What I’m Reading, What I’m Writing

It’s been a while since I posted, in part because I’ve been figuring out my new gig.  Last fall, and in addition to my position as Library Director, I was appointed Executive Director for Community Arts & Culture for the Town of Chapel Hill, NC. Now that I’ve gotten my feet more than a little wet with this new job, I have made a New Year’s resolution to post more here on the website.  To ease into that, here’s what will be the first in an occasional series on what I’m reading and writing.  I’d love to hear from you about what you are reading and writing these days as well – so post in the comments if you care to share.

What I’m Reading:

Image result          Image result for Public Libraries and Resilient Cities

The Art of Relevance by Nina Simon Part of my new portfolio includes planning for a new history/culture center in town, so I’ve delved into the world of current thinking about museums and public history.  I came across Nina Simon’s work and am now more than a little obsessed with her and her thinking.  This is a highly readable and highly inspiring read – and it hews closely to the work we’ve been doing at CHPL with User Experience.

Public Libraries and Resilient Cities edited by Michael Dudley  Leading a municipal library – we are a department of the town just like Police, Fire, Planning, Parks, etc – has shown me new and different opportunities for public libraries to leverage their strengths to contribute to the city or town’s goals.  I’ve written about this myself, and continue to think and talk about public libraries and local government.  Dudley and others  have clearly been thinking and talking about this as well. Through analysis and case studies, this book articulates the public library’s position in the ecosystem of the city or town – and describes how libraries can play a role in urban planning, community revitalization, and more.

Both of these books take a familiar term – relevance and resilience – and create a fresh understanding of the possibilities at hand in our profession and in our organizations, as well as offering a new mindset and way of creating meaning and value. Good stuff.

What I’m Writing:

ICYMI, I wrote the cover feature for the Sept/Oct 2017 issue of Kathy Dempsey’s Marketing Library Services newsletter – all about creating a user-focused website at Chapel Hill Public Library.

I’m currently working on the next in a series for Novelist, called “But My Book Club Doesn’t Read _____.”  This series encourages book clubs to “read outside the lines” of the usual book club selections and explore genre fiction.  I’ve tackled mystery, science fiction, westerns, romance, and horror over the last year or two.  Next up – and probably live on the Novelist site in March – is fantasy.  Because, believe or not, Merlin pairs well with merlot at Book Club Night.


General, Leadership, Management, Uncategorized

Peter Drucker is My Spirit Animal (or, Hacking Library School from the Inside Out)

If you’ve ever had drinks with me at a conference, you know that conversation inevitably turns to library school – why it exists, what’s its real value, and what they heck are they teaching there?!  By the second drink, we are redesigning the list of required courses on the back of a cocktail napkin.  Three drinks in, we are plotting a full-on revolution. Then we pay our tab and part ways and wait for the next conference and the next hotel bar and next convo about libary skoo (BTW – see you in Chicago, Meghan and Natalie and Chris!)

Those moments were on my mind last fall when my alma mater, UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, offered me a teaching gig.  I was SUPER excited to get to teach things like Reader’s Advisory 101 or a seminar on Public Libraries or maybe even a special topics class on User Experience or The Future of Public Services.  So, when they asked me to teach the required “Management for Information Professionals” course, I was a little less excited.  But then I thought about all of those conference cocktail convos and thought, “THIS is my chance!  The revolution starts HERE!”

When I sat down to design the course, I started talking to library colleagues from around the country – who are managers and leaders themselves – about the management courses they took in library school, what they learned, and what they wish they had learned.  I thought about my own experience and considered what I learned versus what I do on a regular basis – and the skills and knowledge I need in my current job.

Based on my own thinking and my conversations with others, I decided on two important guiding principles for the course – 1) It will be a practical approach to management, based on real world scenarios rather than textbook theory and 2) It will be based on best practices for management generally, rather than a library-centric approach.

In the course of the semester, we’ll talk about hiring/coaching/developing/firing employees.  We’ll talk about managing budgets and managing PR crises.  We’ll discuss performance measurement and LEAN and project management.  We’ll read First, Break All The Rules and The No Asshole Rule.  However, before we get into all that, I wanted to start somewhere that would ground the class in those two guiding principles of practicality and universality.  So we spent the first class or two with the father of modern management, Peter Drucker.

managing-nonprofit     pracice-of-management     effective-executive

If you haven’t delved into Drucker in a while – or ever – I encourage you to do so.  His thinking and writing are still incredibly relevant to just about any profession or organization. Here’s some of what we discussed in class, and gleaned just from the introduction to his classic book, Management:

  • On leaders vs managers – “The very best leaders are first and foremost effective managers. Those who seek to lead but fail to manage will become either irrelevant or dangerous, not only to their organizations, but to society.”
  • On the necessity of management – “None of our institutions could function without managers.”
  • On what managers do – 1) Set objectives  2) Organize work 3) Motivate and communicate 4) Measure  5) Develop people
  • On managing people “The manager works with a specific resource: people. And the human being is a unique resource, requiring particular qualities in whoever attempts to work with it. “Working” with human beings always means developing him or her.”

Again, that’s just the introduction.  In this and other works, Drucker offers practical insight into just about every realm of management from assessment and planning to work/life balance and personal development.  Seriously, check him out.

In revisiting Drucker’s work and in sharing it with my class, I am struck by the clarity of his thought, the precision of his writing, and how much we can all learn from him, no matter where we are in our careers. Because for him, management is not an art or a science but a practice.

Conceiving of management as a practice demystifies it for those at the beginning of their career, as it is something that can be learned and understood. Conceiving of management as practice offers reassurance for those who are already managers, as it reminds us that we can reflect and learn and continually hone our craft.

In Jim Collins’ forward to the Revised Edition of Management, called “Peter Drucker’s Legacy,” the Good to Great author reflects on the reasons for Drucker’s enduring appeal:

“What accounts for Drucker’s enormous impact? I believe the answer lies not just in his specific ideas, but in his entire approach to ideas, composed of four elements:

  1. He looked out the window, not in the mirror
  2. He started first- and always – with results
  3. He asked audacious questions
  4. He infused all his work with a concern and compassion for the individual.”

The students in INLS 585 and I agreed that if we – as aspiring and practicing managers alike – can approach our work with these four elements in mind, our libraries, archives, school media centers, and just about any organization, will have an enduring impact as well.

So, yeah, I’m a fan of Mr. Drucker.  And I encourage you to run – don’t walk! – to your local library and check out one of his books.  And see if you don’t find yourself inspired.  And the next time we see each other in a hotel bar at a conference, we can toast Mr. Drucker, grab a napkin, and get to work redesigning that information retrieval class.


Big Ideas, General, Leadership, Uncategorized

Stand in Their Shoes and Speak English

I had the pleasure of touring North Carolina State University’s Hunt Library last week with some colleagues.  We went there to tour their public spaces that support learning and collaboration and we saw some really great stuff – from flexible DIRTT walls to gaming studios to modular, wired furniture.  Trust me, the joint is as cool and amazing and inspirational as everything you’ve heard.

Amidst all of the innovative spaces we saw, though, my biggest takeaway was an piece of paper tacked up in a staff area:


I love every single thing about this.

I love the use of the word practice, because that’s what these are. Each of these behaviors must be learned, honed, practiced.  I love the format that echoes a checklist.  Indeed, if every interaction with a user include each of these items, both staff and user will walk away  satisfied.  I love how each item on the list is phrased in a memorable way – Share the Screen.  Stand in Their Shoes.  Refer Right. Stated this way, these best practices can easily become catch phrases and readily become mantras and therefore easily become practices.

I’ve spent the last year learning about the UX mindset and framework.  As I’ve written about previously, one of the first things that I grasped was that UX is really about empathy.  Empathy – considering what the experience of our users is like from their point of view – is what moves UX from just a focus on customer service to a commitment to delivering great customer experiences.  The more that libraries can move beyond customer service to considering customer experience, the better we – and our users – will be.

And at its heart, that’s what this list is all about – empathy.  Standing in their shoes.  Walking them where they need to go.  Speaking their language, not ours.  These in particular remind me of what UX expert extraordinaire Aaron Schmidt has printed on pencils:


I love that UX sprung forth from the world of tech and web design and has spread into service design and delivery and all touchpoints.  And I love that the world famous, high tech library that I went to visit blew me away with this empathetic, user centered approach to its service.

Big Ideas, General, Leadership, Uncategorized, UX

Because of UX… (Part 1)

At Chapel Hill Public Library, we had the great good fortune to spend the past 12 months working with Aaron Schmidt on a library-wide UX assessment and improvement project. The project was possible by the State Library of North Carolina, through an LSTA grant.

It was an AMAZING year for me, for CHPL staff, and for our users.  I began the year as an UX noob and a year later, I am far from an UX expert.  But I have learned and grown – professionally and personally – and will continue to do so.

I’ll admit, I wrote the grant as a means to an end – I wanted a new website and a new floor plan for the library, as both were far from optimal experiences for our users.  UX was the way to get there and Aaron Schmidt was the ringer we brought in to get it done.

However, soon after reading his book, meeting him, and delving into the work, I realized that UX was WAY more than a means to an end – it’s the way we ought to do business. Not just CHPL.  Not just public libraries.  All the libraries in all the places should embrace, understand, and utilize UX as part of their core business model.

Why?  There are lots of good reasons, but for me, the biggest one is that libraries are for people.  As I’ve often said…


UX helps libraries of all types remember what’s most important – the people that use us.  The people that sometimes struggle to use us.  The people that often use us and seldom use us.  The power patrons and the noobs. The people that love us and those that don’t –yet. The people that want to achieve something great – or just complete a simple task.  As I’ve often said…   Continue reading “Because of UX… (Part 1)”

Big Ideas, General, Reader's Advisory, Tips & Tools, Uncategorized

#TBT – Going Rogue for Summer Reading

In honor of the season and the day, I am reposting an article I wrote for Novelist a few years ago for this early summer edition of Throwback Thursday.  At the time, this felt like edgy stuff – ditching the CSLP theme felt like a crazy move!  However, based on responses to the piece, I learned that many other libraries were also (and were already) rethinking summer reading.


Fast forward to 2016 and libraries are still doing just that – rethinking, reframing, and redesigning summer reading programs to create more value, reach more people, and have a greater impact.  Inspired by what many other libraries are doing, Chapel Hill Public Library is embracing the summer challenge framework and expanding the scope beyond just reading to embrace experiential learning as well.

charlotte summer
Charlotte Mecklenburg’s Summer Break Program 
Chicago Public Library’s Summer Learning Challenge

As I post this, and thanks to our fabulous Youth, RA, and Marketing staff, we are launching our 2016 Summer Challenge: Read More, Do More, Learn More – I’ll let you know how it goes.

chpl summer

Raise your hand (and comment below) if you and your library are rethinking the season and your approach to it.  I’d love to hear about what you are doing!

Going Rogue for Summer Reading: A Totally Local Approach to our Busiest Season

Originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Kids & Books

It all started in the fall of 2011. After another summer — our busiest season at Lawrence Public Library — staff from Children’s, Teen, and Adult departments gathered to discuss how the summer reading program went. Good participation numbers? Check! Engaging slate of programs? Check! Lots of happy readers? Check!   Continue reading “#TBT – Going Rogue for Summer Reading”


Public Libraries, Local Government, and Value – Cont’d

In my last post, I wrote abut how public libraries can align themselves with and create value for the local government ecosystem they are a part of – whether municipal, county, or regional in nature.

Here are a few of the ways we have been doing that at Chapel Hill Public Library:

Library account registration for all employees.  All 700+ employees of the Town of Chapel Hill are eligible for a library card, regardless of where they live (and many live outside our service population area).  We’ve made it easier than ever for them to get a card by including the application at HR’s weekly New Employee Orientation (NEO).  All new Town employees attend this orientation session and fill out their tax forms, health insurance apps, etc.  They can also fill out the library card application and then we process it and send them a card via interoffice mail.

Welcome to the Library video.  At that same orientation session – and to get them excited about filling out one more form – HR staff show a short video about the library.  The video was produced by our Marketing & Communications Manager and our Digital Media Lab Specialist and highlights all that we have to offer them – as regular users and Town employees.  It includes books and DVDs and such, as well as meeting room spaces, learning resources, and equipment checkout.

Regular column in the employee newsletter.  TownTalk is the town’s monthly newsletter for employees.  On of the Town Manager’s goals is to develop leaders across the organization and all levels.  To help meet this goal, the Library contributes a regular “Leaders are Readers” column that highlights relevant resources.  One month, there were a series of workshops offered to employees about making effective presentations, so the column outlined books and resources we have on that topic.  Some months it highlights books on a given theme – stress management, presidential leadership, or change management.

Open Data.  This one is much larger in scale and scope than the rest. A year or so ago, there was a growing interest in creating an Open Data portal for the Town, with a goal of increasing transparency and facilitating access to public information.  As a trusted community institution whose core values include making information available in a neutral, non-biased way, the library was a natural candidate to create and house such a platform.  We will launch the portal soon, and join the small-but-growing number of libraries that are managing similar projects for their communities.

All of these examples – whether large or small – show how a library can serve the internal ecosystem they exist within.  All of these examples show how a library can go beyond just promoting our stuff – these are ways that we can communicate our value, align ourselves with the larger organization’s goals, and contribute to the realization of those goals.

As a municipal library, it might be a little easier for us to execute these types of projects – we are a department of the Town of Chapel Hill and have close working relationships with other departments to begin with.  Even so, with that working for us, what I said in my previous post was true for all of these – they required proactive persistence, staff time and attention, and we got told “no thanks” sometimes before we got to “yes please!”

In a larger system or governmental organization, you might have more difficulty crossing departmental lines and breaking down silos, both of which are often required for initiatives like these.  I encourage you to stick with it, because as I mentioned in my previous post, the pay off is worth it.

How so?  As a result of efforts like these, CHPL is seen as a valuable resource that can help both Town employees and the Town itself achieve its goals, dreams, and aspirations.  We are bringing value to the host ecosystem and thriving within it as a result.

General, Leadership, Marketing 101, Uncategorized

Public Libraries, Local Government, and Value

“Libraries exist as parts of larger systems. Public libraries are part of cities, towns, and counties… Almost no library stands alone. These larger host systems created the libraries, and they sustain them. Libraries rise and fall as their host systems rise and fall.”

-Eleanor Jo Rodger, “What’s A Library Worth?”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that libraries must go beyond talking about their stuff and counting their circulation.  In order to survive, libraries must communicate their value and measure their impact.  In order to thrive, libraries must align themselves with the goals of the community they serve and help realize those goals, hopes, and aspirations.

Lots of libraries are doing this for their communities.  As Eleanor Jo Rodger put it in her outstanding article on the subject, these libraries understand the host ecosystem they serve and are contributing to its survival and success.  But our external community is only one ecosystem we exist within.  Public libraries hold a great deal of value for the internal community we serve as well.

Whatever our governing structure – municipal, county, regional, quasi-governmental – public libraries are generally a part of local government.  Local government is an ecosystem-within-an-ecosystem with its own goals, hopes, and aspirations.  Whether we are tightly knit to that system (like a municipal library) or a little further removed (like a regional library system), we can do for these ecosystems what we do for our communities at large – communicate our value, align ourselves with them, and contribute to their goals and aspirations.

Here are a few practical ways public libraries might do so:

Training Initiatives – Is your city/county placing an emphasis on training and development? Are they looking for cost effective ways to provide more training? You might send information about the Library’s computer classes to employees – or host a special class just for them.  If you have resources like Lynda.com, you might send staff out to different departments to show supervisors and training coordinators how they can use it in their training programs.

Tech Initiatives – Is your city/county talking about revamping its website?  Maybe a device loan program for employees?  You might offer a staff member to serve on the web development team – or offer the library as a spot for usability testing before they launch.  You might offer the library as the perfect spot to manage a device loan program, as you already loan lots of other things.

Information Initiatives – Is your city/county looking to get the word out about a bond referendum?  Are they looking to recruit citizens to serve on advisory boards or commissions?  You might let them know about a very busy spot in the community where hundreds of residents come every week for trusted information and civic engagement (sound familiar?) and offer that spot as a place for them to directly engage with the people they are trying to reach.

There is some investment here – proactive persistence might be required, staff might need to be redeployed, you might get told “no thanks” many times before you are told “yes please!”  But the pay off is worth it. Here’s why:

When it comes time to consider resource allocation at the city/county/regional level, the decision makers and stakeholders of your internal community of users will understand what you external community  understands – that your public library is a vital and valuable part of each ecosystem that can help it not just survive, but thrive.

Next time, I’ll share some of the ways we’ve been doing this at Chapel Hill Public Library.  I’d like to know if you’ve had success in this area.  Are you working with your local government to achieve a shared goal?  Have you had success in communicating your value to internal stakeholders?  Please share!


Big Ideas, General, Leadership, Management, Uncategorized

50 More Shades of Change

“To practice leadership, you need to accept that you are in the business of generating chaos, confusion, and conflict.”

– The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools & Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, by Ronald Heifitz et al


A few weeks ago, I wrote about how people approach change in different ways, according to their preferred “change style.”  Just as there are different approaches to change, there are also different types of change – and it is just as important to understand them.

Technical change can be successfully executed with knowledge, skills, and expertise that already exist within the organization. The problem to be solved is clear, the solution can be provided by an expert, and resolution comes relatively easily. Technical change requires management.

Adaptive change requires an organization to think differently, question the status quo, and, in order to be successfully executed, it often requires a paradigm shift. The problem to be solved is hard to discern, the solution requires new learning and thinking, and that solution cannot be provided by the leader or expert – in order to be lasting, it must come from within the organization.  Adaptive change is not easy. And it is often messy.  Adaptive change requires leadership.

I was introduced to this model of change in a leadership seminar that was built around Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading by Ronald Heifitz and Marty Linksy.  If you are leading through change, and I believe we all are, I encourage you to check out their work.  For me, it has been incredibly useful as I seek to continually learn and grow as a leader.

Learning to recognize technical and adaptive challenges, and lead accordingly, is essential for success – and sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.

Just after I came on board as Director, I started a process with staff to review and revise our key policies and procedures.  One area we attacked was our fines and fees schedule and borrowing limits. In my mind, this was a technical challenge – we needed to lower our fines, raise our borrowing limits, streamline our fee schedule, and abandon outdated borrowing policies.  No big whup, we’d knock it out in an afternoon meeting.   Continue reading “50 More Shades of Change”

General, Leadership, Marketing 101, Uncategorized, UX

UX is Brand is UX is Brand is UX

We’ve been working with the fantabulous Aaron Schmidt for 9 months now – and we just birthed this baby.  This letter to our users represents a TON of thoughtful conversations, deliberation and iteration, and just plain hard work by our staff here at CHPL.  Couldn’t be prouder of what we are doing with and for the great community we serve.


Capture logo header

Dear Chapel Hill,

Every time you interact with us, the experience should be simple, satisfying, and delightful.  Lately, we’ve been making a lot of changes to help meet this goal – whether you walk through the door, visit us on the web, or call us on the phone.

As part of an ongoing user experience improvement project, we moved the magazines upstairs, shifted the holds shelves, interfiled paperbacks, redesigned telephone systems, and much, much more – all in the name of improving your library experience.

Behind the scenes

Not all of the changes have been visible.  Behind the scenes, we’ve been asking ourselves and our community big questions like What is our purpose?  What do we value most?  What promise do we make to our community? Those questions led to great conversations and to new foundational statements that guide all we do and convey the promise that we make to you:

Our Mission           

Sparking Curiosity. Inspiring Learning. Creating Connections.

Our Values

Opportunity, Hospitality, Stewardship.  

Our Service Pledge

You are our top priority.

Fulfilling the promise

So how do we fulfill that promise?  With our collections, services, programs, and spaces.  When you approach the desk or post to our Facebook page.  In our posters, library cards, signs, and more. To help us communicate that promise, we developed a new logo to reflect our new mission.

You’ll start to see the logo in all kinds of places – in the building, in emails like this, and on posters and stickers.  We aren’t throwing out all the old stuff, just phasing in the new look.  We used gift funds to pay for the logo design and we will use gift funds to purchase some giveaway items that feature it.

What’s next?

More improvements.  Later this month, based on what we’ve learned in the user experience improvement project, we will launch a new website and reconfigure some of our stacks and service points.

It might be a little noisy and confusing while we do these things but the end result will make your library experience more simple, satisfying, and delightful. We promise.

Susan Brown

P.S. Here’s a little more about our Mission, Values, and Service Pledge:

Big Ideas, General, Leadership, Management, Uncategorized, UX

Designing for Dementia (and ALL)

I’m far from a UX expert, but I am learning more and more all the time, thanks in large part to working with Aaron Schmidt over the past year.  Here’s the thing about UX – once you know it, you can’t unknow it.  Once you see it one place, you see it in all the places. Like Mojo Nixon once said of Elvis, “UX is everywhere, man.”

Here’s a recent example:

This week, staff at Chapel Hill Public Library have had training sessions on how to best serve users facing dementia.  Sponsored by Dementia Friendly Orange County, a non-profit whose goal is “to raise awareness and make life better for people with dementia and those who care for them.”  Their new initiative is to train local businesses and organizations about ways to recognize and serve people facing dementia, leading to a “Dementia-Friendly Business” certification.

To help staff understand what’s going on with users facing dementia, the quote that was repeated throughout the session was “They aren’t giving you a hard time.  They are having a hard time.” The trainers stressed that if you find yourself interacting with a user who is facing dementia, remember this to help you empathize, strategize, and ultimately help them.




As soon as I heard this statement, I thought, “If you find yourself interacting with ANY user, remember this to help you empathize, strategize, and ultimately help them.”

Sure, there are a few folks out there whose sole purpose is to give you a hard time.  I’d argue that they are rare.  Most people want to have a successful outcome and genuinely accept help, but they are often having a hard time.  As I’ve learned through working with Mr. Schmidt and garnering some basic UX skills, that hard time is often caused by policies, procedures, places, and spaces that were not designed with the user in mind.

Here are a few more slides from the training about working with folks facing dementia.  I think these are good ideas for working with all the folks:

dementia one

Patience, respect, and dignity for all.  Simplicity in interactions and information.  Yes, please.

dementia two

Helpful attitudes, easy signs, and simple options.  Sign me up.



Use jargon-free communication?  Monitor body language and tone of voice?  Be patient and flexible?  Let’s do that with all the people, okay?

You can find the training video here and more about the Dementia Friendly Movement here.