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WHILE MUCH OF THE DEVELOPMENT of learning organizations within libraries has taken place in large academic institutions, Peter Senge's theoretical concepts are just as valuable in public libraries, even comparatively small rural libraries. Utilizing the University of Arizona Library as a case study, a prototype of an organizational structure based on teams has been developed for the Teton County Library in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This article includes a blueprint for a nonhierarchical, circular team management structure and describes the function, relationship, authority, and accountability of the library's teams, as well as a vision for leadership. It also provides a model of teamwork incorporating Senge's five disciplines into a single process that facilitates organizational learning.
A CALL FOR MODELS
Prototypes are essential to discovering and solving the key problems that stand between an idea and its full and successful implementation.
These are the words of management expert Peter M. Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Senge, 1994, p. 271). This classic treatise, originally published in 1990, draws a blueprint for an innovative type of organization--the learning organization--that is "continually expanding in its capacity to create its own future" (Senge, 1994, p. 14). Senge is founder and director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.
In the evolution of the learning organization, Senge reported that U.S. companies and organizations are somewhere on the path between "invention" and "innovation." Engineers say a new idea is invented when it has been proven to work in a laboratory. When it can be replicated reliably at a practical cost, it becomes an innovation (Senge, 1994, pp. 5-6). Along the path between the two stages, Senge says prototypes are essential to discovering and solving the key problems between idea and implementation. He calls for more prototype learning organizations.
The movement toward a less hierarchical, team-based organizational structure began in the business community, and Senge suggests a number of successful companies as models, such as Royal Dutch/Shell Oil, Hanover Insurance, and Herman Miller. At least ten years ago, the University of Arizona (UA) Library took serious note of the success of this management style in business. When Carla Stoffle took the position of dean of the UA Library in 1991, she was faced with budget cuts that amounted to $619,000 in three years, collection costs--especially journals--that had inflated by nearly 150 percent over the previous ten years, and a desperate need for an online catalog (Stoffle, 1996). One of her first moves was to form a steering committee to study workflow in the changing environment. The committee's recommendation was to convert from a hierarchical management structure to a team-based organization. Stoffle said the "radical, fundamental change" focused on adopting a user focus, accepting the need for continual change, creating teams, and empowering frontline staff to make decisions (Stoffle, 1995, p. 6). She said the UA Library would not have been able to respond to the pressures without this structural change. Today, the UA Library is widely recognized as a prototype for organizational restructuring among academic libraries (Berry, 2002, pp. 41-42).
It is difficult to assess the progress of the team approach in public libraries, perhaps because public librarians are not as likely to publish works on this progress. The North Suburban Library System in Chicago is one organization that has been recognized in the professional literature (Hayes, Sullivan, & Baaske, 1999, p. 110) for development of a team-based organizational structure. Team terms such as "dialogue," "shared vision," and "systems thinking," however, have entered the jargon of public librarians throughout the country. Public libraries appear to be positioned somewhere in the zone between the invention and innovation of learning organizations.
Certainly the same reasons that pushed academic libraries into the new organizational structure are present in public libraries: budget cuts, technology, an environment of constant change. Budget cuts have hit public libraries so hard that the American Library Association launched the "Campaign to Save America's Libraries" in 2002. American Libraries magazine reported even more cutbacks and closures in 2003. "County, city, and community libraries are threatening to shut branches, shorten hours, freeze staff positions, and cut back on services at a time when circulation statistics are up" (Eberhart, 2003, p. 20). The climate is right for public libraries to take a hard look at making changes in organizational structure as a means of surviving and thriving in a harsh environment. To do this, practical models are needed. While Senge cautions against one organization trying to emulate exactly another, he suggests that any organization has the potential to serve as an experimental laboratory where important questions can be addressed, new insights formed, and practical problems resolved (Senge, 1994, p. 272). It is time for public libraries to share experiences.
THE TETON COUNTY LIBRARY EXPERIENCE
Teton County, Wyoming, lies in the northwest corner of the state just south of Yellowstone National Park. It encompasses Grand Teton National Park and the high valley that is commonly known as Jackson Hole. There are a number of small towns within the valley; the largest is Jackson, with a population of 8,647 according to the 2000 Census. The year-round population of the entire county is reported to be 18,251, but that number easily triples with seasonal workers and summer residents between May and September. Because housing prices in Jackson Hole have climbed the same steep path as other resort areas, many year-round workers live in adjacent Wyoming counties or in Idaho. The Teton County Library thus serves a much larger population than 18,251.
Another factor related to library service in Teton County is the isolation of the community, especially in winter. The only university library in the state is in the southeast corner of the state, about a seven hour drive from Teton County. The closest major public library is in Salt Lake City, about five hours away in good weather. While Jackson Hole has an airport that is serviced by fair-sized jets and maintains primary two-lane highways leading out of the mountains in three directions, travel of any kind may turn hazardous during September through June. Telecommunications from the valley are like the highways--somewhat narrow; there is limited access to high-speed T1 or DSL lines. If people need access to a library or a fast Internet connection, they tend to count on the Teton County Library.
The backwaters …