Years ago when I worked in the University of California (UC) library system I had the opportunity to participate in MSAP, UC’s Management Skills Assessment Program. It was a superb residential program in which participants took part in a wide variety of exercises targeted at identifying and developing hands-on managerial skills. The key element in the program (for me, at least), was that the folks running the workshops and exercises were current UC managers. They worked with and assessed participants, giving excellent, knowledgeable, and insightful feedback throughout. From them I learned a tremendous amount about being a manager, both the good and the bad. Those assessing our group were top-notch managers who could talk the talk AND walk the walk, AND they could teach and mentor—I really can’t say enough positive things about that program. I was extremely lucky to be part of it, as I learned from subsequent jobs where managerial training was meted out very selectively, according to mysterious, secret criteria.
I’ve been a library middle manager on and off throughout my pretty lengthy career, in access services, instruction, electronic services, and reference, and along the way I’ve collected a number of what I’ll call “impressions” about the role. Those impressions are:
- Being a middle manager is demanding: you are in the middle, which means you need to manage down (to your reports), up (to your boss), and around (to your fellow middle managers). That takes a lot of different skills, about which more later.
- If you’re very lucky, somewhere along the way you’ll get some management training. That’s not really the norm in libraries, though—more often, managers either rise through the ranks of frontline staff or get hired on to a managerial position having been a frontline librarian elsewhere. They may have picked up some management skills on the job or been through some supervisory training.
- If you’re not so lucky, you will have to learn everything on the job, by the seat of your pants. You may learn good skills or you may learn not-so-good skills, depending upon the environment of your department or library.
- The ideal management situation is one in which you have responsibilities accompanied by the authority, and resources, to carry them out.
- However, it can be the case that, as a library middle manager, you will have a great deal of responsibility, but very limited authority and/or resources. This can be frustrating. Or it can make your life a living hell.
- Good managers can be born, or made, but I believe they need to have at least some of the following characteristics:
- Be good listeners
- Have good communication skills
- Be fair-minded (and slow to judge)
- Be well-organized (or know enough to hire an effective amanuensis to keep them well-organized)
- Be empathetic
- Tend to be honest (but not brutally so)
- Tend to give people the benefit of the doubt
- Have a healthy life/work balance
- Be able to set goals and adjust them in response to reality
- Secure enough to hire others just as talented as they are, or more so
- Willing to change their minds as needed
- Willing to stick to their guns as needed
- Be an effective advocate
- Revel in the successes of their team/department/library, both the collective and individuals
- Know enough about the work of your reports to be able to recognize good—as opposed to bad or indifferent—work
- Be able to learn from mistakes and move on
- A good sense of humor
- Bad managers, too, can be born, or made, but I believe that if they lack many of the above characteristics, they, and their staff, are going to have a tough time of it. If I had to pick one trait that is the worst for any manager, it would be ruthless ambition. Please don’t misunderstand me; I find ambition accompanied by hard work and substance to be highly desirable in anyone, manager, administrator, or frontline librarian. But ruthless ambition, that which disregards everything but advancement for the individual and the devil take everything else, will bring down a unit, department, or library very quickly, destroying morale and the work environment.
That’s enough for now about middle managers, for whom, as you can see, I have a lot of respect and admiration. So much so that I’m including this little podcast (it’s under three minutes) that I think summarizes the Library Manager experience nicely.
The Library Manager Song
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