Cheese Wiz

Are you a man or a mouse? Read all about it.

Shhh! No complaining in the library!

Or about the library.

Last November, the Denver Public Library proudly announced it had been named the top library in the nation. Its new building had already snagged national awards, it had recently fended off the evil Dr. Laura ("The Doctor Is Out," September 21, 2000), and now Hennen's American Public Library Ratings Index had given the DPL its seal of approval. "Receiving the number-one rating is an honor, not only for the library, but for the city and our taxpayers who contribute the excellent support so that the library can provide the services our customers want and need," said city librarian Rick Ashton.

The DPL quickly ordered a "We're Number One!" stamp for its mail, bragging-rights banners for its main entrance, and a holiday card that reminded recipients it was "America's #1 Library."

But for some longtime DPL employees, it has not been a very happy new year.

No sooner had the library accepted the accolade than Ashton started making changes, big ones -- fixing what, by all accounts, wasn't broken in the first place. One of his first moves: suggesting, firmly, that all 500 DPL employees read Who Moved My Cheese?

From a system filled with hundreds of thousands of elegantly written volumes containing the wisdom of the ages, Ashton plucked a slim, simplistic book about as deep as a business card for his educated, erudite workforce to read. "The irony wasn't lost on anyone here," says one unhappy employee. Another number one -- on Businessweek's bestseller list for the 33rd month in a row -- Spencer Johnson's Who Moved My Cheese? details how two mice named Scratch and Sniff (no, sorry, that's Sniff and Scurry) and two littlepeople named Hem and Haw learn how to deal with change as they run through a maze. Learn that change is good. Learn that if you complain about change, it's because you're just too dim to understand that change is good.

And then you won't be getting any Cheese.

"Our activity is moving in a very interesting set of changing directions," says Ashton, the Big Cheese himself. He pegs the start of that activity to this time last year, when he bought lots of copies of Who Moved My Cheese? for the library already named number one in the country for cities over 500,000. ("Within the library world, they are famous," Thomas Hennen, who runs the ratings index, says admiringly of the DPL.)

Library employees got the message pretty quickly. Like Hem and Haw, they were about to find that their primary Cheese source (centralized services, for example) had dried up and that new Cheese was being distributed in different places. "The arrogance of success," as Johnson calls it, had made them complacent. "Why should we change?" Hem asks on page 38 of the 94-page epic. "We're littlepeople. We're special. This sort of thing should not happen to us. Or if it does, we should at least get some benefits."

"A lot of people are ready to do things that are different," explains Ashton. "Some are struggling a bit."

"We're breaking everything down that works just to rebuild it," says one of those strugglers. But he and other employees admit they're too scared to squeak up publicly. As Haw, the swifter of the two littlepeople, reports on page 46: "If you do not change, you can become extinct."

In a July 1 DPL newsletter, Ashton addressed concerns that he'd abolished the Central Library Director position and elevated the Branch Libraries Director to a new slot, Director of Library Services: "Try as we might, the previous structure produced a certain level of divisional focus and loyalty, sometimes impeding the effective organization and delivery of service," he said, number-one status and thousands of satisfied customers to the contrary. And for a staffer upset that two departments had been merged, he had this response: "Uncertainty is a fact of work life for many Library staff members. Every day, reference librarians take up their posts, never knowing what questions their customers will ask.... I believe that people who can succeed as reference librarians can handle just about any challenge." For further inspiration, he referred readers to "Change Happens (They keep moving the Cheese)" and "Anticipate Change (Get ready for the Cheese to move)."

Even if that reference desk is nationally renowned for helping customers find the right Cheese, apparently the time is always ripe for pro-active sniffing. By page 52, Haw recognizes the need to "Smell the Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old."

According to Ashton, the library is moving in several areas "giving staff and, ultimately, the community, some pretty major reorientations." Among those areas: 24/7 online reference services; a stronger emphasis on youth, particularly teens; "intensifying the destination experience -- especially at some branch libraries" (would you like Cheese with your coffee-cart latte?); and hosting town-hall meetings where the public will be invited to give input about the library, arguably the city's best-loved institution. "They will, anyway," Ashton points out.

In fact, he's already had to move some Cheese. Initially, Ashton called his post-award push "The Next Big Thing." But after testing that slogan over the past few weeks, he's instead decided to go with "Your Library in a Changing World."

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