My “Step-Library”: A Joint-Use Library Experience

Do any of you have step-families? I do, and I recently realized how relevant that experience is to working at a joint-use library.

Starting out, there may be concerns on both sides about merging, just like with step-families. There may be assumptions and stereotypes to overcome: step-families get a bad rap (see: evil step-sisters; red-headed step-child), and different library systems can have opinions about how other types of libraries work, and not always positive ones. You’ll have to share resources and space, (whether that’s collections and meeting rooms or toys and bedrooms). You might worry about not seeing eye-to-eye on everything (study room policies or bedtimes). The trepidation is normal, but everyone should work together to overcome it and find similarities, and how the differences benefit everyone.

Opening a joint-use library is a lot like moving in with a step-family. You wind up with two of a lot of things: bedrooms, neighborhoods, pets, etc. Our “step-libraries” have two of a lot of things, too. We’ve been open for five years, and here are a few things we’ve learned about the things we have two of:

Institutional Priorities

On paper, the differing institutional priorities are probably the most obvious difference between the public library and the community college library. You can pull up the organizational charts and see where staffing is strongest for a hint at what the priorities are: the public library has a large number of programmers, and positions with the word “youth” in their job description, whereas the college library has reference and instruction librarians, and a focus on people who cover the computer labs. There are areas with overlap, though: we have a combined welcome desk, where staff from both institutions perform circulation duties, for example.

When I refer to institutional priorities, I also mean that the two organizations define success by different metrics. The public library records data on program attendance and library card issuance, whereas the college is more interested in library instruction attendance and reference statistics. The college has a reference statistics form that must be filled out every time a question is answered at a service point, every day of the year. The public library has selected weeks where surveys are made available and when data about services is collected at service points. During those weeks, while completing both forms, one can easily see the differences between the priorities and “big picture” interests of the two organizations.

The priorities of the two libraries overlap and support one another, though; that was the point of sharing a joint-use library in the first place. Both are focused on “life-long learning,” with the public library placing heavier emphasis on the years before K-12 schooling, and the college library focusing more on the years after.

Organizational Relationships

If you go back to the organizational charts of each library, you can also see how people are arranged: what departments exist, which people are responsible for which tasks, and what kinds of hierarchies there are (who reports to whom).

We all realized, however, that the realities of the workplace are less clear than an organizational chart makes it look on paper. Some general rules apply that are obvious to both groups: managers set schedules and approve time, for example. But changes to how any given employee’s time is structured, or how new tasks are assigned, might complicate matters for one library system more than the other would guess.

Another, stickier problem arises when complaints or conflicts arise between employees from each library system. Mediation procedures may differ between the systems, and the supervisors of each party don’t report to the same administrator (or even the same Human Resources department). A great deal of careful communication and compromise are required.

The good news about this is, in most cases, the problems can be solved by just asking questions and learning about the structures that make up each system, not just in the building, but in the bigger picture. The college employees learn about the other branches of the public library, the public library employees learn about the other campuses of the college, and everyone has a better understanding of the broader range of parties involved. We were fortunate to have, for a while, several employees who worked two jobs in our building: part-time for the college and part-time for the public library. They were very valuable resources for understanding the inner workings of both sides at the same time. (This also helped minimize the us/them rhetoric among the staff, which is another thing you get in both step-families and joint-use libraries.)

Once that understanding is achieved, we realize that we also have a bigger and broader pool of skills and knowledge, with all these liaisons and working relationships we’ve created. One great example is a public library employee who is incredible at creating huge, gorgeous displays, and has used her talents all over the building.

Workplace Cultures

All of the other little differences I can think of between the two libraries fall under this catch-all “workplace culture” category. There are a lot of little day-to-day things that we have picked up on a little bit at a time. The public library has a dress code, and the college does not. The public library tends to schedule people for separate one-hour shifts at the service points, while the college prefers to give people multi-hour blocks in the same place. We’ve had to sort out the details of how to celebrate birthdays (and baby showers and going-away parties and holidays), who cleans the refrigerators and when, how to cover the service points during one side or the other’s staff meetings, whether public and college items can (or should) be used on the other’s displays, and so many other little details that have come up over the years.

One of the big ones, from day one, was hours and closures. Long story short, we follow the college’s holiday and weather closure decisions, so we might be open when other public libraries aren’t, and vice versa. This has many far-reaching implications, but one that I find interesting is how the staff members react to weather predictions. A public library employee knows they may be required to work at a different branch that doesn’t close if the college (and therefore our library) closes for snow, but a college employee would just be excited at the prospect of having a day off.

Another of the big ones is something we still work on: the definition of customer service. Our public library staff strive more to find a final answer for a patron, while our college librarians are more focused on showing a student a resource and teaching them how to use it on their own, to avoid accidentally doing the student’s coursework for them. We have spent a great deal of time and effort training everyone to do things both ways, and to discern when each approach is appropriate. In my opinion, it has made all of us better at our jobs, because we have learned a lot about the diverse needs of our patron population and how to meet them in a variety of ways.

Your “Step-Libraries”

You don’t need to work at a joint-use library for these concepts to apply. I know of many college libraries who report to multiple deans, or have combined library and IT departments, or even just have multiple campus libraries that need to work together to avoid becoming silos. Anywhere you have multiple parties at the same level working together to provide services to your patrons, these concepts are relevant and important.

2 thoughts on “My “Step-Library”: A Joint-Use Library Experience”

  1. “Both are focused on “life-long learning,” with the public library placing heavier emphasis on the years before K-12 schooling, and the college library focusing more on the years after.”
    As a former adult services librarian in public libraries and now academic instruction/reference librarian, WAIT! What about *after* college?? Your combined library has a great opportunity to transition students to the world of public library resources, programs, and services for adults – job search, consumer information, researching business opportunities, and fun reading/viewing. Keep them coming back instead of waiting for them to have kids : – )

  2. You are absolutely correct, and we do a lot of that here too! That was an unfortunate oversight in editing on my part; thank you for bringing it up. I’ve worked with the public library (both in our joint-use library and at other branches) on some adult programming myself, and our building has hosted job fairs put on by the college, which include programs like resume advice sessions, business clothing drives, and professional head shots. There are so many opportunities!

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