Jamie LaRue

On this show Jamie LaRue, CEO and Founder of LaRue and Associates, shares a distinctive way our organizations can move from being library-centric to being community-centric by cataloging the community. It’s a way we can take the classic library skills of cataloging, reference interviews, and database creation to the next level to create a powerful way to serve our communities.


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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

This is the 100th episode of Library Leadership Podcast. Thank you to you, our listeners who have made it possible with almost 200,000 downloads to date. On this show, Jamie LaRue, CEO and founder of LaRue and Associates shares a distinctive way our organizations can move from being library-centric to being community-centric by cataloging the community. It’s a way we can take the classic library skills of cataloging, reference interviews, and database creation to the next level to create a powerful way to serve our communities.  Enjoy the show!

Jaimi, welcome to the show.

James LaRue:

Thanks so much.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: Well, thank you for being here with me. We’re going to jump in talking about cataloging the community. And I’m excited about this topic. You say this is a key shift in libraries moving from being library-centric to being community-centric. How so?  01:38 

Jamie LaRue:

Well, I think I have three answers for that. The first one is that much of my thinking is informed by two OCLC studies. They’re both called, From Awareness to Funding. One’s done in 2006, one was done ten years later in 2016. What they found was that libraries over the course of the past generation have not only lost support—fewer libraries make it to the ballot, or win when they do. Or, many libraries have challenges to their budget. But now, for ten years—not only is support falling, but now use is falling as well. 

In my mind this is an existential crisis. Advocacy programs, as we’ve done them in the past, clearly have not worked. I think for many librarians, they think that advocacy is pounding on the table and saying, Library, library, give me money. 

You’re a director and you know that it’s really more about building shared commitment to goal, and managing relationships with people of power and influence. Part of all this was captured in this whole thrust ALA had about turning outward, and they teamed up with Harwood Institute and others, but I think the issue was larger than that. 

Ultimately my big ah-hah—my second point was that when I first started out as a library director I thought my job was to persuade the community that it was supposed to build a great library. I realized about five years in, that I had it backward. It is not the job of the community to build a great library, it’s the job of the library to build a great community. That’s what we’re supposed to do—is add value.

And then the third thing that should be an obvious observation—we catalog resources in our building. But people are resources, too. It occurred to me one day that, No, we should get systematic about trying to manage the issues and the personalities in our community.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: And this becomes essential work. So, what is our first step in cataloging the community?  03:33 

Jamie LaRue:

I’ve now done this with nine public libraries. Most of them have been rural, which is interesting. Little libraries really seem to grab hold of this. Step one is to sit down, both with staff, and with board and say, Who are the movers and shakers in our community? To get things started typically, I’ll put out like, Here’s a list of some categories, just to spark ideas. So, for business, Who are the main employers, or activists within the business community?

Civic—by that I mean civic groups like Rotary, Optimists, and the Lions, education leaders. So, the prominent people could be on the school board, could be a superintendent, could be a principal. Who are some of the key elected officials? But, don’t make it just about elected officials. Who are the faith-based leaders? You’ve heard so many interesting things from leaders in some of the larger, more influential churches, synagogues, mosques, or any other houses of worship. Who are the non-elected, or appointed government officials? Who’s involved in media? 

Some of my most intriguing interviews that I’ve done were with newspaper reporters, and newspaper editors. They’re used to asking questions, but of course they’ve figured out a lot of things by asking those questions.

Now, for-profit leaders—I’ve done this in almost every community, even in very rural locations, there are hoards of little tiny businesses that are operating out of people’s basements. 

So when I give that kind of list—Okay, now just start writing down names, and talk about that at the table, and say who are some of the people—and go up and write that on a big bulletin board here in front of everybody. Then we’ll have other people go through and say, Now, check yes, I think that’s a good person. That reminds me of this other person. And, in about an hour, no more than that you can come up with a list of thirty to fifty names. Then what I would do is, I would say, Okay, let me go through here, and have you missed anybody in the community? That becomes step one. Here is our list of interview prospects.

Now, I should also say that after the Black Lives Matter protests—working with one of the libraries that was kind of a white, small community, the Black Lives Matter protests really got through to many of the leaders there and they said, You know what? Movers and Shakers is good and I can see why they need to talk to people in power, but I wonder if we should also make an extra effort to—can we identify some spokespeople in these more marginalized, or less visible populations, because we know there’s demographic shifts happening in our community, and we want to put some of those people on our radar, as well.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: So, these are all people who represent important segments of the community and can make things happen. Once we have identified them, what comes next?  06:00 

Jamie LaRue:

Well, I give you two paths. One of them is—let’s say you’re just like a new director, or a director who feels like you don’t know your community as well as you would like. Then I would say the next step is, you contact those lists of prospects and you try to book one lunch a week. That means in a year, with two weeks off, you’re going to talk to fifty movers and shakers. So, that’s a very powerful way for a library director to get quickly up to speed about a community.

But, the second way—and a focus of my consulting, lately, has been as a library project. In that case you say, Okay, so now we’re going to put together a team of people who are doing the interviews—and I like to send them out in pairs. Call them librarians, they may or may not actually have an office, but the idea is that one of them conducts the reference interview, and the other one records and maybe asks a follow-up question or two. 

So, you call and set up the appointment and you say, I would like to meet because you are wise, and wisdom means that ability to recognize patterns. We would like to come and talk to you about your insights into the community, and we would like to do that either at your office, your place of business, a park somewhere, telephone, or on Zoom. It is not a library meeting. I want the librarians to leave the building and go to someplace to meet that person in their place of comfort and power.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: So, you’re conducting something of a reference interview. And once you’ve done that, you create a catalog—so to speak, of what you learn from the conversations with these influencers. Is that right?  07:27 

Jamie LaRue:

Right. And after messing around with a couple of different approaches I finally worked it out like this—I say, Here’s the questions, and I’ll come back to those later. Here’s a Google form, so the person who is taking notes—either with a paper form, or a computer. When they type in the answers to the five questions that they ask, those automatically populate a Google spreadsheet. So, what that means—it’s a very rapid entry. It’s not difficult to pop all this stuff in, and when it’s done you not only have a record of all the people that you spoke with, and their contact information—what their titles were and all that, but then you also have a list of the issues that they raised. 

Then you can go back and say, Now, I have a rudimentary—both issues, management database, and a contact management database. I can go through and highlight all the different terms and the issues that people are talking about that start to concur. So, what I wind up getting is a list of, not only that contact management database, but it gives us a way to follow-up to say, I talked to the mayor six months ago, maybe I should go back and talk to the mayor and see how things are going with the issues he was talking about.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: And once you have this record, this list—what  are the implications for continued information gathering at that point?  08:48 

Jamie LaRue:

Well, I guess it’s more than just continued information gathering—there may well be follow-up questions, or other people that they recommend that you should talk to. But, I think what you really get out of this process is—so, again we’ve come back with this big Google spreadsheet that has a list of the people we talked to, and all the issues that they said were significant in the community. Now, I can go through and highlight all that, and then typically sit down with two or three people from the library and say, Okay, what’s our best—let’s boil all this down. What are the key recurrent themes that everyone in the community is talking about?

What I find—and this is sort of interesting to me, is that typically it’s about five to seven issues that keep coming up over and over. And it is not the same in each community. Each community—even, I did a couple in Arizona where they were thirty miles apart, but the interviews were wildly different. They had very different kinds of concerns.

So, what this is—once all that information gets put together, then we contact all the people that we spoke to the first time, and say, Now, we would like to invite you to the library. We want to present to you what we learned from our conversations with you. When that comes, I’ll be standing up in front and say, Notice something very interesting is happening. 

Now we have gone from being a reference interviewer, a service transaction—now, we have convened the powerful people, and the influential people in our community to come to the library and we present to them what we think is the first draft of a community agenda. This is so powerful. What I’ve found when I do this is that people would walk into these meetings and they would say things like, Oh, I love the library. I would say, That’s great, but that’s not what this is about. What we’re trying to figure out is what’s really going on in our community. 

In that process we’ll say, Okay, so this was a current issue. Did we get this right? You are the folks we got this stuff from, please let us know if this is correct, or precise enough. So there’s discussion about that. Then sometimes I also say, Who else is working on this issue in the community? I find that even in communities with five hundred people, there will be an issue that’s very important to the community that has two groups of people working on it, that didn’t know there was another group. It’s a way to begin to coordinate issues. So, this creation of the community agenda is a power move for librarians, because it not only gets consensus through this straight gathering of information, but it also distills it down and tries to make meaning from it.

The next step is—now we want to say, Where’s the gap? Can we identify a key library initiative that A.—actually sits in the library wheelhouse? One of the issues—people really want a bowling alley, you’re probably not going to open a bowling alley. Or, if they say the issue is water, well, there’s not much the library can do to produce more water. But, we could do things like demonstration community gardens that have low water use. We can do panel discussions about xeriscaping your home yard. We can do gathering of information about what the water issues are, and panel discussions, and just educate the whole community about it. 

It needs to be something that the library can do—and do well, and something that actually moves the community forward. Ultimately, the big product out of this stuff is we are gaining support through building relationships, and productive work that the community can see benefits—not just us, but everyone in the community.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: So, taken together, what do these steps of cataloging the community accomplish overall for our institutions?  12:19 

Jamie LaRue:

I’ll boil it down to about five things. The first one is you get greater visibility. What I like so much about this is that we’re not just putting the director in front of the mayor, or in front of a politician. We’re putting reference librarians in front of child care providers, in front of local businesses. They would come back and say, Wow, we have the opportunity to do so much good for these people. And now, there are many faces for the library. And these powerful, influential people know a number of names and faces, interested people in the library who have much greater visibility.

The second thing is—you not only have visibility, you have the beginning of a managed relationship with people in power. What we’re trying to get there is allies, and it’s not just awareness, like the OCLC report, but it really does generate support. I’ll try to grab a point that I was going to try and make later—my favorite moment in these discussions. I was doing one of these interviews myself and about part way through the person looked at me and said, I’m sorry, who are you with again? I said, Well, I’m with the library. And they said, And, why are you doing this? 

I said, We’re doing it for two reasons, one is we understand the environment in which we operate, and we’re talking to as many smart people about that as we can. But, the second thing is we’re looking for a place where we can add value. And in that moment there’s a profound shift that happens in the mind of the person you’re talking to. They’re used to the public sector saying, We need more money, can we count on your support? But, they’ve never had a public sector person come in and say, Tell me what’s important to you, and why, and maybe there’s a way that I can help you. That’s a new kind of advocacy. It’s where I support you because you support me. I think that’s a very powerful shift.

You get a greater knowledge of those current and emerging issues so that helps with our own planning. Then it gets you a place at the table. It’s that opportunity to contribute. I know there’s strategic planning kinds of goals where people do things that are overelaborate sometimes. But this is a process that gives a library a way to focus on initiatives that move the whole community forward. That’s how you secure support, by demonstrating your value to people on their terms, not on your own. 

Then I’ll give you the last caveat, I think the other big thing you accomplish is that if you interview thirty-five to fifty community leaders you are liable to become one. That’s the deep power of this whole process—is that we go from one of the library’s—one of the first time I did this, the librarian, the library director was in a very small town community, about 600 people. She just thought, Well, not much is going on here. We’ve got the economic doldrum, the big employer in town is closing. We need a project to gather around. She just started going around and talking to all these people and now she has been the president of the Chamber of Commerce. She’s been on the selection committee to choose the superintendent. Anybody who’s running for political office comes and talks to her first. That’s a huge shift in how the library was seen in that community, and it came about through nothing more than talking to people—listening to people.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Incredible. Is there anything else you’d like to share?  15:32 

Jamie LaRue:

Yeah, I wanted to go back to—focus a little bit more on the interview. First, why do interviews work? I tossed out this idea that when you set up the appointment to say, Adriane, I want to talk to you because you are wise. Well, what does that mean? 

What it means is that anybody who is in a position where you’re trying to engage with a lot of people, you’re going to get a lot of information. And human beings, by their very nature, are meaning makers. We try to understand what it is—what’s the pattern of all these things that people are talking about?

What I like about the interview as opposed to a survey, or something, is that you can go so much more in depth. You can find patterns that are unexpected. An example was in one case, this is back in Douglas County—very well to do, pretty well educated, people had a fair amount of money. We were talking to a pastor and we said, As you think about the issues that your community’s facing, what do you think are the hot ones over the next eighteen to twenty-four months? 

And he says, You know, I used to be a grief counselor and what I see in Douglas County now is grief. The reference librarian said, Well, that’s an interesting observation, can you tell me more about what you mean by grief?

He says, Well, Douglas County has grown very rapidly. In 1960 you had 5000 people. In the year 2000 there were 300,000 people. What that means is that nobody grew up with anybody here. Everybody’s from somewhere else. And the grief that I see in them is a loss of place. They don’t have a home. They don’t have memories and connections of the schoolyard that they went to with somebody who lived three doors down from them. That really gave us this idea—we need to find a way to build community, and a sense of shared history. I would submit that you can never get that from a survey. That has to come from a conversation. 

So, there’s that. The second thing was to say by listening, and not talking you encourage people to demonstrate their own passions. The deepest part about managing relationships is understanding what makes somebody tick. There are two questions out of the five, one is tell us your story, how’d you get here? That’s just interesting background details, and that’s where you find out that you went to the same college as that person, or you know something about that community. 

The second time you just say, What is your driver? What is your passion? Often when you’re talking for a not-for-profit’s director, or something, they tell you what the passion is, that’s why they launched their company. When people start talking about the things they care most about they get excited. They open up. It’s none of this holding back because you’re afraid they’re going to ask you for something. You are asking them to talk about the thing that matters to them. That makes the interviews fun. 

So again, the focus here is a different kind of advocacy. It’s advocacy based on listening, not talking. So, I told you the thing about what happens during the interview—who are you, and what are you doing? But the five questions, I’ll repeat these and encourage any of your listeners to go to my blog, jaslarue.blogspot.com. I went through a series about a first-time director and how you connect with the community. Here I have these questions and how to ask them.

But the idea is that—tell us your story, how did you get here? Tell me what you’re passionate about. What are the key concerns of your constituents, meaning the people you work, and talk with over the next eighteen to twenty-four months? That eighteen to twenty-four months is to try to get a sense of closure, like it’s on the immediate horizon, not just generic. 

Then we say, What are your aspirations for the community? What would you like to see happen in the community? And the last question is, Who else should we talk to? Those five questions will take you an hour, with follow-up—Please define your constituents, do I understand that concern in just doing the basic reference interview?

But what I loved about this at the very beginning when I was persuading my librarians to go out there, Well, this feels really weird because it’s not in the library. I said, Right. But, what I’ve learned is that in our community there are many questions from those movers and shakers—it would never occur to them to take that question to the library. We have to leave the building. We have to go out and talk to them. We have to go out and find out where they are. We have to get them used to seeing us in their spheres of influence. 

To a person, everyone—even my librarians said, Well, okay, I’ll do it, but I don’t want to. They came back and said, No, I had no idea we could help—whatever institution you want—the schools so much. There is so much we could do to support the food bank with information. We found a museum—we’re looking for exhibits. We could highlight their exhibits at the library.

So, I saw this transformation in my staff where just in a space of two or three months after we started doing all this stuff, they were really savvy about what was going on in the community, and more and more of those powerful people were coming in to talk to them to ask for help.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: Everyone transforms in this process, it’s incredible. And, thank you for sharing the specific questions that you use, too, because that will be very useful as those of us who have not done this yet, look toward possibly going out into our communities with this model. Jaimi, do you have any favorite management or leadership books, or resources and why?  20:33 

Jamie LaRue:

I’ll give you two—but I want to defer to one of the other things I like about this whole process is that even though I’m making a living as a consultant, you don’t need a consultant to do this. It’s very straightforward, and just that process of brain-storming, and then going out and asking the questions, and trying to boil it all down is by itself an incredible learning opportunity for the director, and for the staff. It doesn’t require expensive surveys. It’s nothing more than the time of your staff doing something that they already know how to do. 

Back to my two books. Not usually cited as a business book, it’s the Daodejing. One of the things when I first discovered the Daodejing I was in sixth grade, and it really grabbed hold of my imagination. One of the things that stuck with me was, running a government is like cooking a small fish. Meaning that if you’re in charge of something that instead of it having it be all about pomp and scale, just cook it very gently and carefully. It’s a reminder that there’s a kind of servant leadership that has a very light hand, not above the imposition of will, it’s about the discovery of shared meaning.

And then finally, the second one would be Good to Great by Jim Collins. I think, really—and I’ve taught this book at the MLS programs—but level 5 leadership he describes as personally humble, but institutionally ruthless. This is very much the idea, it’s not about you. Taken together both of those things, I think, give you some good specifics about the attitude for public sector management, and about what it takes to produce a great institution.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #9: Wonderful resources, thank you. Jaimi, in closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally?  22:34 

Jamie LaRue:

You know, I tell this story—I was six years old the first time I saw a bookmobile. I walked right out of the baseball game I was playing in to go investigate the bookmobile. When I stepped in, there was Mrs. Johnson the bookmobile librarian—who smiled at me like I was the man she’d been waiting for all of her life. She said to me, How can I help you? 

I should say that I grew up in this verbally, very abusive household. I had a father who was always saying, So stupid, why do you want to know this? But, she was so open and friendly. She said, Now, how can I help you? I said, Well, I’ve been reading in comic books about the speed of light. How did they figure out that light had a speed? I thought it was just like on or off, and then how did they measure it?

Then, because of the way I’d been raised I hunkered back and thought here it comes, you’re so stupid—not that I believed that, but I had gotten used to the tirade. But instead, her eyes twinkled and she looked at me and said, What a fascinating question, let’s find out. 

So, what libraries mean to me, personally, is that all the way back to six years old you had me at hello. I walked in there, not used to somebody respecting the curiosity of a six-year- old, and here was a person who laid every resource in that institution in front of me. That human benevolence, that mutual respect—and just the sheer professionalism really stays with me.

Then I think the second thing is that I’ve always been curious about everything, so when you take all of the library services together what you wind up with is the chronicle of the human story. It’s a species biography. It’s like I can remember reading when I was in—I guess I must have been a freshman, or sophomore—I found The Well of Loneliness, which was one of the early lesbian novels that you could find in the public library. It just blew me away. It was like I hadn’t really thought about this. It introduced me to a whole other world and way of being.

Picked up a copy of Black Like Me—someone who disguises himself as an African American, and managed to pull it off through pigmentation of the skin dyeing, contact lenses, and had natural curly hair. Then he reports about that. It’s like even though I’m not black, I’m not a lesbian, I can read those things and have such a richer understanding of the human story. Library for me is ultimately—it honors my curiosity, and awards me with the richest story in the world.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #10: Truly marvelous, thank you so much. And I love that what you’re doing with cataloging the community is much what the librarian did for you when you asked that question. It’s a fascinating question, let’s find out—and, you’ve been asking questions ever since. So, this is perfect. Thank you for sharing.  25:11 

Jamie LaRue:

Well, thank you so much, and again, my big ah-hah in this one is leadership begins with listening, not talking.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Thank you, Jamie, it’s been an honor having you on the show today. 

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to episodes delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.