Last Night I Dreamed I Was Driving a Bookmobile – Hiring, Engaging and Keeping Your Best Employees

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Laura Francisco
Originally published in ALA/APA’s Library Worklife, November 2010

Last night I dreamed I was driving a bookmobile.

I’ve yet to parse the Freudian implications, but in the dream I was in full charge of that big boy – a hefty white truck filled with books, a few helpers and a really comfy and modern seating area. Furthermore, the Dreamland Library System had thoughtfully installed a conveyor belt in the parking garage that automatically parked the vehicle. All I had to do was align the truck’s front wheels with the conveyor belt’s tracks, like at a carwash, and the belt would automatically pull the bookmobile up this high-tech ramp . . .

I digress.

This dream is one manifestation of a problem I’ve been pondering in my waking life: recruiting a part-time delivery driver for a job with no set hours or schedule. This employee would fill in, as needed, for the regular driver – maybe one or two days per month, and also a week or two straight when the regular employee takes vacation. The library director and I tossed around a few creative recruiting ideas that proved unfeasible. She then advertised the position as-is (no set hours, no set schedule) and received twenty-six applications in two days, with a great candidate already identified from the bunch. Problem solved, movin’ on.

But this library director said something that stuck with me: that she doesn’t want to “hire someone new every other month because the previous employee had received a better job between gigs with us.” A particular concern in this situation, for sure, but one relevant for all employees. Everyone is recession-for-brains right now. If libraries do have vacancies of any kind, they are trying to fill them as cheaply as possible .

Caveat emptor: lower wages often attract less-than-qualified candidates. This correlation is particularly evident among professional librarians; fewer and fewer newly-minted MLS/MLISs are entering the marketplace to replace retiring Baby Boomers. Even if some of the more seasoned (OK, older!) librarians delay retirement for financial or insurance reasons, the skilled workers leaving the workforce far outnumber those entering it. And there are few incentives for new professionals to enter the field: many public libraries are entering their second or third years of salary freezes, hiring freezes, asking employees to perform multiple jobs to fill the void and other HR practices that discourage applicants and current employees alike.

Want to avoid a mass run for the exits when the economy turns around? Find ways to hire the best and keep the best you have. Another super smart library director we know has a theory I love: hire fewer people; grow, nurture and develop them; make sure they perform well; and – wait for it – pay them more. Pretty radical, actually, but studies show that recession-hit public-sector organizations are feeling less compelled to offer identical incentives to compunction about making some tough management decisions and actually paying people for their performance. Sometimes that means some people get more than others, and that’s OK. Creating and keeping engaged employees is something you can do to make sure that these excellent employees that are helping you get through the recession will stick around after it’s over. Get a group of creative people on your staff together and come up with low or no-cost ideas to keep people motivated.  Need some ideas to get started?

Requires Investment (But Offers Big Dividends):

  • Develop a skills-for-pay program where pages and circulation clerks can add small increments to their pay by learning and successfully demonstrating clusters of skills of the next higher level position.
  • Support (with time and/or tuition assistance) the person who wants to study HR or Organization Development in grad school because your library needs that expertise in house. Bet she’ll have to do lots of projects for that degree that will pay off for the library as well.

Low or No-Cost:

  • Have a group get together and make a funny and appealing video promoting the library in the community – I’ve seen some killer examples of those lately.
  • Develop a cross-training program to allow staff to try out and learn other people’s jobs. Not only are your employees given new challenges, you are building a huge amount of flexibility into your workforce.
  • Start a mentoring program between professional librarians and others who may aspire.
  • That circulation clerk/amateur pastry chef whose mad fondant skills put Ace of Cakes to shame? Let her lead a program on cake decorating!

Bottom line – make sure your employees aren’t just sharpening their resumes and biding their time.

A library consultant of my acquaintance (yet another smart professional I know!) pointed out the connection between the ideas expressed in this article and Peter Senge’s theories on “learning organizations,” organizations that facilitate employee learning (Pedler et al, 1997). Libraries naturally focus on being helping, teaching and informing organizations by making knowledge available to customers. But libraries can and should also be learning organizations. One way to make your library a learning organization is to let people use and develop skills that may not be in their job description (or anywhere near it!) but that are needed by the library. When staff overlap their list of “what I like to do or want to learn” with the library’s list of needs, people grow,  jobs grow, organizations grow. And in this economy, you can build loyalty and engagement by letting people step up to do what needs to be done, even if it means you might have to reclassify their job when the recession is over because they are doing higher level work.

You might not have the budget to hire a full-time bookmobile driver, but you can let the part-time bookmobile driver get a team together to help implement her ideas to trick-out the bookmobile and make it a world-class space people line up to get into. It’s probably a little twisted that I’m dreaming about driving a bookmobile – I remember feeling vaguely uneasy that I didn’t have the right driver’s license – but your employees probably have some dreams of their own. And their first choice is probably to see those dreams realized at your library. Maybe you can’t install the Jetsons’ conveyor belt self-park machine in your parking lot (alas), but you can make sure you are hiring, developing and keeping your best employees.

Works Cited

Pedler, M., Burgogyne, J. and Boydell, T. 1997. The Learning Company: A strategy for sustainable development. 2nd Ed. London; McGraw-Hill.

The Singer Group is a management consulting firm that helps public, private and social sector organizations reach full potential through forward-thinking human resources and organizational development strategies that get results.

To schedule a complimentary consultation, contact Paula Singer at 410-561-7561 or email


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