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.

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.