves” installing a sliding glass door on the far wall in Deb’s office, as well as a dumb-waiter, so holding team meetings wouldn’t require walking around a wall and so that Deb could just call down for her coffee. That’s not just frivolous thinking–“It symbolizes a lot more. That’s who we are. We do a lot of collaboration.” They would also replace the elevator, which is the “bane” of Deb’s existence. “It bleeds money.”
Money may be a powerful force, but Deb believes in the power of words, too. She has strong negative feelings about the (overused and misused) word “communication” as well as the word “staff,” which reminds Deb of the disease (spelled differently, but sounds the same nonetheless) that was part of her former career in nursing. “The words we use really, really matter. My ‘team’ is a team because that’s what we are. They’re not some disease.” As far as communication, “Right now it seems to mean that we say a whole bunch of stuff, and as long as we say a whole bunch of stuff while we’re standing or sitting near other people, then that’s good enough. We should just get rid of it. The word has been murdered so badly that it will never be returned. We need better communication? No. We need to get stuff done. Shut up already and work!”
Deb understands and can identify her own weaknesses, too, and she isn’t afraid to admit to them. “I’m not good at traditional library speak. In fact, I’m really bad at traditional library speak. I need to figure out how to basically do better in the typical, traditional library speak when I need to do that. Or else I need to have someone else do that for me.”She believes that leaders should tell their people their weaknesses because “your people already know what they are. They want to know that you know what they are.”
Deb’s ultimate goal is “To not be needed. That’s my job. My goal is to not be needed. A couple of years ago I told my board that we should start working on a sustainability plan that would continue to work after I’m not here anymore. We need to figure out how this organization is going to operate successfully and culturally and in every other important way without me. Because if the organization is dependent on my presence then we haven’t done a very good job. Actually, we’ve then done a really bad job.”
“It’s not about me.”