Leading change at the Cedar Rapids Public Library

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People gather before the ribbon cutting at the new downtown branch of the Cedar Rapids Public Library on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

When Bob Pasicznyuk first toured the shell of the former Cedar Rapids Public Library, flashlight in hand, he saw a problem.

“It occurred to me that we were going to build the new building along the same narrative, only 10 percent bigger,” Pasicznyuk said.

Since Pasicznyuk came to Cedar Rapids in 2009, the library has been wrestling with how to remake itself as a community hub in the age of iPads and ebooks. (For more on the library in the digital age, read this earlier Gazette story by Rick Smith: New library plans for an ever-changing digital world.)

Pasicznyuk discussed the experience of leading change Tuesday at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, elaborating on the risks the organization faced in reconsidering their purpose and processes.

“The library actually worked before the flood. It was one of the most visited places downtown. You want to mess with that?” he said.

A big part of the ongoing change has to do with how the library measures success. Traditional metrics include number of items circulated, number of items in the collection or number of people who attend events.

“That’s supposedly how good or not good we are,” he said. “A lot of it is about transactions – the word ‘experience’ doesn’t enter the picture a lot of time.”

By focusing on experience – Pasicznyuk has said he hopes the library can be more like an Apple store than the DMV – the CRPL has attracted 20,000 people to attend meetings in the space, and is on track for a record circulation year.

“I think those [metrics] will take care of themselves if you’re having that really righteous experience,” Pasicznyuk said.

Here are some of the highlights from Pasicznyuk’s talk on leading change:

Phase in changes gradually, but regularly

During the planning and construction of the new facility, innovations were introduced to the staff every few months. While the Library was housed at it’s temporary location at Westdale Mall, for example, an automated book check-in machine was introduced, and the traditional large circulation desk was phased out. That way, when the new building was ready, the staff wasn’t overwhelmed with new technology and processes.

Create an innovation team – and listen to them

The library invited all staff members to participate on a loosely-structured innovation council during their regular working hours. The council’s first recommendation was to equip each employee with iPads – and it was almost  immediately shot down by the library’s leadership. Pasicznyuk supported the idea, and with some creative fundraising (public dollars were not used to purchase the iPads), the staff is more tech-literate.

Challenge traditional values

For example, thriftiness has long been a key value of libraries (like many government programs – think of the threadbare DMV). So, traditionally, staff would work hard to make sure every book returned to the library. But, Pasicznyuk said, spending dozens of working hours to track down a $5 book doesn’t always make sense.

Get outside the box

The library began sending many more employees to industry conferences, so they could see that other libraries were facing the same challenges and transitions. Likewise, trustees visited libraries and other companies around the country.

“You don’t even know what’s possible unless you go outside a little bit,” said Amber Mussman, the library’s community relations manager.

Celebrate culture

With a new director, new facility and new processes, earning the trust of the staff was and is a challenge, Pasicznyuk said.

“The first thing people would ask me is, ‘who are you going to lay off?’”

While acknowledging that trust is an ongoing issue, Mussman and Pasicznyuk said that having simple celebrations together (like a chili cookoff) has helped.


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