ON LIBRARIES: Understanding and Using Culture

What is your school’s culture?  What is your library’s culture? Both affect how you do your job, how you present yourself, and whether you are regarded as a leader. I blogged on this topic back in January, but a recent article made me want to revisit the topic.

Readers may recall I worked in two districts with dramatically different cultures. The first voted down twenty budgets in the twenty-two years I was there. The second district passed every budget in the nine years I was there.  This district prided itself on its history and its ability and willingness to support the school system. They viewed themselves as a lighthouse district.  Indeed, pride along with diversity are still present on the district’s home page, mission, and superintendent’s vision.

Knowing the culture of the two districts affected how I proposed my annual budget requests and projects. At the first school, everything was couched in terms of how my request(s) would be cost-saving. (Every dollar spent in the library affects all students.)  I overheard a business teacher speaking to her department chair saying, “We don’t need new textbooks as long as Hilda’s library is up-to-date.” In the second school, I promoted my requests and ideas as a means of moving the school forward. In preparatory discussions with administrators, I would compare what I was seeking with what was happening in other leading school districts and libraries. I could be asking for the same thing in each school, but I framed it differently to fit the culture.

So if you’re (still) struggling with working within your school’s culture, you may appreciate the idea s from an article in Harvard Business Review where John Coleman discusses the Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture. Although he is addressing the business world much of what he says relates or is adaptable to education and the school library.

Coleman starts with Vision. He states, “A great culture starts with a vision or mission statement.” I have been promoting this for years. Your Vision and/or Mission must guide every decision you make. It sets the tone for everything.  Don’t have one yet?  Get started.  You won’t be able to successfully advocate for your program without it. Also, make sure you know the vision for your school or school district. The more in line you can be, the easier your advocacy.

Next is Values.  According to Coleman, “A company’s values are the core of its culture.” This ties into your Philosophy which probably includes a statement that the library “is a safe, welcoming environment for all.”.  We also have our Common Beliefs as given in the National School Library Standards. As librarians, we have our ALA Bill of Rights and the ALA Code of Ethics.  To enhance your understanding, you might also reflect on your school’s and district’s values – both stated and unstated

Third is Practices. “Values are of little importance unless they are enshrined in a company’s practices.” How many times have we heard administrators say, “The library is the heart of the school,” only to see them eliminate the budget, close the library for numerous occasions, and in other ways indicate the statement is a platitude, not a reality. (This speaks to those unstated values). You can support this by truly doing all you can to carry out your Vision/Mission and Values. If this is something you are struggling with, how can you change this or get help?

People is (are?) fourth. As Coleman says, “No company can build a coherent culture without people who either share its core values or possess the willingness and ability to embrace those values.” These “people” are your advocates.  Are there teachers who share your values and value the library? What about your administrator? Any outside volunteers? This is why you need to communicate your Vision – and your Values.  And are you showing you value the contributions of those around you? If you need support on this, go to the National School Library Standards portal, clicking on Administrators or Educators to get the appropriate resources.

The fifth contributor to an institution’s culture is Narrative. This is where the power of emotions comes in.  You need to tell your library’s story and embed it in the awareness of your stakeholders. Use emotional content and visuals to reach your audience. Where have you seen your program making a noticeable difference in the lives of students? Why is it not only valuable but indispensable? Have students worked on college applications at the library? Try to get pictures when they’re accepted. Have students put something they’ve learned in the library into action (such as a community garden)? Make sure to show the connection – and the excitement. Do quarterly reports highlighting student learning using various tech resources such as Canva, Piktochart or your favorite site. Get your narrative out into the community with social media.

Finally, there is Place.  The look of your facility is the first thing greeting all who enter.  What message is it sending? Is it aligned with your Vision and Values or is there a disconnect? I’ve written about a list of rules being the first thing people see and how that can be a barrier. Where is the visual excitement of your space?

You create the culture for your library.  By taking stock of how yours measures up to these six components, you can make it a strong statement of who, what, and why you are.  Also, match these six to identify your school culture.  How well is the library culture aligned with the school culture? Again, is there a disconnect?  If so, develop a strategic advocacy plan to make inroads on the school culture so that it will embrace the value of the school library and make certain you are using your awareness of the culture to support your initiatives.  A challenging culture doesn’t mean you won’t get what you need. It means you’ll have to look for or develop new ways to success.

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ON LIBRARIES – The Value of Values

valuesI have often written and spoken about the importance of having a Mission and a Vision Statement.  They keep you grounded and focused when you are being pulled in multiple directions by students, teachers, and administrators. They also guide you in determining where and why you want to take your program next.

What I haven’t really discussed was the even greater importance of Values.  Mission and Vision are powerful and succinct.  They are usually short so you can memorize and display them for others to see. Values speak to the core of who you are and what you believe.  They should be completely internalized.

Consider first how your values affect your life outside the library.  How you honor your marriage, raise your children, treat your friends, and all the interactions of your daily life are rooted in your values.  Without much thought, you make many decisions based on your values.  The same is true for you as a librarian.whats-important

When you write a Philosophy Statement, as I have my students do in my Management of the School Library Program course, I suggest they look at the “Common Beliefs” at the beginning of the AASL Standards for the 21st-Century Learner to start their thinking process. They are then to consider what they feel a school library program should embody and communicate.

Philosophy Statements generally run from 2/3 to a full page and are, in essence, a statement of your values.  For me, one of the most important value I hold is that the library must be a safe, welcoming space for all.  This has always been important, but it is clearly needed now more than ever.

safe-place-3It seems like such a simple sentence, but when it’s put into practice, it has many implications for you and your program.  Is your collection diverse?  Does it truly reflect your student body?  Are there books in fiction and nonfiction by and about Latinos, African Americans, Muslims and others who make up your school and community population?  Are there titles about homelessness or a parent in jail?  Your students need to see themselves in your collection.

One of the very difficult questions and decisions facing school libraries is buying and shelving LGBTQ books.  Depending on your community and geography, it can be a hard decision, but if one of your values is that the library is a safe, welcoming environment, your choice is to purchase those books or go against your values.

It’s easier if you haven’t identified your values. Then you can dodge the issue, but is that the person you are or want to be? Is that the program you want to lead?

As a member of ALA’s Committee on Professional Ethics, I have been looking at ALA’s Code of Ethics. This represents the Values of our profession.  It’s well worth reading.  This code is one of the things which make me proud to be a librarian even as I sometimes feel challenged to live up to these values. I have been focusing on section VII which reads:code-of-ethics

“We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.”

It’s not always easy to set our personal convictions aside, but it’s our responsibility to do so.  Our values should be governing our decisions.

While at ALA Midwinter in Atlanta, I learned that there seems to be “less interest” in our values. Programs at state and national conferences lean heavily to the practical. But the practical need to be rooted in something.  Our values as librarians, give us a uniting bond with each other.  It makes our organization strong and keeps us all on the same page (no pun intended).

intellectual-freedomI urge you to get in touch with our values as librarians.  Bookmark the Intellectual Freedom page and become familiar with the key documents. Start reading the Intellectual Freedom Blog.  You should know what ALA is doing concerning the issue. Most recently OIF condemned government agency censorship.

What are your Values as a librarian? How do they affect the way you do your job?  What are your Values in your personal life?  How have they influenced your choices? (Don’t you love my Essential Questions at the end of each blog?)