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The Secret Ingredient

May 22, 2009

I’ve been thinking about recipes lately.  For one thing, our Friends of the Library organization is working on publishing a recipe book to raise funds for our Foster Growth capital campaign.  Stay tuned to hear more about that this Fall.   This is one cookbook you’ll definitely want to own.

You might not know it but our library actually has an outstanding cookbook collection.  If you want to know how to grill it, bake it, cook it, or create it, just mosey on down the 641.5 aisle.

The thing about recipes is that really good cooks/chefs don’t necessarily need them.  And then there are the rest of us.  Not only do I need a recipe, but I find myself following it like it’s a treasure map guiding me to the pot at the end of the rainbow.

In my life, I have been the lucky recipient of some really good recipes.  But none have been more special than the one carefully handed down from my predecessor, Mary Gates.

That would be the recipe for managing a library.

Mary taught me so many things.  She was an incredible leader, in every sense of the word.   She imparted her recipe for running a successful library via the demonstration method.  Every day she showed us all what was important…why it was important…and what “inputs” we needed for a successful “output.”

Think about how many ingredients there might be in a typical recipe for a library.  Virtually all of them are important, almost essential.  However, one ingredient really stands out.  One qualifies as the secret ingredient.

Is the secret ingredient the building?  Must you have a state-of-the-art building to have a great library?  Mary knew how important the physical space was.  She oversaw the expansion of this library in 1983.  She did so with a keen eye and a unwavering determination to the principles of good library business.  The end result has served us well for over 25 years of heavy use.

Because this is a building expansion blog, you might expect me to state that the library building is the secret ingredient.  And while it’s true that the most successful, efficient and effective operation is contingent on well designed space, I am not talking about that at the moment.  That’ll have to be a future post because the building is not the secret ingredient.

So it’s not the size or the quality of the building.  Nor is it the work flow or the layout.  It’s not the automation or the collection or the hours.  It’s not even the funding level.  (I say that because on rare occasions I’ve been to very well funded libraries that appear to be missing the secret ingredient.)

So, yes, all of those ingredients are vital…and interrelated.  But not one of them is the secret ingredient.

Then what in the world is the secret ingredient?

It’s the people.  The secret ingredient is the quality of the staff and volunteers, of course.

It’s secret because if they are doing their jobs well, you almost take them for granted.  But you shouldn’t.  I try hard not to because I know our library would flop without them.  (Like the blueberry muffins I made last week where I forgot to add the eggs to the batter.)

This staff has worn out the carpet because they walk a mile in your shoes.  Every day they make a concerted effort to help those who enter.  They do so with the highest regard for the people we serve.  They do so amidst ringing phone lines, complex questions, technological challenges, and building deficiencies.  They do it with earnestness, grace, and a sense of humor.   I am thankful every day for our library staff’s commitment to our mission.

Additionally, we have a dedicated team of volunteers who help with everything from baking cookies for National Library Week to serving on the capital campaign committee or library board to keeping our shelves in order to selling used books.   Our library is unbelievably fortunate to receive the support of volunteers who give to us so freely…and without regard for compensation.

As we move forward into our building design process, we’ll be investing great effort in planning for the best possible facility for our community’s future.  It’s certainly one of the key ingredients in our recipe.  But it’ll never be more important than the “secret” one that binds it all together.

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