Stephanie Chase, Executive Director of Libraries of Eastern Oregon (USA) explores how libraries can move away from bureaucracy towards a more flexible future.
Stephanie Chase is the Founding Principal of the Constructive Disruption consultancy, which focuses on organizational development and strategy. She is also Executive Director of the Libraries of Eastern Oregon, a resource sharing cooperative that services nearly half of the state of Oregon (USA), and serves on the Public Library Association’s Board of Directors.
In his introductory piece to this series, Brendan Fitzgerald of 641DI stated “Libraries mostly inhabit a world where change is met in a measured way, and it is often slow and hierarchical. This is partly because libraries are built largely on conservative practice.” We in libraries position ourselves as revolutionary, as progressive, and yet structure ourselves to conserve, relying on top-down, command and control management, rigid policies, both for the public and for staff, and siloed departments and workgroups to undertake our work.
From refusing to de-segregate libraries in the United States and the continuation of uneven funding distribution, to maintaining absolutist expressions of neutrality, to creating and continuing to use offensive subject headings, to strictly enforcing codes of conduct despite the over-policing of youth of color, to the requirement of an MLS degree to be a “real” librarian, to the separation of “circulation” and “reference” and direct service to the public versus technical services, the history of modern libraries is full of examples of conserving systems and structures that work for the status quo, even at the expense of our professional core values.12
This foundation of modern library work highlights what Shannon Portillo calls “the myth of bureaucratic neutrality.”3 In many places, because of its permanence, government, including education and higher education, is seen as legitimate; because it claims to serve all, government is seen as neutral; and, therefore the government’s typical structure — bureaucracy — is likewise seen as legitimate, or, at the least, necessary. This notion, over time, becomes institutionalized, reinforcing the structure in place and perpetuating the myth. Fobazi Ettarh eloquently describes some institutional myths as related to library work in her article “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves.”4
As Samantha Slade states in Going Horizontal, “the organizational and institutional forms we take for granted are but one model, and many more models are possible… there are many examples of non-hierarchical societies throughout history and across cultures… the model that prevailed was a vertical one… a model that supported the extractive and colonialist values of earlier times… human well-being was not the focus at the origins of the hierarchical organizational model.”5
Portillo’s article focuses on longstanding hiring practices in government, and how those hiring practices continue to favor what was described above as values to conserve. As modern Western-style municipal governments and educational institutions began to structure themselves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “and administrators began to look for the objectively best way to manage organizations, native-born White men were not only seen as the ideal type of worker, they were often the only workers on whom “objective” standards were modeled. As native-born White male workers became the “objective” standard, their identities were taken for granted and seen as neutral.... Through these reforms, the idea of neutrality went hand and hand with the presumption of who was leading and working in an organization, making the idea of women and/or people of color setting agendas, making decisions, or designing administrative processes became “othered” by default.”
Libraries could be a collective resource supporting women, families, the poor, the historically excluded, and the systemically marginalized. Even as we try to do this work, adapting to the changing world around us, libraries too often try to do so using bureaucratic structures and solutions that are antithetical to the work — structures and systems based on the bureaucratic myth of neutrality outlined by Portillo, standards developed to benefit one group that have become the “objective” norm. Siloed work groups, competing for resources, with communication paths moving only down that vertical hierarchy strips us of our effectiveness.
Each element of that perceived neutral bureaucratic structure should be reviewed and rethought, and no element may be more powerful than how libraries prioritize who is hired and the structures put in place to support employees. Our org charts are far more important than we may have ever given them credit for, and they are the key to the ability of libraries to adapt.
Flexibility isn’t just about multi-use spaces or furniture on wheels or offering alternative work schedules. It is the ability to pivot, and the willingness to do so quickly, or even proactively. It requires us to firmly, and with conviction, move away from “the way we have always done it,” and recognize the processes, practices, structures, and systems Western-style libraries are built on, as well as the “best practices” we often fall back on, are deeply rooted not in free and open access, but in the desire to force assimilation. Understanding the systems on which our libraries rest and seeking to subvert them is the flexibility required of libraries today.
Libraries must seek to support staff using models other than the bureaucratic vertical hierarchy, grouping staff into self-managed teams that are built on staff strengths in order to respond to community needs. Organizational development practitioner Frank Ostroff highlighted this more than 20 years ago in The Horizontal Organization: staff should be “organize[d] around cross-functional core processes, not tasks or functions… [with] teams, not individuals, the cornerstone of organizational design and performance…6 Empower people by giving them the tools, skills, motivation, and authority to make decisions essential to the team’s performance.” To structure in this way is as flexible as the differing strengths and experiences of your staff, and self-management and distributed decision-making allows for in-the-moment adaptation.
Yet, bureaucracy and a vertical hierarchy remains the standard. It is difficult to find large-scale examples of governmental organizations and libraries moving towards new structures, though my own former library in Hillsboro, Oregon (USA)7 and the State Library of Montana8 offer two. Now is an incredible moment to make change: the past 18 months of the pandemic have shown us staff not only are capable of, but can thrive when working independently, as many had to work from home or with significantly reduced on-site numbers, and that we must broaden the perspectives we have at the table, as we may have consulted staff otherwise typically left out of decision-making, such as our custodial/sanitation staff. There may have been relief in shared decision-making, as highlighted in this survey of public libraries in New South Wales.9
Imagine the new voices and ideas that will come to light if we replace a governmental staffing structure built on machine-focused efficiency, quantitative productivity, and restrictive uniformity with one truly built on adhering to core values, on staff strengths, skills, and interests, and on the change that comes from the redistribution of power from the individual to the collective good.
1 IFLA Core Values, https://www.ifla.org/about/more
2 ALA Core Values of Librarianship, https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/corevalues
3 Portillo, Shannon, Domonic Bearfield, and Nicole Humphrey. "The Myth of Bureaucratic Neutrality: Institutionalized Inequity in Local Government Hiring." Review of Public Personnel Administration (2019).
4 Ettarh, Fobazi. "Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves." In The Library With The Lead Pipe (2018). Published 10 Jan. 2018. Web. Accessed 12 July 2021.
5 https://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2018/vocational-awe/ Slade, Samantha. Going Horizontal: Creating a Non-Hierarchical Organization, One Practice at a Time. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2018. Pages viii, 8.
6 Ostroff, Frank. The Horizontal Organization: What the Organization of the Future Looks Like and How It Delivers Value to Customers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999. Page 10.
7Chase, Stephanie. “Evolving Public Libraries.” Public Libraries (2019), published 30 September 2019. Accessed 31 July 2021.
8http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2019/09/evolving-public-libraries/ https://docs.msl.mt.gov/aboutweb/documents/OrgChart4_names.pdf, see page 2.
9“NSW Public Libraries — the COVID-19 Response. https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/public-library-services/covid-19-survey. Accessed 31 July 2021.
- Ettarh, Fobazi. "Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves." In The Library With The Lead Pipe (2018). Published 10 Jan. 2018. Web. Accessed 12 July 2021. https://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2018/vocational-awe/
- Ostroff, Frank. The Horizontal Organization: What the Organization of the Future Looks Like and How It Delivers Value to Customers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.
- Portillo, Shannon, Domonic Bearfield, and Nicole Humphrey. "The Myth of Bureaucratic Neutrality: Institutionalized Inequity in Local Government Hiring." Review of Public Personnel Administration (2019). Print.
- Slade, Samantha. Going Horizontal: Creating a Non-Hierarchical Organization, One Practice at a Time. Oakland, CA; Berrett-Koehler, 2018. Print.
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