“That’s how we do things around here”: Organizational culture (and change) in libraries

In the Library with the Lead Pipe welcomes a guest article by Jason Martin, Head of Public Services at Stetson University. Jason holds an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and joins us to share his knowledge of organization culture and change.

“Ritual Coffee Roasters” photo Flickr user by Kenn Wilson (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)



A position opens on an important campus committee, and the provost would like someone from the library to fill the position. Or a library staff member with over thirty years of service to the library is retiring, and her supervisor decides to throw a party for her. Or a student comes to the Reference desk with a complex question just before 5:00 p.m. on a Friday. How the librarians and library staff respond to these scenarios, the way a campus committee position is filled, the amount of effort put forth in planning and attendance at a party, and the willingness of a librarian to stay late to help a student, are dictated by the organizational culture of the library. What the library values as an organization builds and shapes this culture which in turn molds and prescribes members’ actions. Culture can impede or facilitate change, unite or divide members, and cause the library to achieve or fail at its mission. For these reasons, organizational culture is an important concept for librarians to understand.

An organization is a collection of groups working to achieve goals and objectives through the use of a codified set of policies and procedures. More than that, an organization is a small society in which individuals come together and agree to adhere by the rules, practices, and accepted forms of behavior of the society/organization. From this agreement, daily interactions amongst its members, and the organization’s external environment, history, and mission comes organizational culture. Organizational culture is a set of shared values, norms, and beliefs that are learned and all-encompassing. The learning of culture can occur through formal training programs within the organization as well as through informal means such as stories told during the morning coffee break and advice given in the hallways between meetings. Maybe the most common way to learn about and understand organizational culture is through the expression, “That’s how we do things around here.” Although it might be just as common to learn about an organization’s culture through that statement’s converse: “That’s NOT what we do around here.” Culture shapes the beliefs of organizational members and creates bonds that unite them. It is a force that acts upon individuals, obligating them to make choices based on cultural norms and expectations. Culture both causes and predicts member behavior and gives meaning and value to organizational life. Organizational culture is created over a period of time, and while it is durable and long-lasting, it can also change, albeit slowly, over time.

Organizational culture is not a “one size fits all” concept. No “correct,” “proper,” or “standard” organizational culture exists; culture is derived from the history of the organization and, in order to be considered healthy, must allow the organization to achieve its mission. Since the external environment plays an important part in the success and failure of an organization, the culture must also allow the organization to relate and adapt to the surrounding community. An academic library whose culture values service over scholarship will have difficulty operating on a campus which values scholarship above all else. The stronger the culture the more integrated the beliefs and values systems are in the organization. If a culture has too many values, no clear values, or chaotic rituals, then the culture is weak and the organization in trouble. An organization with a weak culture is short-sighted, inwardly focused, divided, and suffers from low morale. An organization with a strong culture will find it easier to remain steady and united during difficult times. While an organization’s structure, work flow, and mission are easy to identify, study, and understand, organizational culture falls outside the rational realm of organizational study. Culture must be examined in a different way, namely through the examination of cultural artifacts like rites and rituals.

Rites and Rituals

Every year on the day before Fall classes start at a small, Southern liberal arts college, the students, their families, and faculty gather to meet each other, talk about the achievements of alumni, and discuss the exciting possibilities of the semester ahead. At a specified time all the faculty gather at one end of the campus and walk dressed in full academic regalia to the other end of campus while the students and their families look on. Convocations are typical at most universities before the start of the academic year, but the processional at this college has some special meanings. The one-on-one, face-to-face interaction with the students and faculty demonstrates the college’s commitment to students and the importance it places on teaching over all other aspects of the faculty member’s job. The processional across campus connects modern day students and faculty with the history of higher education, as the faculty’s academic robes harken back to the robes worn in Medieval Universities. This is a ritual. And in this ritual, just like every other ritual, the members of the organization actively participate to fortify the values of the organization and put them on display for the audience to see.

Rites and rituals are an integral part of an organization’s culture. A ritual generally contributes to the operating procedure of an organization, but it also has a symbolic role which embodies the values of the organization. Rites and rituals are so important because they reinforce the values of an organization through the active participation of the organization’s members. Rituals are pre-planned events of varying formality, social, public, and have both manifest and latent purposes. The manifest purpose of the ritual generally contributes to the workings of the organization and helps the organization achieve its mission and accomplish its daily tasks. The latent purpose is where the celebration of the sacred occurs. Rituals create order and community and can be used to both instill new values into the culture and change the organization’s culture.

Understanding what is and is not a ritual in an organization can be difficult. Types of rites and rituals pertinent to libraries include “rites of enhancement,” “rites of renewal,” “rites of integration,” and “rites of initiation.” Rites of enhancement elevate the standing of a librarian in the organization such as through promotion within the library’s hierarchy and tenure in the university. Organizational development, training, and continuing education are rites of renewal, whereby the library as a whole is strengthened and renewed. A rite of renewal may also reinforce the power and authority of those in charge. Rites of integration may be the most popular rite within the library: this ritual involves bringing various groups in the library together for the purposes of forming a community. A library-wide party where all the librarians and library staff celebrate as a group some important event (the end of the semester, holidays, birthdays, etc.) is a rite of integration. Some libraries may also make use of “rites of initiation” whereby a librarian is not a member of the culture until she passes certain tests or participates in specific rites.

A library faculty meeting is a public, preplanned event guided by set rules and procedures. Its manifest purpose is for librarians to discuss faculty governance, but its latent purpose could involve rites of integration, enhancement, and even initiation. The American Library Association’s Midwinter and Annual Conferences are large-scale, multi-type rituals in which librarians come together for the manifest purpose of continuing education and strengthening the profession but also to network, socialize with old friends, and immerse themselves in the professional culture.

Rites and rituals are an expression and important artifact of organizational culture. They have greater influence on a culture than other symbols because they require active participation by the organization’s members. They reinforce and perpetuate accepted cultural values and norms and delineate participants’ roles within the existing social structure. In these ways they help maintain an organization. Rituals create order because they occur at regular intervals, adhere to established practices and procedures, and draw upon the organization’s past. When an organization’s members are brought together in a ritual, they are united emotionally and their energy is focused upon that which is sacred: the values the organization and its culture embrace and hold dear. In this way rituals create community in an organization. Through the order, community, meaning, and inspiration created by rites and rituals, transformation occurs. Through the power of rituals non-members become members of the culture; conflict within the organization is turned to peace; and those who were once scared of change now embrace it.

Managing Rites and Rituals

Those studying an organization’s culture must be able to understand the differences between the manifest and latent aspects of a ritual. A weekly reporting meeting of department heads and administrators has a clear manifest purpose: to communicate to all mid-level and upper administrators what is happening in each department. While it might seem inefficient or boring, the meeting’s purpose should be clear to any observer; however, the meeting’s latent purpose might be a rite of renewal where the director attempts to correct, or give the appearance of correcting, the problem of poor communication in the library or reinforce her power in the library. Just as important as understanding the latent aspects of a ritual is to correctly interpret that aspect of a ritual. Proper interpretation of a symbol requires a deep understanding of the culture which is gained after spending time studying the organization and speaking with its members.

In order to effectively manage a library, administrators need to recognize what purpose(s) a ritual holds in the library. A party in a library is used to celebrate a certain event but also to bring everyone together to foster a sense of integration and community. If a director decides to cancel the end-of-the-semester parties in order to save money, then she is likely to decrease morale and the sense of community in the library while angering many library employees. Managers must also be comfortable with the using symbolism and engaging in ceremonial behavior. Rites and rituals, at their core, are performance. Therefore, to effectively communicate a ritual’s meaning, a manager must have a flair for the dramatic and pinch of the theatric in her personality.

Using Rites and Rituals to Facilitate Change

Change is difficult because change brings with it a sense of the unknown and the unpredictable. In his famous “Law Day” speech, Jimmy Carter tells of being a small boy on his parents’ farm collecting rocks to propel with his sling shot. He had both hands filled with smooth rocks when his mother announced she had just finished baking cookies and offered him one. He was perplexed and stood still trying to decide what he should do. To take the cookie meant putting down the rocks he had worked so hard to collect. Finally it dawned on him a fresh-baked cookie was more valuable than those rocks he was holding. Carter placed the rocks on the ground and ate one of his mother’s cookies. He used this story to illustrate how hard change can be. People grow so comfortable with what they have, they find it extremely difficult, even impossible, to give it up for something new, even if they know it is better than what they currently have.

Library administrators can use rites and rituals to help alleviate some of the unpredictability that occurs during change. Because rituals create order in an organization, they can be used to anchor the organization while it weathers the storms of change. Rites and rituals provide certainty in uncertain times; they are the unchanging things in an organization undergoing change. They can also be used as opportunities for people to come together to learn about and celebrate their achievements as they undergo organizational change. They provide a safe zone where people can ask questions and share their worries.

A director of large community college library made good use of ritual when the library changed its integrated library system (ILS). Switching to a new ILS is always difficult because on top of all the work that must be completed before the switch can happen, everyone must learn a new system and set of procedures. Some library employees might even have to learn a new job. So in order to make the transition easier, every Friday morning the library director brought coffee and bagels to the staff lounge. This time spent consuming bagels and coffee was used to socialize with co-workers and talk about weekend plans. This weekly also made the director available to everyone in the library and gave the librarians and library staff a chance to informally ask questions about the upcoming switch. This simple ritual gave those in the library a constant around which they could focus their week: no matter what else happened during the week this meeting took place on Friday mornings. Once the new ILS was fully functional, the library held a retirement party for the old ILS. Everyone who worked in the library came together to bid farewell to the old system and to celebrate their accomplishments.

Using Rites and Rituals to Change Culture

Changing an organization’s culture is a formidable task as those within the culture have been socialized to accept its norms and may find it hard to unlearn behavior. Oft times when a leader tries to change the culture, the leader loses out to the entrenched way of doing things, especially when the change is attempted in a top-down, autocratic manner. A strong organizational culture makes for a better-functioning organization; however, a strong culture is by nature conservative. Organizational culture is largely rooted in the past, so those within the library may not want to let go of a past on which they possess such a strong grip. On the other hand, a weak culture is less effective than a strong culture and therefore easier to change, but even a weak culture has its adherents and those who are just not willing to give up what they know.  As was stated earlier, rites and rituals express culture by celebrating the values an organization holds sacred, so if a library were to modify its rituals, then it could change its culture. Popular rituals are difficult, if not impossible, to stop, so a library director may have better luck in trying to alter rituals instead. The key would be to incorporate those values the library wishes to honor in its rituals.

Let’s say a library leader wanted to honor the long-serving librarians and library staff. Doing so would help the library connect better with its past and value the loyalty and long-term contributions of those employees. She could set aside some time in the library’s annual year-end party (making sure to consult with the organizing committee so as not to give the appearance of autocratic control) to recognize long-serving library employees. During the party every librarian and library staff member who has worked for a certain number of years could be given a pin and asked to share an early memory of the library. After a few years this ceremony will have an established place at the party, and as these values are celebrated and rewarded they will be learned and become part of the organizational culture.

A library administration can also create new rituals that emphasize desired values. This is more challenging as a new ritual does not yet have popular support and may be perceived as the administration trying to have too much control of the library. At a large, research university, a new library dean, however, has had success with this approach. She took over from an autocratic, top-down dean who gave no decision making power to anyone in the library. As a result, very few librarians or library staff had the courage or ability to suggest innovations and follow through on their ideas. The new dean, who has an exact opposite approach to leadership, wanted a way to build a more “bottom-up” culture where library employees felt free to bring new ideas to the administration, make decisions, and then own those decisions. She also wanted a way to improve the lack of professional development and on-going training in the library, especially among the staff. She killed two birds with one stone by creating a “professional training day.” Each year the library is closed for a day so the entire the library can attend the day-long training retreat. The librarians and library staff decide the topic of the training. The dean simply announces the day the library will be closed for training, and those working in the library plan the event. This has helped the librarians and library staff work together and make decisions about their workplace. Not only does everyone get a day of professional development training to improve their skills, but the new bottom-up decision making process is spreading to other areas of the library as well.

Creating cultural change is no small task, but with the right patience and care and a certain appreciation for symbolic action, a library administrator can create this change. The library director who navigated her library through a change in the ILS actually bought the old system a gold watch (well, gold in color at least) to signify the system’s retirement and honor it for its service to the library. That is a having a flair for symbolic action.


Rites and rituals are a powerful tool of organizational culture. They require members of the organization to participate in a performance that reinforces the norms of the culture. Rituals can take many different forms and serve various purposes. Most rituals have a manifest purpose which contributes to the functioning of the organization, but the real importance of rituals lies in their latent purpose and what values are being celebrated. Library administrators must understand these latent purposes in order to understand the library’s culture and the ritual itself. Proper understanding of rituals and ceremonial behavior can help a library director better manage change within the library and even change the culture itself.

What rites, rituals, and ceremonies occur in your library? What do you think these rituals accomplish? What values do they celebrate? Please share your stories in the comments section below.


Thanks to Kelly Blessinger and Kim Leeder for their feedback on prior drafts of this article.


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Carter, J. (1974). A message on justice. Available from: http://www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov/documents/law.pdf

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Martin, M. J. (2011). In the process of becoming: The organizational culture of the Metropolitan Academic Library. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL. Available at etd.fcla.edu/CF/CFE0003585/Martin_Michael_J_201105_EdD.pdf

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7 Responses

  1. StevenB

    Thought you’d definitely list George Kuh’s classic work in this area, The Invisible Tapestry. Kuh’s work is specific to higher education. Like your essay, he talks about the importance of understanding the culture of the institution, and as a leader, working within the culture to create change that is likely to be accepted and adopted. [Kuh gave examples of institutions where change that defied the culture failed] Shifting to a culture where staff are empowered to share their ideas and work for change would definitely set a tone for managing change. My next “Leading from the Library” column (due out on 8/23) will discuss leading organizational change. http://lj.libraryjournal.com/category/opinion/leading-from-the-library/

  2. Jason Martin

    Although I did not reference Kuh & Whitt in this post, I am very familiar with their work and cited them extensively in my dissertation. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  3. Paul Lai

    I think discussions of organizational culture are important, but I also wonder if they don’t sometimes obscure some of the more fundamental issues of workplace politics and the basic conditions of labor (getting all marxist here). I come from a cultural studies background, and there are many camps in that field that try hard to explore the structures of power that enable or inhibit cultural expressions though many people on the outside see cultural studies work as merely frivolous attention to epiphenomena. Can we connect questions of organizational culture, rites and rituals, and institutional change back to some of these other issues—funding cuts, staff layoffs, micromanagement of employees, etc.?

  4. Jason Martin

    I think things like funding cuts and layoffs are better suited to studies of organizational climate. And who wields the power and authority in an organization? Does a library director limit the cultural expression of those in the organization? Or does the culture limit what the director can and can not do?

  5. Katherine Simpson

    The anthropology of the workplace is complex, and culture is only one part of it. I agree that it’s important and often overlooked, and that rituals can sustain and reinforce culture (good and bad), but I’d be wary of missing the forest for the trees. All kinds of things “mold and prescribe members’ actions”, such as economics, individual personalities, and the goals of the organization, both stated and unstated. I wonder – does a weak and unhealthy culture precede lack of organizational focus, or does the lack of organizational focus precede a weak culture?

  6. Jason Martin

    Great question. A lack of focus, direction, and vision causes weak cultures, not the other way around. Of course an organization can have a weak culture for many reasons other than lack of vision, but I think this is a big cause.

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