Dissin’ The Director: The Library Worker’s Favorite Pastime

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 aren’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.

14 thoughts on “Dissin’ The Director: The Library Worker’s Favorite Pastime”

  1. “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.”

    To me, that says it all! Thanks for bringing it up, Steve!

  2. As a new interim director hoping to become the permanent director, I found your post very informative. It has been incredibly stressful here as we are fully implementing our new Learning Commons. I have seen all of the behaviors you mention in your post from fellow librarians and from library directors. I will take your suggestions to heart as I strive to be a good library director.

  3. I think what is also equally important is not to be a director who is constantly throwing new initiatives at staff. Change is good and often needed, but a library does not need to implement – maybe investigate – but not implement every new widget, social networking, web 2.0 tool, or new idea that comes down the pike. Its exhausting to staff, stretches resources, and demoralizing when they know they are spending time on a project that 95% of their users will never use.

    Change of any sort is only effective when you give your staff and users time to absorb and truly assess it.

  4. “Your staff doesn’t work for you; they work for the user community.”

    Good point, but one correction – they aren’t “your staff,” either. They’re colleagues.

    A certain amount of bitching about directors comes from people who are enjoying themselves and aren’t interested in changing things. (I’m willing to bet there’s some of this in any workplace.) Some of it, though, is from able people chafing under an unnecessarily hierarchical structure – and they may be people who have no desire to give up the work they do to be part of the structure they’re chafing under. Sharing decision-making systematically is healthier and more effective than having a single person through whom decisions all flow. (And I know, you aren’t proposing that, Steven – yet it’s a feature of many libraries that things can’t happen until permission is granted.)

    Not too long ago, five undersea cables were damaged and communications in a large part of the world – Egypt and India in particular – were disrupted. But they weren’t knocked out totally because there is some redundancy in the system. The Internet is designed to not rely on everything having to go through one path. Maybe library organizations should learn from that.

    You knew I’d have to comment on this, didn’t you? :o)

  5. Thanks for writing that, Barbara. That “your staff” part was bugging me, too.

    I think of what I read about Leland Park, the semi-legendary director of the Davidson College Library. Reportedly, when he introduced anyone who worked at the library to someone outside the library, he would say “this is so-and-so. We work together at the library.”

  6. Barbara, Steve Lawson:

    I’m always careful to introduce my colleagues as such, and I usually talk about “the library staff” instead of “my staff.” But I do also refer to “my staff” and “my people,” because as the director of the library I am responsible for them in the broader institutional context. As in: “I could deal with Administrator X when they were just bothering me, but now they’re starting to affect my staff, and *nobody* messes with my people.”

  7. I get around that by saying “my department” – we are an academic department on our campus. There, the “mine” is membership, not ownership.

    I know, it’s all semantics, but language is powerful and it carries a lot of implied meaning.

  8. Leland always said, “We work together at the library.” And he was always singing other people’s praises, mine among them. And that is always appreciated!

  9. This kind of dissing has always been around, and in fact, might have been worse in earlier days. What makes it more visible now is the technology that has given rise to blogs and other mechanisms that allow disgruntled (whether rightly or not) people to vent their feelings without fear of reprisal.

    I’ve been a director of two academic libraries, and am now the director of a tiny public library (lots of fun, in fact). I hope I was a good director in the larger settings. I think most of my staff/colleagues enjoyed working for me, but there were always unhappy people. As far as my counterparts at other institutions are concerned, I have the greatest respect for most of them. As someone noted above, it’s a more difficult job than it might seem to be. But under the right circumstances, it is very rewarding, and I don’t mean monetarily!

  10. Barbara:

    When I talk about “the library staff” to people here, it is clear that I’m including myself. I’m embedded in the library’s organizational structure, not above it.

    I couldn’t really say “my department”; we’re not a department, and librarians don’t have faculty status at MPOW.

  11. This was a wonderful piece. Now tell me how I can introduce it to my Dean and the librarians without implying that she’s one of those that everyone disparages or that they complain too much?

  12. I work for a public library. I enjoyed the article and comments. Adminstration staff spend lots and lots of time working as I consider my job to be fun and a picnic. My passion and obsession is the public library. I call it a ART=accountability, respect and trust. This is earned by showing resuts.

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