ILA Best Practices

Last month I attended the second incarnation of the Chicagoland Library Unconference, aptly named Chicagoland Library Unconference #2, at the RAILS Wheeling Building. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I hadn’t attended the first (un)conference, and the notion of describing something that is what it is not was intriguing, but also a bit Magritte-esque.

The day began with a panel discussion (innovators from other industries to inspire us) but quickly evolved into an action-packed hands-on workshop. We were divided into teams and given the task of defining a big problem facing libraries today, and devising an innovative solution.

Teams then pitched their ideas to the group at large and were peppered with tough questions from the audience. As described by the Unconference organizers, the experience was similar to an episode of ABC’s Shark Tank, as fellow attendees eagerly, and quite effectively, took on various roles (library board members, members of the public, fellow librarians, teachers, parents, corporate partners, etc.) while challenging the teams’ ideas.

In addition to leaving with some good ideas, the experience was educational in two distinct ways:

1. The ideas themselves are only part of the story. It is vital to quickly and effectively communicate and sell your idea to a diverse audience, and to be prepared for inevitable critiques.
2. The “unconference” was a great way to flip a traditional idea on its head. Instead of passively watching standard panel discussions and keynote speakers, attendees better accomplished traditional conference goals of meeting new people and learning about cutting edge ideas in our industry through active learning, participation, and content creation.

What examples have you seen of flipping a traditional idea on its head? What works, and why? What else can we take a second look at that has just “always been done that way”?

Hilary Meyer
Chicago, IL


Last week I had the opportunity to visit one of the companies that we purchase a limited number of books from each year. It was a really fascinating experience. The owner of the company as well as the regional manager and the vice president of sales met our group of twenty library staff members then proceeded to spend the next four hours with us. They gave us a tour of their facility, answered a myriad of questions and gave us time to wander around the warehouse. It was a librarian’s dream come true. This local company has always been family owned, has several green initiatives in effect and places customer service as one of their highest priorities. In addition, they highly value children’s literacy and donate as much as possible to children who may otherwise  never own a book. Sounds like the perfect company, we should use them for everything, right? Well, the thing is, their materials are more costly than those we get from the big book jobbers. And that is where the conundrum lies.

In this age where our time is at a premium, more and more demands are being placed on us, and our budgets may not be as big as they used to be, where does the personal touch come in? Are we willing to sacrifice excellent customer service from a company where a live person always answers the phone for a 40% discount somewhere else?  Do we stop seeing book representatives for the simplicity of standing orders and the ease of a selection process that only requires a computer and can be done at any time of the day or night? And conversely, should we still value that face to face time with representatives even if they no longer have the love or interest in their products but are just trying to reach their quota?

As we being this new year, is the personal touch still important?

Is providing genealogy help @ your library becoming a service priority? Here are some successful services and programs the Algonquin Area Public Library is providing to support residents looking to “discover their roots.”

Laying the groundwork for successful genealogy programming starts with identifying someone who has been doing their own family research, is “genealogy friendly” and willing to share their expertise with the public.  Start by asking your own staff; call another library, a local historical or genealogical society from the surrounding community for free or inexpensive speakers.  Reference librarians Virginia Freyre and Kristen McCallum are our resident experts and teachers. They have created a first class genealogy collection and program repertoire over the last 8 years of books, classes, workshops, brochures, speakers, online resources, a web page and half hour consultations for the “Clueless about Genealogy!” We are close to becoming an affiliate Family History Center (LDS) to process patron requests for microfilm from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

Our beginner classes are traditionally scheduled early in the year. The original Genealogy 101 class covered the basics of where to start, searching census records, locating vital records, military records and immigration and naturalization resources. Students loved the notebook we provided with handouts on each topic presented. The wealth of information presented is often overwhelming to beginners so Kristen and Virginia redesigned their class. The original 101 class was expanded to a 3 week session limited to 30 students titled Genealogy Bootcamp.  They discovered that step by step instruction, building on the previous week’s lesson, by using case studies, assigning homework, and giving quizzes helped the new “recruits” increase their understanding of the research process.  Information was provided about other genealogical programs, workshops, and conferences and attendance was encouraged for additional learning opportunities.

Our most popular program always filled to capacity is our After-Hours Genealogy Workshop. For the last 5 years, in April and November on a Friday night from 4:30-10:30pm Kristen and Virginia provide genealogy enthusiasts independent research time on our computers, technical and research assistance and occasional “expert” volunteers from the local genealogical society. The evening begins with a short presentation on a general topic of interest, snacks and drinks are provided, use of our computers, access to Ancestry and other databases, and unlimited free printing. October and November is a good time to schedule an after hours program to take advantage of the State of Illinois’s free trial access to electronic resources during their annual Try-it Illinois.

Two years ago they created the monthly Genealogical Lecture Series by choosing a regular day and time, ours is 3rd Tuesdays at 7pm (excluding July, August and December), to increase appeal to novices, seasoned researchers and increase attendance. We continue to schedule a variety of topics and speakers; Ethnic research strategies (Polish, German, Irish, English, Scottish, Swedish, etc.), Genealogy computer program comparisons of Family Tree Maker & Roots Magic, Online resource demonstration and instruction for Ancestry and Heritage Quest, Experts (LDS), Immigration & Naturalization, Marriage Records, Collateral Relations, Cemetery Research, Writing Your Family History, Old Photograph identification and restoration and Local History.

Contact Vicky Tobias at the Algonquin Area Public Library for more information.

1.     Have the staff members at all levels share what they appreciate about each other in very specific ways. In small groups, have staff discuss the things that others do that make life and work easier for them.  Be sure to record these comments and post them afterwards. Be sure that feedback gets back to others.

2.     Have people talk about what they like about working at the library and why they have made this their work. What is working for them right now?  Have people share what’s working for the patron and what successes have occurred this year?  Also discuss the challenges they may face in the future.

3.     Discuss in an involved way what the future direction for the library should be in programs, services, processes, facility, human resources etc.

4.     Identify what are the future trends in facility, programs, technology, and materials.  Bring a local author to talk about books.

5.     Provide opportunities for leaders from the community to address what they see are the critical issues they are facing and how those could be helped by the library.

6.     Provide for an open exchange of information between the staff, board, and leaders.  Bringing a moderator may help here.

7.     Teach a few vital skills necessary for the library to be a success (learning about a new technology, handling patron complaints, dealing with teens etc.)

8.     Be sure to follow-up on questions, concerns, ideas and/or suggestions for change that are mentioned.

9.     Provide opportunities for staff skits on a day in the life of your department or your most unusual reference or patron request.

10.  Do let the staff know that they are appreciated and solicit their feedback on how the day went.  Thank all those who helped with the day.


Dan Wiseman, Managing Partner
Wiseman Consulting and Training Inc.
133 W. Palatine Rd. Suite 202
Palatine, IL 60067
847-221-5197 (Home Office)
847-902-9034 (Dan Cell)


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To learn of other libraries’ successes and to post your own, follow the Library Success:  A Best Practices Wiki at  Its creator is Meredith Farkas, however the wiki belongs to the library community.

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