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The Dip

This isn't exactly a book report, but my thoughts have been spurred by reading Seth Godin's The Dip. One thing that I remember hearing over and over again in library school was that libraries (especially public libraries) need to stop being everything to everyone if they want to continue succeeding. At the time I thought that was a pretty easy piece of advice to remember. Then I started working in a public library where we were horribly understaffed and underfunded, just like many others. While I was still trying to figure out my exact role in the organization I picked up projects haphazardly, partly so I could fill my day and partly in the hope that I could eventually I'd see enough pieces of the organization that I could finally make sense of the whole.

The thing is, I don't think I'm alone in this approach to a new job and I wouldn't be surprised if this is the way many libraries approach serving their communities. One patron said we should offer ebooks, another patron said we should offer vinyl LPs. Should both of these patrons' requests be given the same weight? If the only method of long range planning we're doing is waiting for patrons to tell us what to do, then we'll only be serving the patrons who do the most talking. The vast majority of library patrons interact very little with the staff. When a person knows exactly what book they want from the library then they shouldn't have to interact with a library staff person (unless they want to, of course).

So how should we be doing our long range planning? According to Godin we need to be figuring out what we can be the best in the world at. We could be talking about libraries in general here, or we could be talking about what your local library could be doing to be the best ___________ in your community. The point is, thanks to the wonders of the information age, competition is up and so there's little point in doing something unless you can do it exceptionally (not just well). This is a simple, yet hard to implement concept, especially for public libraries which try to fill so many roles in their communities.

This is a hard role for me to grasp personally as well. I tend to grasp the idea of focusing on your strengths organizationally, but as an employee I almost automatically try to do well at everything I attempt. I think it comes from always being a good student. I tried very hard to please all my teachers growing up (even the math teachers), because failing at anything would have just been too embarrassing. The thing is, in the professional world, it really makes sense to focus on what makes you uniquely qualified for a position, because there is always someone uniquely qualified to fill the roles that you aren't naturally good at.

As far as technology goes, I'm really good at explaining how things work to end users and being a liaison between the hardcore techies and the end users, but I know only the basics about programming languages, so put me in a role that requires me to be comfortable with tech and have conversations with others about it, but don't hire me to do some hardcore programming because you won't be impressed with the results.

At the organizational level  we should be thinking about what roles we are uniquely positioned to fill, not just roles that we can be good at. Should we become the career resource in the community or is there another organization that already does a better job at filling that role than we ever could (most organizations focused solely on this role have the potential to)? What about as a community resource to explore new and emerging technologies (or do you have an Apple store in town?)? The best book lender in town? The best place for quality children's programming? The best place to find answers to your questions when Google isn't enough? The best place to learn about community resources and events?

I don't have a definitive answer. I think every library has to answer that question for themselves, but I do think that this is a question we don't ask often enough. Too many times we try to serve several roles at once, getting in our own way of being best at anything.
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