This is my current professional obsession: organizational trauma and how organizations heal.
For all the management workshops and institutes and retreats out there, how often does anyone in librarianship talk about organizational trauma, and figure out how to identify it and resolve it? All leadership talk I’ve heard starts from the presumption that entering a new role or a new org is all about starting fresh, setting expectations, building these new relationships that are all full of equal potential. The most I’ve seen is the sort of throwaway admonition to “build trust”. It’s all about looking forward, as if everyone just stepped out of the library factory shiny and brand new and ready to give each other the benefit of the doubt. But the one thing I know so far about organizational trauma is being new doesn’t make it go away.
Organizational trauma won’t go away until we address it and resolve it. So there are plenty of libraries out there with workplaces that are incomprehensibly bonkers, and it’s not clear what’s going wrong or who is causing the problems, and no matter how many new people join the org or how many disgruntled people leave it, the culture remains incomprehensibly bonkers, and it damages everyone who goes near it like a piñata made of knives. That’s organizational trauma, and passes down from generation to generation of library staff.
I’m tired of organizational trauma, and I’m heartbroken at the damage it causes to some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. I’m frustrated by the lost productivity, the zapped creativity, and the absence of joy and workplace satisfaction that’s so infinitely possible in our daily work. Why should we give up all that? I’m interested in exploring how we can stop ignoring organizational trauma as if that will make it fade and start addressing it so that an organization can heal and move forward in a healthier, happier, and more productive way.
We should know how to do this. There should be a checklist, or something. This work should be bog standard, it should be part of the basic toolkit of anyone entering a leadership role. We should know what the qualities of a leader who is capable of successfully resolving an organization’s trauma are. Can you name those qualities? I can’t. We should recognize the people who do this work successfully and have them keynote, I need to hear from them. Have you ever seen a leadership position that was posted with the goal of finding someone capable of doing the work of healing organizational trauma? Does anyone ask interview questions about experience addressing organizational trauma? Is there a rubric for evaluating a leadership candidate as more or less experienced and capable of this work? If so, please share. I’d love to see it.
I don’t think we hire for these qualities. We often hire for vision, as if bringing in a person with a vision will distract all the traumatized library workers from their past experiences and draw them toward this new light source. Maybe that works sometimes. But I think more often it sets up good people with great ideas about the future of libraries to fail, because it’s impossible to implement grand ideas in organizations that are too full of trauma to act on them.
So I’m reaching out for resources, digging into new disciplines and areas of research, and exploring these questions. I have some ideas about it and experiences to draw from, but I still feel under-educated about this, and that feels like a gaping hole in my knowledge.
What I know so far is that stewarding the healing of organizational trauma requires empathy, enough humility to admit when you’re wrong, respect for the expertise of others in all parts of an organization, the confidence to not be threatened by the brilliance of others, and to hang back and let people who know their work shape our collective direction forward. But I know there’s more to it. I want to know all that. More to come.
We can’t travel, but I can flip through my pictures and remember visiting places and being impressed by the signage.
Doesn’t everyone go places just to admire the signage? No?
Here is one of my favourite bits of information design. Perhaps because it’s the first thing I see when I get to the Tube level at Heathrow, which means my amazing holiday is about to begin. Or maybe just because it’s effective and at communicating the possibilities ahead of you.
These two pillars are next to each other, underscoring the starkness of your choice at this decision point. From the platform on the left, and you can go to one place: Heathrow Terminal 5. But the platform to the right is the gateway to central London. Look at all the places you can go!
It’s a big sign with too much information on it, which is a rarity for TfL signage. It doesn’t obscure which way to Terminal 5, it’s very clear, but you don’t actually need to read all that text on the right to know that you want to go that way. They might as well have put up a sign that says, “Everything is that way, basically.”
Many avgolemono recipes have way more stuff in them, like shredded chicken and rice, and that’s fine. We weren’t in the mood for any of that, and my mother doesn’t like rice in soup, so we stuck to the basics. It was amazing.
My mom has the dregs of a roast chicken in the freezer, so she made broth from that, adding an onion and a little chicken bouillon to boost it up, and then she strained it to get just the broth. We are going to try it without the chicken bones tomorrow, and I’m pretty sure it will work just fine. Fingers crossed!
Directions Boil the chicken broth in a sauce pan or pot and let it simmer.
Crack one egg into a medium bowl; add two egg yolks. Squeeze the juice from two lemons, about a third to a half a cup. Add the lemon juice to the eggs and whisk until it’s all mixed.
Using a ladle and pouring slowly, add chicken broth to the egg mixture, whisking constantly. This is the tempering step, with the goal of heating up the egg mixture without scrambling it. Add 4-5 ladlefuls of simmering broth to the bowl to bring the eggs up to temperature.
Reduce the heat on the rest of the broth, and add the lemon-egg-broth mixture to the pot. Give it a stir; don’t let it boil.
Add dill, and serve!
This recipe is for three; I think it would be fairly easy scale up or down.
Self-Isolation is the name of the game during a global pandemic, so we’re going out less and staying in more. But you know what what’s nice, pandemic or no? Fresh bread for lunch.
So here’s my self-isolation bread. It’s a french bread recipe that contains no fat at all, so I don’t expect it would keep well. My goal was to make just enough to have it for lunch, with an eye towards not needing to store any of it afterwards. It keeps those clean hands busy! You can see the buns I’m making out of it are pretty huge. I’m feeding three people with this recipe, but you could stretch it to four pretty easily.
Ingredients 2 cups of flour 2 tsp salt 2 level tablespoons or two envelopes of rapid rise yeast (the orange package) 1/4 cup (ish) warm water 1 egg 1 cup of water
Directions Arrange the racks in your oven so that you’ve got one in the middle and another underneath it.
Pour flour into a bowl. Add salt and mix well. Add yeast, and mix that well, too. Add the warm water and stir. Add more water or flour if it seems too wet or dry.
Use your freshly washed hands to mix and knead the dough for at least ten minutes. Given how small this ball of dough is, there’s no need to transfer it to a surface to knead it, you can keep it in the bowl. Dough should smell yeasty and have a springy but not sticky texture.
Rest your dough ball in the bowl. Dampen a dish towel and use it to cover the dough and the bowl itself. Ideally, leave it in a warm place, like in a patch of sunlight. Leave it to rise for about an hour or so. It will at least double in size.
Once your dough has risen, preheat the oven to 405F/205C. Lightly flour a baking sheet and a bit of counter. Move your dough onto a floured surface and shape it into as many buns as you’d like to serve. I have generally formed it into 3 buns, but 4 would be a snap. Put them on the baking sheet.
Crack an egg into a cup and beat it well to create an eggwash. Using a pasty brush, apply the eggwash to your buns. Score your buns with a sharp knife.
Pour a cup of water into a wide pan or casserole dish. Put it on the lowest rack in your oven. (The water in the oven will give your bread a nice crust.) Pop your baking sheet with your buns on it into the oven for about 30 minutes, or until they’ve puffed up and look nicely browned on the the top.
Serve with butter, cheese, and, if you’re lucky, Noah Martin summer sausage from St. Jacob’s, Ontario. Or however you like to.
One of the things I’ve come to recognize and embrace over time is my love for the (so-called) troublemakers. I know the issue with them is right there in the name, but I can’t deny my soft spot for them.
It’s not that I think a troublemaker is always right. A troublemaker is someone who is willing to put their necks on the line, risk a hit, or lose status because they believe in something strongly enough to speak out.
A troublemaker has courage and passion. A troublemaker will push back, question any decision, question your grasp on a situation, question your very values or your sanity, demand better answers, and even foment revolution. When they’ve got the facts sideways or in half-measure, or when they value chaos, domination or revenge, they can cause destruction, woe, and havoc. But let’s be honest: any quality worth having is risky. Every strength is a weakness in some context. We can’t hold that against the troublemaker. Heroes are villains too, when you tell the story from a different perspective.
One of the fundamental lessons I’ve learned about trying to make change, very big or very small, is that indifference is far more difficult to overcome than hostility is. I know many people disagree with me; if you dislike conflict and avoid it wherever possible, indifference must always be preferable to hostile disagreement. But in order to be hostile, you have to care. A lot. If no one cares about what you’e trying to do or change, you have a much tougher task in front of you, and you’re going to be doing it pretty much alone. If someone is fighting you and your work tooth and nail, they have energy, passion, and commitment. All you need to do is change their mind. You need to be absolutely ready to let them change yours.
Like most of us, I have a long history of being wrong. I always start out assuming I understand a situation and know enough to have a perspective I can act on. And then I learn more, and realize I was wrong. Once in a while, I learn something that causes one of my core perspectives, one I’ve built a lifetime of decisions and actions on top of, to come tumbling down. Usually, it hurts. We weave our perspectives into ourselves so tightly that losing one of them is like coming unravelled, and it can seriously sting. But all learning is pain, and when you’re facing it, you can either cover over the hole and pretend nothing’s changed, or let that learning change you.
Troublemakers give me the hope that there’s a moment like that coming. Listening to their perspective unravels when I know and gives me the tools to knit together something more complicated and more true. So as often as they throw a spanner in the works, I think we’d all be poorer, and less, without them.
Here’s to the troublemakers among us. Never stop causing trouble.
I went north last week to see the brand new Library of Birmingham. It’s only been open a few months, and it’s stunning. It’s nice to see something beautiful in this country that isn’t over a hundred years old or a nod to its illustrious past. This is a defiantly modern structure, and I absolutely love it. I made the perhaps ill-advised decision to visit during a school break, but I certainly got to see this library full, busy, and full of noise. So perhaps not a completely terrible decision.
There are many wonderful things in the Library of Birmingham, including a well-designed children’s library and event space, a lovely front lobby where they sell crafts made by local artists, thoughtful (and gender-segretated) prayer rooms, to say nothing of the two beautifully functional roof gardens (the main one, and the secret one). Stunning.
But you can already see where the seams are going to burst for this library. Not enough power, and not enough collaborative spaces. This problem is most obvious in their study spaces.
I have to admit, I hadn’t expected study space to play such an important role in public libraries, but it clearly does. Every public library I’ve visited so far has been packed full of studying students, which certainly makes me feel at home. It’s obviously not a new phenomenon, because each of these libraries has been designed to accommodate them. Canada Water library has it’s charming ring of study space perched along it’s upper floor, Idea Store Whitechapel has it’s little tables up against windows, and the Library of Birmingham has an impressive variety of study spaces.
You can see three different kinds of study space here, all of it in use in spite of the unholy racket emanating up from the ground floor. Tables with supplied computers, similar tables minus computers, and the bar seating along the length of those solid glass walls. (I really love bar seating, and apparently I’m not alone in that. I haven’t seen a library without bar seating yet.) All those spaces are well used, but what you can see in this photo is that the fixed computers are perhaps the least well-used part of the space.
Those of us watching computing have been waiting for the moment when the other shoe drops and patrons visibly begin to prefer to use their own computers in public spaces rather than use public terminals. This is a natural development, and frankly I’m surprised it’s not more in evidence back home at UTM. But here, it seems pretty apparent to me that personal computing is just that, and the people of Birmingham have no issue bringing in their own devices and computers. Because there are no chairs around that pod in the middle of the picture, the one with the fixed computers on it. The computers have been left to sit on their own, but the chairs have gone off to places patrons would rather use.
This might be where some of those chairs have got to. I think this is where we start to see some of the gaps in the space emerging. This is a private study area ringing a stairwell. (If you can call it a stairwell when it’s full of blue-glowing escalators.) I’ve seen this in other libraries, and I think it’s really good use of space. Having private study space in a public traffic area but looking outwards (either to the view outside through glass, or into a vast internal space like a central stairway) makes for a really nice happy medium, I think. Lots of people want to work on their own but feel connected to the activity going on around them rather than in total silence. This kind of space provides that, and also provides a kind of dampening effect over all. When people come up the escalator, they see the patrons with their noses down working, and that’s a cue to lower your voice.
But you’ll see those red chairs, the ones I’m pretty sure don’t belong there. They’ve been dragged over from other areas, and the boys are sitting together. They’re sort of working together, but the space isn’t really allowing for it. You can see they’ve shoved their chairs back a bit in an attempt to create a space for more than one. They’d probably rather be at a place like this to work:
But it’s full up. And to be honest, quiet as a tomb. This space, in spite of the “collaborative” look to the tables, is being used as a reading room. Each of these people are working independently rather than collaboratively. And, if you note the stool pulled up to the first table, it’s got a chair problem as well.
Why would that young lady bring a stool that belongs to the bar seating area, and thus is completely the wrong height for the table, to a table where she’d have to crouch over to use her computer? She’s not doing it because there’s a failing in this space. She’s doing it because of a failing in the other areas. She’s there for the power. These are all powered tables. If you’re sitting at one of these tables, you can be sure you’ll be able to plug in. Strangely, in the areas designed for more individual study, the power outlets are only every third or fourth slot.
Maybe this space would be better for collaborating:
From a distance it looks like one large table, but as you can see, it’s not. These are four individual areas, and they’re being used that way. Individually.
I’ve written previously about the desire to have “flexible” spaces, and tables that break apart goes hand in hand with furniture on casters. But this is what happens; those breaks between the tables are indicators of how much space is yours and how much is mine. So these are private study spaces as well.
This is the first time i’ve ever seen individual study spaces hived off as study rooms. Each of these little rooms only fits one person. There’s only one chair in each. Given how noisy this library was on the day I visited, I could understand why they’d go out of their way to create silent spaces. And I suppose, if you have the room and the budget, why not? But I was beginning to seriously notice a trend here: almost all the spaces I saw were providing indicators that they were for individual use, even the spaces that were designed to be shareable.
Chairs walking off isn’t an unusual problem, but this library is suffering quite badly from it. You see where those gaps are? Chairs that walked, mostly in the pursuit of power. This is a brand new library, so I’m a bit surprised that there aren’t outlets absolutely everywhere. But they’re aren’t. They’re few and far between, much like the chairs. You have to go on a hunt for it, and then hope there’s a chair there for you as well.
Perhaps a time will come when we won’t need so many outlets. Maybe computers and devices will have batteries that last days or weeks at a time rather than 2-6 hours, tops. We can hope for that, but in the meantime, power may be the single most important service a library can offer to support the use of technology. It’s not computers: remember that pod of computers above that’s unused and unusable because of the absence of chairs. Maybe it just comes down to this: chairs, power, and wifi. That might be enough to make magic happen.
The Library of Birmingham, as beautiful as it is, is showing signs of scarcity of two of those things: power, and chairs.
Over a year ago, I found a stack of study chairs in a hallway at work. I think they were there because they were off to get cleaned, but I needed some extra chairs, so I liberated them and wheeled them into the tech centre. I needed a couple of extra, and there were a few more than that, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have a few extra chairs on hand when instructors drop by with their TAs. As it turned out, having extra chairs in the room was outrageously useful. They call pulled out, rolled around, and used by everyone, staff, faculty, and students. Extra chairs are friendly and genuinely flexible. They added a bit more functionality to the space. While at the Library of Birmingham, I realized how valuable it was to see a stack of extra chairs in a space like this. People are essentially expected to fight each other for a place to put their bums. They have to make radical choices, too: computer, or no? Comfort, or no? Power, or no? It’s like Survivor but with chairs. When there’s a scarcity, people will retreat to the most conservative position, and I think that’s what’s happening here. There’s very little collaboration going on, and everyone’s just grateful they can sit down and plug in (if they’re lucky).
I’ve noticed something twice now in non-library settings: extra seating where patrons can grab it. I didn’t get a shot of the extra seating at the Wellcome Collection, but I’ll be back there in a couple of weeks. They’ve got heavy white stools patrons can pull down from their storage area and use wherever they like. The National Portrait Gallery has these:
Grab your own stool, walk around with it. Sit down wherever you like. Sit with others, or sit on your own. It’s up to you, because these chairs come with no conditions.
Of course, portable stools like these make sense in an art gallery. It’s quite a nice touch, I think. Galleries are intensely physical spaces that require to you to move through them to experience them. They aren’t tremendously flexible spaces because the art isn’t there to be shifted around by patrons. The flexible bit in an art gallery, primarily, is the patron. But galleries and museums have open and broad spaces for people to fit inside, big vistas of wide corridor, essentially, so why not give patrons slim seating to place where they see fit? The institution doesn’t decide where it’s needed. You do. It’s still the patron fitting herself around the gallery, but in a much more comfortable way.
If I had to give any advice to the Library of Birmingham right now, I would say: take a page from the National Portrait Gallery. Stick extra chairs all over the place. Far too many of them; make it feel like there’s an abundance of chairs. I suspect the space would get used differently if there weren’t a constant low-grade war going over the ability to sit down.