I sense a growing tide of discontent with academic library directors. The signs are out there. In blog posts and in comments to them I find an undercurrent of disdain for the director. It may be that those who perceive their library administrators to be really bad at their jobs are the most vocal about it. I know there are academic librarians out there who think their library director is doing a great job. The conversation among the dissatisfied masses is much louder.
Here is a sampling of the barbs hurled at library administrators that I’ve come across recently in the library blogoverse:
I’m always wary of people who want to be in charge. The kind of people who spend their careers angling for a directorship (and here I’m especially thinking of academic libraries) are often the least academic librarians. They’re the ones who speak management jargon and are impressed by the latest business fads and want to force their businessy change upon us. [post at Annoyed Librarian]
…the Peter Principle. As faddish as it might have been, I can say it’s been true of every single library director I’ve ever worked for. (That’d be six of them.) One level beyond their peak of competence, each of them. [comment at Annoyed Librarian]
Managers who arenâ€™t trained to be effective leaders create rules to deal with difficult situations instead doing the tough work required to really solve them. [from an LIS student who wrote to and was posted at Tame the Web]
Or will it [change] reside with managers who, despite their lack of knowledge of what goes on in the library or the professional work that makes it happen, would like to see librarians in more or less a paraprofessional role, with little say in how things are done, and little opportunity to exercise professional judgment in their work? [post at Library Juice]
I’ve seen other examples and I can’t recall them all. But the remarks point to a general mistrust and lack of respect for library administrators. I don’t doubt that some library workers, no matter what their library administrators do, will place blame for any problems or failures on the library director. At a previous position, most support staff and a few librarians were incredibly disrespectful to the director. Every decision and any new initiative was second guessed, and widely criticized. The director wasn’t the greatest people person, but the job was complex and that person got good results. Of course, there are library directors who, no matter how much good work their employees do, will ignore it and take staff for granted. So where does the truth lie? Are we experiencing an unprecendented wave of out-of-touch, incompetent and power hungry library directors or are frontline library workers increasingly less respectful of the library administration than in the past?
Well, rather than contemplate that question I thought that it might be better for both library administrators and frontline staff to work towards improving their understanding of each other, and a mutually beneficial goal – creating a better experience for the library’s user community. Here are a few suggestions that might help to improve relationships:
* When someone compliments you about the library or talks about how great the services are, be sure to give credit where it is due – heap praise upon the library employees for their contributions. And remember to tell your library workers about it, and let them know you appreciate their efforts.
* When someone criticizes the library take the heat and communicate openly with the staff to get better results.
* When someone makes a complaint about library services, don’t immediately take their word for it – especially if it involves a specific employee. Take the time to do your investigation and get the employee’s side of the story before taking any action. And remember that your job is to provide the support that helps staff to do their best work. Have you provided appropriate staff development programs?
* Don’t talk about the need for change if you refuse to change yourself; likewise, be prepared to learn – or at least understand – any new technology that you expect your staff to master.
* Did someone do something notable or go beyond the call of duty? Send that staff member a hand-written thank you note.
* Keep in mind that you are just a library director. There’s a fair amount of responsibility and pressure, but you’re not exactly your institution’s key power broker. At the end of the day you should ask yourself what you did to make it a good one for your staff and users.
* Your staff doesn’t work for you; they work for the user community. On the other hand, you work for them. It’s your job to get them the resources they need to do their jobs well, and to provide them with the support they need to be effective workers. But that doesn’t excuse library workers from meeting their end of the bargain. We are in this together.
* Remember that respect doesn’t come from job titles. Respect has to be earned every day. That means being in touch with what’s happening on the frontlines, and being empathic to the needs of those working there.
* Be up front with staff about having to occasionally say “no” to new ideas and proposed initiatives. But don’t always say no, especially without thinking things through, and avoid creating a “no” culture in the library.
* As much as you can help it, don’t be an ass. And never yell at your staff in private – and certainly not in public.
Frontline Library Workers:
* If you’ve never been completely responsible for a library organization have some empathy for your library director. It’s a harder job than you think it is.
* Keep in mind that your director is under no uncertain amount of stress. He or she has the ultimate responsiblity for the library’s success or failure, and is working to balance the needs of a demanding provost, faculty and students (and their parents).
* You may not like this, but consider that part of your job is to make the library director look good. This isn’t about making sure the director’s ego is as bloated as it can be. It’s about helping to create the buzz that will ultimately help the library boat to float higher in the organization. Your director is competing with many other departments for resources. When everyone at the library is working towards the goal of a great user experience, campus buzz about the library is positive. Top administrators hear that buzz, and they want to put their budget dollars into the departments that get good results. You’ll be helping your director when he or she goes into those critical budget meetings, but you’ll also be helping yourself and your colleagues.
* Accept that the director has to deal with competing needs for resources, and can’t approve every new initiative. If you make a suggestion or proposal and the director says no, don’t take it personally – but do try again the following year.
* Have a problem? Try talking to your director. He or she may actually be a good listener.
In the conflicts and clashes that occur between library administrators and frontline library workers none of us are totally innocent. There are directors-from-hell and there are staff-from-hell. And in between there are plenty of folks who fall everywhere along the spectrum from get-along-great to wish-each-other-would-drop-dead. The bottom line is that we have to work together. In the long run it probably doesn’t do any good to be disrespectful, and it probably does even less good to use blogs as a forum to share the disrespect. If the tone of the conversation at your library is mostly about the lousy job the director is doing, perhaps it’s time to shift the discussion to the user community. What can you do, hopefully with the full support of your director, to give them the best possible library experience?
And if you are one of those folks who just doesn’t like authority, period, well, I’m not sure I have a good suggestion. Here’s one though. You may have some great ideas about running library organizations. Maybe your director isn’t interested in hearing them, and that’s a shame. My suggestion to you is to consider becoming a library director. That would give you the opportunity to implement your personal vision (in cooperation with your staff) for how a library organization should serve its user community. The journey from the frontline to the director’s office takes time and personal sacrifice, but it has its rewards – and not just the monetary type. And you might actually prove to be the type of library director that doesn’t get dissed.