The Involved Academic Library Administrator

Becoming an academic library administrator brings many changes to one’s career. It typically means leaving behind old job responsibilities while adopting a new set of challenges. For many of us who’ve moved into administration from a public services position that typically means giving up the reference desk and classroom for planning, budgeting and other management and leadership responsibilities. But what if you really enjoy working at the reference desk or helping educate students to become better researchers? That is often why we were drawn to academic librarianship in the first place. Does moving into an administrative position mean the end of those opportunities? Not always. It is, as they say, situational.

If you choose to become the director at a college or small university library, particularly one with a small professional staff, it’s quite likely that you will not only have the opportunity to continue performing in public services, but it will most probably be required. Any significant outreach effort involving active liaison duties, embedded librarianship, a proactive library instruction program and other efforts to extend beyond the walls of the library can be hard on a small staff. The library director can’t afford to sit behind a desk in their corner office – and why would he or she want to? More meetings and administrative tasks means less time for public service, but the college library director that wants to continue being involved should have ample opportunities.

The other common administrative track is the assistant director or associate university librarian in a larger university setting. In this situation, it’s more likely the library has a well-staffed reference and instruction department capable of meeting the demand. Though the situation might not necessitate administrator involvement, I’d advocate for library administrators to seek out a weekly shift on the reference desk and to take on a few instruction sessions each semester. Here’s why. First, if it’s something you really enjoy, having the opportunity to participate on the front line will make the job that much more satisfying. Second, if public services are part of your portfolio, serving the public will make you a better informed and more effective administrator. How can you make good decisions that impact the staff and user community if you are out of touch with the delivery of public service? Third, keeping connected to the work of reference librarians and instructors enables you to better understand the day-to-day challenges that front-line professionals face. When they express frustrations about a clumsy printer setup or an inadequate training room, you are much better prepared to understand the situation and act decisively on it if you have experienced it firsthand. Nothing frustrates a front-line librarian more than an administrator who pooh-poohs a dilemma without really understanding its complexities. Being involved has its advantages, but be careful not to micromanage the situation or use your administrative power to gain leverage over others. That can be equally frustrating or downright annoying. Fourth, if reference and instruction activity really picks up, it may actually overwhelm the staff. An involved academic library administrator can help meet the demand or fill in for front-line librarians who are stretched thin.

I’m not sure where my career is headed next, but whatever administrative position I might hold in the future I will most likely want to continue to retain some involvement in direct public service. I’ve found that a regular shift at the reference desk and a few instruction sessions each semester, in addition to allowing me an opportunity to keep practicing what I really enjoy, does enable me to keep my reference and instruction skills somewhat sharp. Fortunately, I’ve not found myself in a situation where the front-line staff prefers the administrator to stay off the front line and in their office. That’s another situation all together, and one that a good library administrator should be able to decipher and manage.

As I’ve said before, one of the best reasons to become a library administrator is to have the golden opportunity to bring your personal vision of what an academic library can be to an institution, and to work with a dedicated and passionate staff to bring that vision to fruition. Doing so will mean making sacrifices, like giving up daily interaction with library users at public service desks or leaving behind all those instruction sessions. Well, for some that might not be a sacrifice but rather a much appreciated change. After twenty years of 40 to 50 instruction sessions a semester, an administrative position might seem like a nice break. But I think a good academic library administrator is an involved, engaged and participative library administrator.

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