Designing a Better Organization

Last week marked my one year anniversary as the University Librarian at McMaster.  Those of you who are familiar with my personal blog know that it has been an eventful year, to say the least.  Over the past 12 months we have made significant organizational changes that have affected nearly every member of the staff.  Over the course of the year I have given numerous public presentations on our transformation as have many of my staff.  I thought it might be of interest to those of you reading Designing Better Libraries to hear about our transformation process and the outcomes as of the writing of this entry.  After all, designing better libraries also means dealing with issues related to staffing and organization.

Setting the process in motion

Prior to my arrival the McMaster University Library was a fairly traditional organization. The organizational structure and the functions of the various units had been rooted in traditional library roles and services.  It was clear during the interview process that the challenges were related to a lack of space/unattractive spaces, declining budget (particularly monographs) and personnel (some might ask “what’s left”?) and that those challenges were substantial.

The three biggest challenges related to staffing included:


– the lowest number of professional librarians among members of the Association of Research Libraries;

– high percentage of staff in “back office” operations; and

– staff members who had not been given the opportunity or encouragement to expand their skills to meet the changing demands of our students and faculty.


The four biggest opportunities at the time included:


– recognition by the staff that change was needed;

– recognition by the University Administration that change was needed;

– recognition by the staff union that change was needed; and

– existing vacancies generating salary savings.

These opportunities allowed us to make changes that were difficult but essential for us to move forward with our plans of “transformation”.  Making significant changes without a recognition of need and without some flexible funding would have been much more complicated and potentially much more difficult.


By December of 2006 we were able to offer (in collaboration with the staff union) a voluntary separation package that included:


– an incentive for up to 10 individuals to voluntary separate.  (The offer was only made to all unionized staff regardless of age or years of service.);

– an agreement that these positions would not be filled again as they were previously defined;

– copy cataloging as a function and unit would be eliminated (shelf-ready and PromptCat would be used instead); and

– the remaining copy catalogers would be redeployed to existing vacancies or other positions that best matched their skills and abilities.


Ultimately eight individuals took the voluntary separation package which amounted to an early retirement for these particular individuals.


Restructuring the organization

The library has since been restructured into three divisions:


– Collections and Facilities (including traditional TS duties and storage)

– Teaching, Learning and Research (including Research Collections, Maps, and traditional public services such as circulation, ILL, etc)

– Library and Learning Technologies (including digital initiatives, the website, the ILS, etc)


In general, the restructuring allowed us to increase our emphasis on public service, particularly the “user experience”; increase emphasis on development of digital resources; integrating the libraries into teaching/learning.


Filling vacancies

In 2002 ACRL released its report “Top Issues Facing Academic Libraries”    which identified the need to “find and retain quality leadership” as one of the top priorities.  During the transformation process we created seven new librarian positions.  They include the following five positions that have been filled to date (these are linked to the announcements about the positions):

Digital Strategies Librarian

Digital Technology Development Librarian

Immersive Learning (Gaming) Librarian

Marketing, Communications, and Outreach Librarian

Teaching and Learning Librarian

Two remaining positions are still “in process”

– Archivist Librarian

– e-Resources Librarian

Almost all of these positions were created to fill existing needs, not merely replace existing individuals.  They are reflective of our future direction with a strong emphasis on technology and partnerships.

Providing additional training for existing staff

We also recognized a need to provide training for the existing staff to update their skills, particularly in the area of “web 2.0”.  Amanda Etches-Johnson and the Emerging Technologies Group put together “Learning 2.0 @ Mac”, “a hands-on, immersive learning program that provides an opportunity to explore Web 2.0 tools and the impact these tools are having on libraries & library service”.   This was a “twelve step” program during which participants made use of freely available tools for blogging, social bookmarking, wikis, etc.  Participants were provided with the training and the work time to explore the tool and consider the ways in which it could be used in our library. As a result, most staff now have blogs, Facebook sites, etc.  More about the program can be found at:

In general, what we have tried to accomplish in designing our new organization is hiring for new skills but also acknowledging existing staff needs by developing a highly engaging training program.    This Friday we begin a strategic planning exercise that will help us identify where we go from here.  For more information you can continue to monitor this blog or my personal blog at

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