How To Speak Up For Change In Your Library

How To Speak Up For Change In Your Library

Creating a library ‘safe mode’.

Maria has been working as a children’s librarian at her library for 10 years, she knows her job and she knows her colleagues. Maria is always looking for ways to get more kids interested in reading and having fun at the library. Maria has lots of great ideas from other childrens’ librarians in other libraries but there is no way she could convince anyone in her library to support her. They’re just too busy.

Eddie is a subject liaison librarian at a university library. He liaises with about 40 staff across 3 departments and he is exhausted. Eddie would quite like to try a different approach but he doesn’t have the energy to put a case forward when he knows he is likely to be knocked back because none of the other liaison librarians think it will make any difference.

Both Maria and Eddie have ideas that might achieve benefits for both themselves, the library and their communities but they are being held back by the habits and mindsets of their colleagues who don’t have the courage to unlearn what is holding them back – colleagues who have aligned and streamlined themselves with what used to be (possibly even best practice), rather than with what’s next.

In a world of continuous change, unlearning old rules and relearning new ones is increasingly important. It is something I don’t think we do enough of in libraries because unlearning old rules can be unsettling and threatening to some colleagues and sometimes we feel it isn’t safe to speak up for change.


So how can we have (potentially unsettling) conversations in our libraries where both sides are heard and an informed decision can be made for the benefit of those we serve?

Tackling Libraries Sacred Cows With Structured Debate written by Kimberly Knight offers what I think is a great approach.

An individual might be labeled a “heretic” and shunned for pushing back on group norms. Silence, however, may feed into groupthink and cause an organization to miss out on opportunities to improve and innovate. Instead of going it alone, Dattner suggests we try randomly assigning team members to argue for and against the issue under discussion. “Structured debates can provide the opportunity to rigorously discuss and dispute interpretations of current trends, as well as future predictions, in a kind of organizational ’safe mode‘ that enables teams to explore risks without putting individual members of the team at internal risk,” he said.

Staff could be tasked with finding evidence to support their case and then have both sides present back to the rest of the staff, perhaps at the next staff meeting. If nothing else it’s a great way to maintain current awareness!

Below are a few examples of what we, as library staff might want to use a structured debate to speak up about.

  • Are our subject guides worth maintaining?
  • Can volunteers provide expertise in areas we don’t have (such as student promotion)?
  • Are our displays worth the effort we put in?
  • Could liaison librarians specialise in a function (ie teaching or developing faculty relationships) rather than specialise in a subject?
  • Why do we have a separate reference collection?
  • Could we collaborate with organisations to offer expertise to our community members, in areas we aren’t expert in (perhaps social services)?
  • Are our electronic databases really worth the money we spend?
  • Would more families attend storytime sessions if they were held in the weekend?
  • Could library staff facilitate, coach and mentor teens through the development of new teen library services and programmes?

What do you think?

Do you think a structured debate approach would be worth trying in your library?




  1. Deborah Hogg says:

    Hi Sally, this is a great reflection and some interesting examples. Last week, I had the amazing good fortune to attend a presentation at Fisher Library at the University of Sydney and some of the issues you raise were covered there. While this is an academic library and therefore not the same staffing nor purposes of my school library focus, I found it fascinating to hear from each of their heads of department and get an introduction to their roles. I came away with a very strong sense of their focus on “organisational development” and their recognition that “the future is not defined” for libraries. Their incorporation of design thinking, core elements of psychology in dealing with clients, increasing diversification of skill set for library staff, and strategic alignment with the core business of their institution were just some of the takeaways from my visit that have me reflecting on how these issues apply to my school library role. This is certainly an interesting time for all involved in libraries in their many forms. Thanks for adding your perspective to this discussion. Kind regards, Deb Hogg (@debhoggoz, Sydney)

    1. Sally says:

      The presentation you attended sounds fascinating Deb. I’m glad the post resonated with you and has given you something to ponder further on.

  2. Anita Heiss says:

    Thanks Sally, I’m not a librarian but I’d like to be in my next life. AND I do a lot of library visits as an author so always interested in such conversations. Will share this with my librarian friends.

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