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Published October 26, 2011 12:47 pm

Library's faults are at the top
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Taking over the Salt Lake City Library promised to be a tough task for whoever took the job.

Anyone trying to fill the shoes of the much-loved Nancy Tessman risked being found wanting by the library's patrons and its dedicated staff. The woman who shepherded the creation of the library's downtown jewel, named Library of the Year in 2006, made it such a warm, welcoming and vibrant place that any new director faced the likelihood of being "The person who came after Nancy."

Add to that the nature of the library profession. Those who practice it are, by definition, well-read, devoted to the sharing of knowledge and information throughout their community and, these days, about as cyber-literate as they come. When a library's staff and volunteers are this devoted to the institution and to the community it serves, they are unlikely to stand silent for any management plan they see as destructive, not of just their job, but of their cause.

Still, the chaos that the library's board, management and staff find themselves in today suggests more is at work there than just nostalgia for a former boss or the grumbling of unhappy worker bees.

Library Director Beth Elder has clearly lost the confidence of her own staff, professionals and volunteers. A recent staff survey, plus a constant stream of reports about how upper management is going out of its way to limit internal and external discussions, suggest what others have reasonably described as a "toxic atmosphere" that serves the community poorly.

Last week brought an ultimatum from the private Friends of the Library — about the furthest thing one can imagine from a band of rabble-rousers — that the library's culture must change if the fundraising group is to continue its support.

The constantly defensive nature of the replies from Elder and her supporters on the Library Board — that staff members are just resistant to change and engaged in an insubordinate revolt that bypasses proper grievance procedures — is wearing thin. It is in no way credible to argue that the same staff that has negotiated the transition from card catalogs to the Internet, from dusty books to DVDs, is in all but open revolt over something as trivial as "change."

Whatever path Elder and the board envision for the library will not be successful if they cannot win — earn — the necessary buy-in from their staff, volunteers and supporters.

Failure to do that with one or two disgruntled librarians may be the fault of the employees. Failure to do that across the entire staff, the entire community, is a failure at the top.




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