Library bubbles

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bubbles. Not the floaty, shiny kind of bubbles, but the kind where you might not even realize you are encased in one, with other people. 

In the library world, we’ve been using the word “silo” more than “bubble”, and I have written about that before. It’s really destructive to focus on your own department and ignore or even do battle with the others. And in one way, the pandemic really helped break down some walls. I will always remember our first all-staff Zoom meeting, and the visible joy everyone felt in seeing each others’ faces again. We kept those meetings up, and often had over 60 in attendance. It was a chance to share information, talk through strategies, and tell stories. I loved them.

There were also the individual departmental meetings, and those were more of a mixed blessing from a management point of view. On the one hand, it was great for departments to be able to have focused meetings to plan programs, solve logistical issues, and most of all to support each other through what was for many a very lonely, scary time. (I think we sometimes forget just how scary it was for a few months, pre-vaccine.) I know that the department heads staggered under the weight of supporting their staff members, and it was a challenge. The meetings were also vital because when we divided up into teams and were working different schedules, it was an effective way to bring everyone up to speed.

On the other hand, having frequent meetings with just your own department bred a little bit of an Us Against the World mentality at times. One of the easiest ways to bond a group together is to have a common enemy, and if just one person feels that one department wasn’t pulling its weight, or if two staff members from different departments had a disagreement, that unintentionally made the departments close ranks. There was also occasionally a feeling that nobody realized how hard THEY had it compared to the other departments. I was always very focused on Youth Services when I was the department head, and saw it as my role to advocate for my staff and customers, and I’ll bet I kept us in our bubble way too much.

As director, I tried to dismantle some of the bubbles by forming several cross-departmental committees, but the pandemic firmed up those bubbles again. Savvy department heads will spend some time focusing on this in the next few months. It would be smart for them to come up with a list of phrases that might be signals that the bubble is getting stronger, like, “We are the only department that…” and agree on trying to cut those sentences off. Of course, at NMDL, there is a lot of group building going on through their work with AFSCME, so it’s possible it won’t be as necessary. 

The other place where bubbles are a big problem are in the community. We all know about the bubbles created by only talking on social media to people who feel the same way that we do, and that’s a very real issue. But the one I see having a huge impact on the Niles-Maine District Library is that the Board is made up of trustees who literally live within a few blocks of each other and attend the same church. That has created a very problematic bubble, because so much of their interaction is with people who are very much like themselves. Yet the library district is extremely diverse. When the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) spent some time developing a plan for the unincorporated area that the library serves, they concluded that if it was its own municipal area, it would be second only to Chicago in its diversity.

So it’s really a problem that the entire board is white and has English as their primary language in a community serving so many different cultures and ethnic groups. I think it is very challenging to serve multiple groups and to listen to them, understanding that they may have a very different and equally important point of view. But the Board has an opportunity now to try to expand their bubble in a truly meaningful way, because at the last Board meeting Trustee Hanusiak stepped down, and it will be up to the Board to agree on a trustee to serve until the next election. I very much hope that they make sure that it’s not just their friends and neighbors who hear the word that they can apply to be a trustee and be interviewed by the Board–that word needs to get out to unincorporated Maine Township, where there are plenty of people who could put forward the needs of some of the other taxpayers. Ideally, it would be a person of color.

At various times in the past, the library had a branch to the north in two different locations, and also had a bookmobile that is still remembered very fondly. It is a long, skinny district with the library building located at one end. That means that getting more than a superficial understanding of the people living at the other end takes hard work, the kind where some of the things you try inevitably will fail. It is so much easier to be satisfied with the status quo, and to talk with the people that you already have a lot in common with, because they understand you and you understand them. It takes real effort to talk to people you have less in common with, and it’s absolutely necessary.

Bubbles are beautiful, and airy, and sometimes surprisingly tough. But the truth is, when you are inside of a bubble, you are stuck. Staff shouldn’t be stuck, and neither should the board of trustees. 

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