Handling It: Under New Management

I’ve recently moved into a new role at the college library where I work. Our former Chief Librarian retired, and I applied for the job and was appointed as the new Chief at the beginning of the semester. My new job is exciting and challenging — I’m fortunate to continue to work with my terrific colleagues in the library and at a college in which the faculty and administration view the library as a valued partner. While I miss the teaching I did as Instruction Coordinator, I hope to be able to add some instruction back into my days once I get more settled. As Steven has blogged here, it can be hard to move into an administrative position that affords fewer opportunities to work directly with students. I do have one reference shift this semester, and I’m also looking forward to more opportunities in my new role to make good use of what I’ve learned in my research on how students do their academic work.

Any new job comes with a learning curve, even one in the same institution you’ve worked at for a while. Some days I feel a little bit like Atta in this scene from the movie A Bug’s Life:

And other days I like to channel Manfried from Adventure Time:

Luckily there haven’t been any literal (or even metaphorical) grasshopper infestations or fires to extinguish (…yet?). But I’ve been a bit surprised by how busy I am. In other new jobs I’ve always had some breathing room as I learned the ropes, some down time in those first couple of weeks in which there wasn’t anything immediately pressing to do. But moving into a new job in the same place has kept me nearly constantly busy with meetings, planning, and other duties.

I’ve got my eye on a couple of books to read about academic leadership and library management, but with my time so short I haven’t been able to carve out a space for reading them yet. Instead, I’ve been collecting shorter reads — blog posts and articles — about library management and leadership in general. Here are some that I’ve found really helpful so far:

Jennifer Vinopal’s blog post My job? Make it easier for employees to do their jobs well was published at the perfect time for me, right before I was interviewed for my new job, and I’ve kept it in mind ever since. It pairs well with an article published in the May issue of C&RL News: Start by interviewing every librarian and staff member: A first step for the new director, by Scott Garrison and Jennifer Nutefall. Even though I’ve worked with most of my colleagues for 6+ years, I’ve adapted these questions and am meeting with everyone one on one to learn more about their jobs and goals.

I’m also learning from several folks who’ve been doing this for longer than I have. At the end of last summer Karen Schneider posted her reflections on five years of being a library director, a post chock full of characteristically level-headed and wise advice. I’ve been reading Jenica Rogers’ blog Attempting Elegance for a while now too, even before the thought that maybe I would be interested in being a Chief Librarian entered my mind, and I’ve always appreciated her transparency about the large and small tasks that come with being a library director, and the highs and lows.

One of the things that’s been occupying my time this semester is working on hiring in two faculty and two staff positions. While I’ve been on search committees at my library in the past, this is the first time I’m acting as chair of these committees. I thoroughly enjoyed this well-written post about orienting new staff by Megan Brooks — Hospitality and Your New Staff Member — on Jessica Olin’s Letters to a Young Librarian blog last week. This post provides a great reminder about what to do (and the reverse, what not to do) when bringing new folks on board.

Do you have a favorite or recommended reading of the shorter-than-a-book variety for busy new library managers? Let me know in the comments!

Sorry But You Can’t Have It All

I recently gave a keynote talk at a meeting of a statewide library directors group. I called the talk “The Search for Tomorrow’s Library Leaders in A ‘Dissin’ the Director’ Landscape” and part of the talk referred back to some previous ACRLog posts on leadership and library directors. I mentioned some of the reasons that Gen-X and Gen-Y librarians are disillusioned with library management. With their negative perceptions of library directors these individuals can find few good reasons to aspire to careers as library administators. Why else are nextgens disinterested? Past research indicates they want a better work-life balance and were hesitant to make the necessary sacrifices required to lead libraries from the director’s office. I made that point with a quote that appears in a chapter titled “Preparing the Next Generation of Directors and Leaders” by Nancy Rossiter from a book titled “Making a Difference: Leadership and Academic Libraries” by Peter Hernon and Rossiter:

Rachel Gordon Singer found that Generation X and Generation Y librarians have a negative view of managment…the amount of time a library director devotes to the position is potentially a turn-off; younger librarians do not want to detract from time spent with family and friends..One of Gordon’s respondents stated “There is no amount of money or prestige that would entice us to sacrifice our families, our home lives, and our sanity for the long hours and Sisyphean ordeal of a directorship.”

That led to some interesting discussion and thoughtful reactions, both pro and con. One director said this was all well and good but that the current generation of directors needed to give their nextgen colleagues a dose of reality. Getting the job done, said the director, requires certain personal sacrifices, and that a work-life imbalance, staying late, working weekends, getting emergency calls in the middle of the night, is occasionally necessary. Bottom line: you can’t have it all. But another director expressed concerns about the blurring of work life and personal life in an increasingly 24/7 connected society. This director thought that library administrators needed to be more sensitive to the next generation’s desires for the work-life balance. If the work-life practices and behavior of the current generation of directors establishes a model upon which the next generation forms its attitudes towards library administration then today’s library directors, as part of their effort to recruit and shape the next generation of leaders, needs to live and promote an image that will attract the best and brightest to academic library leadership.

Not unexpectedly, there was no clear resolution on how to best attract the nextgen librarian to the library directorship. What we do know is that perceptions are important. As long as nextgens see the current crop of directors working long hours without a clear sense of the potential rewards, it’s unlikely they’ll be motivated to enter into directorships. The current generation of academic library directors need to better communicate that their jobs do occasionally involve long hours, but that there can be great rewards. Chief among those rewards is fulfilling a vision about how an academic library can best serve the needs of its constituents. Here’s my message to those nextgens who diss their director and whose own vision is in conflict with what they see coming out the contemporary’s academic library director’s office: You may be the best person to become a library director; there’s no better way to fulfill your vision of what an academic library can and should be for your community. And if you can do it while creating a better work-life balance for yourself and your next generation of leaders then go out and create some change.

I finished my talk with a quote to emphasize that today’s library leaders do have a responsibility to the next generation of leaders. It comes from the book Crucibles of Leadership:

As the scholar Noel Tichy argues, leaders must be teachers – and the leaders in this chapter offer precisely what Tichy calls a “teachable point of view.” He argues that leaders’ responsibility is not only to provide direction and judgment in the moment, but to strive continuously to develop leadership in others, now and into the future.

So you could argue that it is incumbent upon the current generation of leaders to help the next generation to learn about leadership. Today’s library directors must think more clearly about how their leadership style and the examples they set send a message of learning to our next generation of leaders.

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.