by Dean Duane Strojny
It is that time of the year where a lot of libraries may be looking at the calendar and realize that the annual staff in-service date is not too far off. As an organizer of dozens of in-services over the years, I can tell you there are some key components to making them fun, effective, informative, and interesting.
In 2002 when we hosted an ABA inspection for our additional campuses across Michigan, I was asked “How will you develop a community with the library across multiple locations?” My quick answer was, “Of course we’ll have in-services and since we have three breaks a year, well do one every break!” That began the long road of in-services that spanned the bridge of creative possibilities. We liked the Olympic theme so much we used it twice. There was the Survivor one, another based on TV Guide, a series of three in one year covering “Who, Why, and How,” and one dealing with employee wellness. Through it all, I would be remiss to say that I couldn’t have done it without a very creative associate director. We would hash out content and creative approaches to so many ideas (some of those listed above).
We have had guest speakers from a silver medal Olympian to the president of a national insurance company. Someone spoke to us about organizing our offices and someone spoke to us about how law school financial aid works. We gave presentations on our budget that actually included numbers. The IT Department visited a few times to give insight into technology. At our height, we would let people sign up for classes (three choices over three different hours of the day). That one was tough to coordinate, but I think most of the employees liked the variety.
In 2012, we added a campus in Florida, so our challenge was to bridge the gap between there and Michigan. During one of our in-services that year, we acknowledged the first day of a new Florida employee. There was a lot of video conferencing. During one in-service team-building exercise, each small group had an iPad or laptop so at least one member of their team was from Florida. Challenging, yes, but always interesting from an administrative perspective.
Here are some of the planning and implementation tips for that long litany of programming:
- Start planning early. We usually began discussing the next in-service a week or two after the last one finished. Since one occurred every four months, two to three months of planning seemed like a lot to us. We talked weekly so that helped speed up the timeline. Bring in others early, especially if you want them to help present or coordinate events the day of the event.
- Think outside the box.
No topic or theme was too outrageous. We made towers out of marshmallows and spaghetti. I was taped to the wall. Teams had to do scavenger hunts. I constantly reminded staff the primary goal was to get to know your colleagues from across the campuses. If you learned something to take to your desk the next day, that was a plus.
- Use either a place in the law school away from the library or go off campus. We often meet in our main classroom spaces. We used a movie theater. We volunteered at Toys for Tots (in multiple cities at the same time). We toured a local courthouse. A group went to Dave and Buster’s. If you have funding, there are a lot of options. If not, consider the meeting room at your local public library or the clubhouse of an apartment complex. The typical locations where kids have birthday parties can be very quiet on weekdays and provide the break from the usual workplace.
- Plan to have an icebreaker. A lot of people don’t like these, but they do help set the tone for the day. This isn’t an ordinary work day. We want staff to interact in a different way. I like The New Encyclopedia of Icebreakers and The Encyclopedia of Group Activities. There are a lot of others as well as quite a few web sites with ideas to be had for free.
- Have some substantive content. Presenting information is important even if the topic doesn’t appeal to everyone. This can help pull together a theme or push an agenda item. We had someone speak about our new Professionalism Program and the library staff became the first group on campus to endorse it as a department. Our discussion about how a prospective student is recruited and enrolled gave everyone a great perspective of what happens in Admissions. The take away doesn’t need to be something to use at your desk, but rather helps give a greater perspective of how the school operates and the mission we serve.
- Use experts at the law school or university. Our law school president spoke. Our vice president of finance spoke. A faculty member led staff through a mock class. The career services director spoke. The chairman of our board spoke. The founder of our law school spoke. We had great speakers with little cost other than a meal. This creates a great sense of camaraderie between library staff and other departments at the school.
- Seek feedback. We always had evaluations. Of course, we never please everyone. The criticism of food drove me crazy, so we eventually took that off the evaluations. Hey, it was a free meal and we always had options that could accommodate every possible need. We also provided snacks galore during the course of the day. Plenty of fruit and yogurt, as well as the usual cookies and brownies appeals to everyone. Some people regularly said it was a waste of their time. They were busy. Remember, though, what your goal is: building community is number one. You want to be successful so evaluations help you learn from missteps.
With some thought and planning, an in-service can be a very useful event. Involving others in the planning can also give the person you least expect to lead an opportunity to shine. We have assigned tasks to groups, assigned tasks to individuals, and asked for volunteers. All approaches have worked well with the caveat that you cannot please everyone. When our staff was nearly 100 people, it was quite an undertaking. We invited permanent part-time staff, part-time reference librarians, and often, student employees. Now that we are a smaller group and our associate director has left, I have been forced to rethink the in-service concept. In the past we had special department in-services, librarian in-services, support staff in-services, and optional in-services. Today, with less staff, it is still important to have a goal when planning for an in-service. For me, that has not changed; build community by getting to know your colleagues and hopefully take something back to your desk for tomorrow.