The New York Public Library is one of the largest public libraries in the world, with 18 million visitors yearly, a budget of nearly $300m, and 93 branches. It serves vastly diverse populations: toddlers and caregivers, new immigrants, lifelong learners, famous novelists, and scholars. Although based in New York City, it serves a global audience of researchers and tourists.
Library leaders knew that given the immense changes brought on by digital innovations, as well as shifts in the communities that the Library served, it would need to evolve. How to transform such a huge, iconic institution, wrapped in history, into a nimble player? How to provide hyper-local services tailored to the diverse needs of its patrons while also upholding a consistent and high standard of service?
In the spring of 2014, we proposed a radical approach: offer anyone on staff – over 2,500 individuals, many of them union members – the chance to shape the library through strategic conversations with senior leaders. We believed that if the Library was to be truly nimble, senior leaders couldn’t unilaterally come up with a plan. Involving staff in conceiving, designing, and implementing the change would result in a course of action that was more fit-to-purpose and more likely to be well executed. Staff would fully understand the changes and be accountable to each other for their implementation.
Staff was energized by the opportunity to shape how the library worked. As a core team member put it, “We entered the process with the perspective of employees and came out with the perspective of leaders.” They were deeply appreciative of the chance to interact with, and learn from, peers across NYPL, something that rarely happened otherwise. They were excited to master new skills and knowledge relevant to librarians such as sophisticated data collection and analysis.
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