Monday, April 28, 2014

Seeing with a Consultant's Eye: Eight Keys to Moving Your Institution Ahead

One does not have to be a consultant to look at one's business with a consultant's eye. The following list of eight keys to success will help you look at your own place of work with a fresh perspective. 

1. Be a good observer. Above all, a good consultant will gain an overview of operations. From the way people interact to the arrangement of the furniture, everything that occurs and exists in a business can impact its effectiveness. Step back from day -to-day activities and just observe how things run with the procedures you have in place.

2. Understand the culture of the institution. One advantage an employee has over a consultant is usually an understanding of the culture from the get-go. A consultant must work to understand how departments function and staff get along before they can make many recommendations or they are liable to come up against unexpected resistance.  

3. Be flexible. Be open to change. If it is clear from observation that something isn't working, consider what changes may make things better. Base your ideas on education and advanced knowledge. Learn what other similar institutions do in similar situations. Educate yourself on particular areas of business through research, reading, networking and schooling. Something that may have worked for twenty years could now be tired. Stay abreast of new developments. Do not be tied to the idea that, "It has always been done this way and therefore that's the way it should remain."

4. Make a plan. Do not just change for the sake of change. Consider your options. Write them down. Think about what each change will do for your organization. Include a change's possible positive and negative outcomes. Align any plan you instill with the organization's mission. The more closely you align to an overall vision, the more likely your plan will succeed and help propel the institution. (If the organization does not have a mission, helping to create one must be your #1 goal.)

5. Consider contingencies in your plan. If one change turns out to be ineffectual, make sure you have ideas for backup. If plan a doesn't work, have ideas for plans b and c before you need to shift your focus. Waiting until you need a backup plan to create one can cause a loss in momentum and a sense of resignation in the face of failure.

6. Work with employees and do not rely solely on top down solutions. Employee buy-in is a big key to success. As you are planning, build relationships with workers. Seek ways to elicit their input when appropriate. Weigh their ideas with yours. Teach about your methods and reasons when necessary. ("Do this because I said so" is not a great method for building trust and propelling change.) Boost a sense of community by showing how change will benefit the health of the institution. Not everyone will be happy all the time, but showing that you are considering a big picture will benefit your steps toward change.

7. Be able to quantify your success. It is one thing to make changes and quite another to ensure that they are good changes. Success should be measurable in dollars, satisfaction, or efficiency.

8. Be honest with yourself. If something isn't working, put the breaks on. Perpetually re-evaluate your activities. Something that worked yesterday may not work today.

Change does not happen overnight. Yet, continually striving to change with the times and to make a fresh difference is important. If you give up striving, it is time to move on. If you run out of ideas for helping your institution grow and remain up-to-date, maybe it's time to bring in a consultant...

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sharing Community Stories through the Human Library

As a cultural heritage professional (librarian, archivist -- whatever you want to call me), I am continually looking for ways to bring communities together. My work with ArchivesInfo and my work as a high school information specialist meld quite well together, allowing me to explore ways to share and document community stories. I am happy to report on my most recent experience to meet this end. It was a huge success and I think it is an endeavor that would be beneficial to many communities.


Around this time last year, I applied for my school to host a "Human Library." I pulled in two other librarians at different institutions so that we could partner on events centered around National Library Week. [You can read about the collaboration between institutions here.] 

According to the Human Library's Facebook page,

The Human Library concept is about offering people as books... To be lent out to curious readers who will ask them questions and challenge their perceptions on different groups in the community.
[Human] Books typically have titles that aim to represent a stigmatized or stereotyped group of people in the community. This could be a religious minority or sexual minority or other members of the community who are exposed to general misconceptions, stigma, stereotyping and or prejudice.

The purpose being to challenge what we think we know about other members of the community. To challenge our stereotypes and prejudices in a positive framework, where difficult questions are accepted, expected and appreciated. 

To integrate the Human Library objective with our school's mission, I focused our educational event on breaking down stereotypes about occupations and the people who practice them. My partners at the local public library and a local university ran more "traditional" human libraries than I. Their events brought in people with more varied lifestyles and labels that often evoke very strong feelings. The career focus at our school served a two-fold purpose, to show our students that they can be anything they want to be regardless of their background, ethnicity, sex and other factors beyond their control. It also encouraged students to recognize the diversity of people working in very varied careers and the wide-variety of career paths that we may take. Few of our human books had stayed in their original field of choice. Some switched careers many times. Some had little idea of what they wanted to do for work at the outset of their adult lives. They either fell into a position or had a mentor guide them to a good place. All of our books were willing to share their diverse experiences, including their successes, failures, prejudices they had to overcome, and more.

I chatted with one of our human books while others met
with students. photo by Carol Robidoux
I recognized that the professionals who came to visit us might be influenced by their career choices beyond their working environments, but I wanted to show my teens that knowing someone's job title does not tell their whole story. Twenty-four professionals shared stories we don't normally hear about what their work entails, how it impacts their life and the lives of others. For example, we had a male librarian who was formerly a lawyer. He does not spend a lot of time reading, but he likes the variety and environment that a career in the library sciences brings him. (What did students think of someone giving up law for librarianship? How did they react to find out that a librarian may not be a "bookworm?")

When we ask people about their careers, we do not often ask them about what they had to overcome to get where they are today. Yet, that's what kids need to hear. In fact, that's what we all need to hear. We all have things to overcome and by sharing those experiences we better understand each other and our own place in the world.

I had only positive feedback from student "readers," our human books, and our school faculty. I asked for negative feedback and only heard that 15 minute chats, as is a standard time allotted in human library checkouts, were too short. Even students who were at first reluctant to participate said after the fact that it was a positive experience for them. Teachers asked if they can be readers next year too. Books asked to come back.  In fact, I have never run an event that had such positive reviews all around!

I now need to figure out how to document these experiences in our school archives. I am hoping that the encouragement to talk one-on-one with adults, something that many kids don't often get to do these days -- to ask question and explore one's curiosity -- will help lead us gently into an oral history project that I am planning for a 50th anniversary celebration. I hope that we have broken the ice to encourage more community conversations.

Stay tuned!


See the Robidoux Ink Link "Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover"  for news coverage of the "Human Library" event.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Teaching with Archives

I posted this ArchivesInfo and Archives in Education video without sound last week. I ran it as a slideshow on my table at the local history fair in Nashua as a way to generate conversation. I've been a fair participant for many years, but this is the first time I've set up since beginning a new career as a high school information specialist.

After first posting this video on the ArchivesInfo blog, a couple of people wrote to me ask for me to narrate the slides so, I've done that. The slides themselves didn't generate much discussion at the local history event, but people who visited my table were intrigued by the idea of archives in schools. I've focused my overdubbed talk on that. This talk is off-the-cuff and without planning, but I've been promoting these concepts for so long now that I felt comfortable presenting that way on YouTube. Forgive my few stumbles and a couple of not totally accurate comments...I felt I got the point across well enough to generate some conversations with you. I may mess it up even more if I do it a second time!

Happy archiving! Remember that our archives have the potential to inspire.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

More Finds at the Local Historical Society

If an archivist stops to explore the details of every interesting collection in her care, she can get so sidetracked that she gets nothing done. Professionals who care for historical records can sometimes get distracted by our own resources. While our jobs give us access to remarkable and interesting things, our tasks to administer, organize, describe and preserve materials cannot be effectively accomplished if we slow down to take in all the details of all of our artifacts. (Generally, we must leave that to the historians.)  Yet, sometimes when caring for collections, an archivist stumbles across something so remarkable that she is compelled to put aside the "work" aspect of archival work, allowing herself to be pulled into stories of the past - just for fun.

And so I was pulled in when I stumbled across this album at the local historical society. I was recruited by the Society's volunteer curator to use my expertise to help them organize their collections. I work as an information specialist at the high school in the town where the Society resides. I am happy to offer my services to further assist this community. It has supported me in a new career and has allowed me to run with my out-of-the box ideas.  Being an archives volunteer is a new experience for me. As a volunteer at the Society, I get to learn more about this town in which I now spend the better part of my days. I also get to "play" with collections a little more than I ordinarily might as a professional archivist.

Always on the lookout for unique historical records, I was overjoyed to find a fabulous album from the turn of the twentieth century. It highlights the life of a strong local woman. Her photos include images of her school, her job, her native New Hampshire, her pets...Her personality rings through loud and clear. Bonus for me - the artifact was created by a librarian. I identify with her. The album's designer shares her curiosity, sense of world wonder, passion for her home state, a sense of adventure, a sense of fashion, and fortitude. She is a woman on the edge freedom - a young woman who seems to have a fighting spirit of independence and likely interest in women's rights considering the era, her job, and active lifestyle.

The album is a labor of love with beautiful handwritten descriptions. A local man, another person with expertise who serves as a Society volunteer, noted how the album is a specimen of folk art, as lovely for its artistry as it is for the information it contains.

At 5:30 one day this week, working with the local library director on an archival survey -- both of us covered in cob webs, dust and mold -- I called it quits for the day. I declared that my reward for wading through the work would be to clean myself up and look through the remarkable album that we stumbled across on an earlier visit.

Our new librarian friend stared out at us through the camera that captured her one-hundred years ago. She captions her portrait "my new bathing suit." The suit reminds me of my favorite vintage shop, which happens to be posting bathing suits this week in preparation for the warm weather. I imagine that this librarian buried in the sand is in Hampton, a small stretch of seaside between Massachusetts and Maine that we call "our beach." I take my daughter there each summer. I'll remember this lady's bathing suit when I put mine on for the first time this year.

I am hoping to research this new found historical friend. I wonder if much information exists about her in library records. There is a lot to wonder here.

I wonder if we would have gotten along.

I wonder how she would have felt about me looking at her album. (It seems like it was meant to be shared.)

I wonder if her relatives are still in town.

Maybe this isn't all "just for fun"...I wonder if I can help my students feel a connection to this former resident.

Despite all the questions, one thing is clear. This lady had a sense of humor. She ends her album by saying, "Is this the end" Now wouldn't that get your..." and beside the written words is a photo of a goat.

Whether she would have appreciated me or not, I am glad that she reached through time and I am a recipient of her wit and charm.


[I hope to share photos with you soon. One problem with this information age is that it is too easy to pull out your camera to take photos and post them on the Internet. But permission should be sought from institutions' collections and the best photos possible should be used. Also, policies should be in place for the handling and publication of materials before such publication is done. I will talk about all of this in my next blog post.]