Cutting edge libraries these days are changing up the way they do things. Management teams look at the traditional ways that libraries are set up, with an Adult Services Department and a Youth Services Department and a Technical Services Department and a Circulation Department and they get frustrated with what they like to call “silos”. The idea of a silo is that people in each area stay unto themselves. It impedes collaboration and innovation when the people in your library don’t spend time together working for the overall good of the library and stay in their silos.
So some public libraries are trying to break down the silos by organizing the functions of the library in different ways. They may put all of their programming specialists together in one department. They may pull the materials selection out of the departments and into the Technical Services Department which is often then called Materials Handling. They may have a Customer Service Department that has responsibilities at all of the library desks so there is a uniform level of service offered. They may combine their adult, teen and children’s desks into one big desk where all questions are answered. They may be eliminating the desks altogether and going with “roaming” librarians armed with an iPad and a headset. These are all things that are currently happening at libraries in the Chicago area where I work.
For the people working with adults, I think any of these things can work very well. But too many children’s managers get stuck in the extremely unpleasant position of trying to defend the status quo and thus being perceived as being balky, or stodgy, or unwilling to change. I’m sure in some cases that is true, and yet I think most of the time their concerns are rightly with their particular patrons. Child development means that a six-month-old is a very different creature from a two-year-old who is very unlike a six-year-old who again differs in many ways from an 11-year-old. On the other hand, a 25-year-old is not that different from a 65-year-old. They have some different interests, sometimes, and as patrons age they have some new needs for different formats, perhaps, but by and large they are a lot the same.
Children’s librarians must deal with the needs of all of their different patrons (including the parents and grandparents and teachers and caregivers) all of the time. As a very smart children’s manager mentioned to me recently, they know that you can’t get rid of your children’s desk and just use roaming librarians, because kids aren’t supposed to approach friendly-looking strangers who are standing around. They need to go to the official desk, where they learn through experience that those are the children’s librarians and they are helpful and nice. Children’s managers know that programming for the age groups is widely varied, and because they work with the children in the department, they get a feel for what will work, what won’t, what will be thrilling (Minecraft!) and what might flop (Online Homework Help). They know what is developmentally appropriate and what time of day children of those ages are likely to come to the library in a way that someone off in a programming department with little-to-no desk time cannot know.
So because children’s has always been about hands-on experiences, and interactivity and proactive offers of help and instruction to patrons, it can be frustrating to be told that management has discovered those things and they now feel they know more about them than the children’s staff. In the worst-case situations, the children’s supervisors are marginalized and their authority and control is gradually eroded.
As someone who has been in upper management for the past five years, I hear some of my colleagues at other libraries talking with exasperation and sometimes even rolling their eyes at the pig-headed youth services people. And to me, it seems like the breaking down of silos is resulting in a new set of silos, especially if we aren’t doing a good job of listening to each other. Change is not a bad thing, but when it is handled with top-down authority without paying attention to the people who have first-person knowledge, it is going to end up being changed back, something that has happened in several libraries in my area.
Find other ways to break down the silos. Put together teams to work on projects or areas. Do cross-training so staff can get first-hand experience at working with other patrons. Work with sub-groups of staff to plan for the future. Get people talking. And respect the knowledge and experience of your children’s managers. They know what they are talking about.