Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > What Really Matters at the Talbot County Free Library
The library's July staff meeting was surprisingly interesting. I say “surprisingly” because I'm sure I'm not the only one who, upon seeing the proposed agenda, thought, “Oh no, not that again!” Our director had set aside a whole hour for the staff to review and finalize the library's “core values.” I don't know about you, but when I see something like that on an agenda I think we're going to spend an hour dithering over distinctions without a difference, the whole room sloshing back and forth on the tides generated by a tempest in a teacup.
But, as I said, I was in for a surprise.
The draft core values document we were working with had been put together some time ago. The values listed in it were: respect, exceptional service, creativity, knowledge, teamwork, integrity, and community. A brief description followed each value, explaining how it was viewed and implemented by staff. The entry for community, for instance, read: “We are integral to the life and health of the communities we serve. We foster democracy. The library is the one place in our community where people can come together knowing they stand on safe and neutral ground. We support intellectual freedom.” Integrity's description amounted to a single sentence: “We are a trusted resource for our community, delivering on our commitments and taking pride in consistently acting in an honest, fair, and ethical manner.”
Needless to say, no one questioned the importance of any of these values, but I was surprised by how vigorously the staff debated the way the document itself read. Several people pointed out, for instance, that each of the values listed could easily fall under the single rubric of “exceptional service.”
Another point that came up again and again was the fact that “accessibility” wasn't mentioned on the list. Before I watched the staff members around me rise in defense of this value, I'd never really thought about how important “accessibility” is to someone who works in a library. Of course it makes sense, I mean that's what libraries are all about. The best information in the world is of no use to patrons if it is unobtainable or incomprehensible.
The descriptions following each of the values also came in for a fair amount of criticism. Looking at them, I had to admit they did seem a little wordy and even, on occasion, convoluted. Creativity, for instance, was described as “We cultivate a library culture in which patrons and staff are encouraged to take chances and explore new ideas in pursuit of their dreams. We don't condemn error, we learn from it. We embrace challenges and encourage originality and problem-solving.” That's a fair amount of verbiage to describe a quality pretty much everyone understands instinctively.
Listening to the back and forth, the vigorous debate over the importance my fellow staff members accorded these values, and others, in their day-to-day lives and work, I found myself thinking about the fact that one of the world's top accounting firms has just been fined $100 million after admitting that its employees had cheated on—of all things—their ethics exams. Think about that for a moment. If you can't depend on an accounting firm to not fudge the answers, what can you depend on an accounting firm for? It gave me a real sense of pride to know that here in Talbot County the people who protect, preserve, and share out one of our most valuable resources—the knowledge and information people seek to better their lives—take their responsibilities so seriously.
So finally (and perhaps inevitably given how hard it is for a room full of people to ever come to full agreement on anything) the decision was made to create a committee to whittle down the list's text to a form we could turn over to our board of trustees for final approval.
As the meeting was breaking up, our director, Dana Newman, pulled me aside. I could tell by the tilt of her head and the look in her eyes that she had something she wanted to say to me she didn't want anyone else to hear. “Were you okay with all that?” she asked. I looked a question at her. “I was just worried,” she went on, “that you might have been a little miffed by some of the critiques. I mean, you are the one who wrote most of those descriptions.”
She was right, I had, and I had completely forgotten that I had. This is what semi-retirement and old age will do to you. But it felt awfully good to have a boss show such concern for my feelings. Under one of the values we had discussed that morning you would find the following sentence: “It is our goal to provide a safe, supportive environment, and have every encounter with patrons and fellow staff begin—and end—with respect.” It's a good place to work and a good place to visit, the Talbot County Free Library. I am a very lucky man. And I think the people of Talbot County are pretty lucky too.
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