Tuesday, November 4, 2014

It's a beautiful day in your neighborhood

I keep the Harvard Business Review's blog in my Twitter feed because it often has posts whose messages can be easily transferred from the business world to libraryland. So when this post entitled "Coworkers should be like neighbors, not like family" showed up last week, I tweeted that I wanted to spend a lot of time thinking about this idea.

In the continuum between strangers and family, Art Markman suggests that colleagues should have relationships akin to that of neighbors. He writes:

Strangers are people with whom we do not have a close connection; if we need their help, we pay them to provide it. Families are people with whom we have a close bond and for whom we do whatever is needed, often expecting nothing in return. In between strangers and family are neighbors — people with whom we have a reasonably close relationship, who offer us help, and expect help in return.

Markman goes on the state that neighborly relationships between colleagues work because everyone has a clear understanding of the organization's goals and a belief that the organization has their best interests in mind. In this type of environment, he posits, people are willing to go out of their way to help each other be successful.

I find the idea of a library as a neighborhood really compelling. Each functional area is like a house in the subdivision. Imagine if Reference lived next to Access Services and one street over from Interlibrary Loan. And Metadata and Cataloging live on the same block and one street over from Preservation. It makes sense to me that each functional area is both independent and interdependent. And if Reference's basement floods, Metadata will be there with towels and mops. Or if Cataloging's dog goes missing, Interlibrary Loan will help put up Lost Dog fliers. Basically, the library is working toward a common goal: Providing users with the information and services they need to be successful. And in this context, it makes sense that each functional area would go out of its way to assist the other.

In this library-as-neighborhood illustration, I can see how certain functional areas would have closer relationships with each other as their interests overlap. Metadata and Cataloging might be closer neighbors as they consider how evolving standards for description affect their work. Or Access Services and Reference might be closer neighbors as the consider the most effective way to assist students with locating and checking out library materials. And cross-departmental teams give members of every household the opportunity to work together to achieve a goal.

The only way our libraries can function as neighborhoods is if we keep firmly at the forefront of our minds our shared goal. When our focus starts to slip toward other things, like the minutia of our daily tasks, we start to become strangers. And, Markman suggests that strangers consider every interaction a pay-for-services interaction. And when working relationships feel more like family, Markman suggests that people become resentful when certain family members don't pull their weight.

Building that neighborly environment requires commitment from both a library's staff and its leadership. It takes effort to ensure that everyone has a common goal in mind and feels like their concerns are being heard and addressed. But, I think it's also really valuable for morale to have a neighborhood that is running well and moving toward a common goal.

I guess, for me, this feeling of neighborliness is what the Unified Library Scene means to me. It's a place where we're all tending to our functional areas and working together across those divides to create the best experience for users. So...won't you be my neighbor?

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