Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Introducing My Organization (for Management)

Our first assignment is to introduce the organization (of our choice or creation) of which we are the new head. I have decided to work on the premise of managing the Gwinnett County Public Library system, which is located in Gwinnett County, GA, northeast of Atlanta. Before I start, I figure I should include some disclaimers. I used to work for GCPL, and I had a great experience there, which is why I'm choosing to use it. However, I no longer work there, and my comments have no endorsement from anyone who does currently work there. Another reason I chose the system is that I was able to witness changes and problems that arose, so I may include some criticisms of the system. Again, they are mine alone. Overall, I think it's a great library system and a great place to work!

So, Gwinnett County is a very large county outside of Atlanta, and a good deal of the population commutes to Atlanta (I had the good fortune of commuting FROM Atlanta, and the difference in traffic problems is enormous!). I would say that it is a fairly affluent county overall, although there are certainly parts of the county that are more affluent than others. The population also leans somewhat to the conservative side of the political viewpoint scale. The county truly values its library system: much of the library's funding comes from local taxes, which the citizens have regularly voted to levy. The library is well-funded and growing. It currently has 14 branches, one of these has been opened in the last year and another was opened a year and a half ago. A fifteenth branch is currently under construction.

The library has no main branch; each branch offers the same hours and basically the same services. The library headquarters offices are located at a centrally located branch, in the county seat of Lawrenceville. I would estimate that the library has about 300 employees (I am not a great estimator, so this could be wildly off!). The structure of work at the branch level has changed somewhat since I left, but I believe the branch level management structure is basically the same. Each branch has a management team that consists of a branch manager, an assistant branch manager, and two librarians, all of whom hold an MLS degree (this would be the position that I would really be more likely to aim for, especially in such a large library system--but it will be fun to pretend to be the big boss for a semester!). Most of the other branch employees are either library associates (who must have a bachelor's degree) or library assistants. Associates are trained to do all of the branch functions, including responding to reference and reader's advisory questions, the many circulation tasks (checking books out and in, shelving books, pulling books for holds, monitoring holds for expiration dates), serving on branch or system-wide teams, helping with special branch projects, and holding branch tours and storytimes. Assistants are officially trained to do circulation tasks, although many of them know how to do, and help with, other tasks.

Because the system is so large, many jobs are taken care of at headquarters for the whole system. These include collection development work, cataloging and processing, information technology, staff training, human resources, public relations, and events and outreach. Headquarters also houses a couple managers who work with all the branch managers and assistant branch managers, and, of course, the library director. Centralizing this work has advantages and disadvantages. As a former branch employee, I'm VERY glad that we didn't have to process all the new books that came in, because there were always large numbers. A disadvantage was that, if a patron/customer (we used customer; I have heard that there are raging debates over which one is best, but I feel that it is not an extremely important controversy) wished to request a book be added to the collection, the process took longer.

One organizational choice GCPL has made is to use teams to achieve some of the work of the library. These include permanent teams for ongoing decision-making, and temporary teams that formed to examine or take care of specific questions that came up. I served on a team for part of my time, and found that it was a very good experience. I felt a greater unity of purpose from the members of the team than I have on almost any other group or committee that I have served on, but the process was fairly time consuming. One of the best things about the team was that our members included some people who had been with the system for a very long time, some (like me) who were pretty new, and we came from all different branches. This helped me get a better picture of the system as a whole, of its history, and of some of the challenges that go along with making decisions for such a large library system.

Another important feature of GCPL is that it has an extensive list of policies and procedures, but that within the policies, front-line employees are given a certain amount of discretion. This particularly comes into play when customers wanted to contest their fines, check out more items than the limit, challenge a book, etc. I found this to be great--I loved having policies, because once I learned them, I could use them to explain the reasoning behind our rules and to back up my decisions. However, I was also allowed to make exceptions where I judged them to be worthwhile. I think the organization shows a fair amount of faith in its employees, and that was one thing that makes it strong. I think the robust policies are both a result of the system being so large and a necessity for keeping the large system going--there are enough employees to devote time to creating policies, and it allows consistency across the system.

For me, keeping the well-being of an entire large system in mind would be one of the most challenging things about being a library director in Gwinnett County. This is another reason why I have chosen this county--managing such a large system is not a job I expect to seek out, but I think it will help me stretch my thinking about management over the course of the semester.

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