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Breaking Big: Transitioning from Small to Large Academic Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Michael Rodriguez, Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Connecticut.

Navigating the transition from large to small academic library employers, or vice versa, can be challenging. Early-career librarians in particular can find themselves navigating radically new landscapes: specialized, bureaucratic, and complex.

Recently I moved from a small, career-focused, private, nonprofit institution in Florida, to a large, tier-one public research university in New England. Now six months along my new path, I am ready to share some generalizations and guidance about navigating the transition from small private to large public universities and libraries. (For the opposite path, check out Seven Keys to Switching from a Big Company to a Small One—yes, it’s a Harvard Business Review piece, but the advice applies equally to librarians.)

Scaling Size

Large public universities are vast and complex. Libraries can be six stories high and filled with millions of volumes. A hundred staff and student assistants may be working inside the building during business hours. Millions of dollars may be spent on collections and salaries. Contrast this with smaller universities, where the library may boast four staff, a $250,000 budget, and one big room lined with eighteen thousand volumes and branded “the library.” A difference of 25,000 students is another huge numerical contrast.

Imagine changing jobs from one to the other of these environments. Maybe you already have. Either way, this can be a stunning adjustment. Example 1: Walking from parking lot to office takes twenty times longer at my massive public university than it did at my small private university. Example 2: I still manage electronic resources, but my budget is fifty times larger. Example 3: I used to negotiate e-resource licenses solo; now we have attorneys who write five pages of state-mandated provisions into all new contracts.

How to thrive in a larger environment? Chunk your experience into bite-sized pieces. One hundred colleagues to get to know? Set up meetings with each of them in turn, and then allocate time each week to walk about and schmooze. Many complex projects to manage concurrently? Start using Evernote, Trello, a notepad, or other tracking tool to divide your projects into manageable tasks and triage them according to stakeholder impact. Rethink goals as forward momentum. Reassess priorities, eliminate redundancy and excess, and clean up data and processes. Like Thoreau, “simplify, simplify.”

Personalizing Bureaucracy

Small universities are intimate to the point of claustrophobic. You know a great many of the professors and students by name, you work closely with each colleague, and you run into the college president at the neighborhood bakery. In contrast, your large university is a bureaucracy, “effective through its mass rather than through its agility,” notes Peter Drucker. Generally you will need to navigate layer after layer of approval and mediation. Destroying 20-year-old papers requires permission from the state capital. Managers ask you to make appointments to see them. Implementing innovations can take way longer than they should because of the many stakeholders you must consult or persuade.

How to thrive amid bureaucracy? Accept that change is slower in complex environments and that large universities value consensus, whereas small organizations can just decide. So stay patient, but bring your enthusiasm and energy. Bureaucracy tends to sap drive from its members, so as a newcomer setting a faster pace, your drive adds value to the organization. And if you counter-interviewed your search committee as rigorously as they interviewed you, your new colleagues will appreciate you and your vitality.

This brings us to the key point: personalizing working relationships enables us to break through bureaucratic barriers. Be tough and hard-driving, on yourself above all, but be genuine, kind, and helpful too—and do not allow your frustration with the bureaucracy cause you to become frustrated with the people trapped in it. You’re new, and that fact will help you build positive relationships with even the most challenging personalities.

Broadening Scope

Isolation is a byproduct of specialization in large, complex organizations. Small-library staff may do reference, instruction, web design, budgets, resource management, etc. Large-library staff are generally hired for a specialized role. This is fine. The problem is that you can do your job without interacting much with folks outside your immediate working group. This is true for instruction librarians as much as it is for catalogers.

This hyper-specialization is ultimately pernicious. If you do not collaborate or socialize with a broad spectrum of colleagues, or understand how users engage with the services you provide, then you are isolated, not specialized. Isolation’s effects can be personal, such as loneliness and loss of motivation. Or they can be work-related. If people do not know you, they will not know to respect you. You will (A) lack control over the direction of your work, and (B) fail to exercise influence outside your cubicle walls.

The key is to broaden the scope of your specialized work. Start by applying or acquiring expertise in areas related to your specialization. For example, if you manage eresources, then get a handle on user experience. If you teach, then study up on open educational resources. Do not try to take over other people’s jobs—rather, identify service gaps of which to take ownership. Wrangle appointments to committees and task forces beyond the scope of your immediate duties. Gently, persistently remind your supervisors of the intersections between your work and others’. Communicate openly and frequently. Be transparent with internal stakeholders. Embrace interconnectivity. You’ll thrive.

Michael Rodriguez is an Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, which has fifteen times as many students and fifty times the operating budget of Hodges University in Florida, where he formerly served as E-Learning Librarian.