Leading Change in Times of Change

According to ALA’s State of America’s Libraries 2018 report “in the past five years, more than 58% of all academic libraries have changed their reference staffing models, with the most popular change being a switch to on-call staffing.” My library’s experience is captured in that statistic. In 2014 we relocated our reference desk from a stand alone service point adjacent to our reference collection to the main service desk co-located with circulation, fines and printing & IT help. Simultaneously, we changed our staffing model. After exploring many staffing alternatives, including the on-call model, we chose the student staffing model. An organizational change of this scope does not organically emerge; it needs to be guided by a clear vision and incorporate many stakeholders. John P. Kotter’s Eight-Stage Process for leading change is a useful lens for examining our pathway to reframing our expectations about the delivery of reference services and the necessity of addressing our social norms and shared values.


Applying Kotter’s 8 Stage Process to our new reference model

In this graphical representation of the process, I’ve highlighted actions we took aligned with that stage. Not all actions required the same amount of time and attention. Four stages proved to be more critical to avoiding the eighth common error of “neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture”: creating a sense of urgency, enabling action by removing barriers, generating short-term wins and sustaining acceleration.

A natural sense of urgency had been developing for some time. Users experienced a pain point when deciphering which service desk to use, our reference staff was shrinking while new demands on our time were increasing. While it was clear that a change was needed, the big opportunity had not yet presented itself. With a charge from the director and cross-divisional leadership we were able to form a task force and enlist volunteers to start the change process.

The first task was to move the reference desk as this addressed the user pain point by reducing the number of service points. The second task, implementing a new staffing model, required more strategy as the change represented a disruption to one’s professional identity. We changed the structure of our department to remove the barrier of perceived uniformity in our roles. This enabled us to start identifying strengths in new areas of responsibility and build cohesion with peers. Although we had moved the literal reference desk, we needed to address the metaphorical reference desk that had become the centerpiece of the reference librarian identity. We facilitated discussions on the changing role of reference librarians, we incorporated more of our behind the scenes work in student training and together we learned to tell a new shared story about the value of our expertise. It was critical to generate short-term wins early in the implementation of the student only staffing. We committed to assessing the change and communicating results. Based on results we implemented more changes; the most important change, in my opinion, was improving our consultation referral process.

In the same 2018 ALA report I note that “almost 61% of academic libraries repurposed or cross-trained staff.” For my division, a change in service needed to come first before we could retool staff for addressing new services such as open access institutional repositories, digital humanities, information literacy integration in learning systems and expansion of co-curricular activities.


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