A career in libraries can take unexpected directions. In these three articles, we offer advice from those in the trenches on how to climb the career ladder successfully—or gracefully climb down from a job that’s
just not right.
As a line on a résumé, the title of library director looks straightforward enough: the highest administrative role a public library has to offer; one that comes with great responsibilities and challenges—but also the opportunity to map a future for the library. In reality, a director’s duties vary widely from one system to another, as do the paths that lead to the role. LJ asked directors from across the country to share insights for librarians who aspire to move up.
From operations to vision
“Being a director involves being committed to your community as a whole in a completely new way,” says Angela Semifero, director of the Marshall District Library, MI. Semifero has served in the position for six years and was assistant director for the preceding four, primarily dealing with “day-to-day operations.” With directorship, she notes, “the demands on my time completely changed.” Owing to the size of her library, serving a population of 14,900 through a single branch, she maintains a couple of hours of public service work per week but misses “other ‘librarian’ responsibilities…like planning programs, collection development, or outreach.”
“Being a director isn’t about the books. It’s about the people,” Skye Patrick tells LJ. A director for three years at the Broward County Library, Fort Lauderdale, FL, she now has one year behind her as director of the County of Los Angeles Public Library. “You must have a willingness to commit yourself to the people you serve (and sometimes take them to a place they may or may not be ready to go).”
Richard Kong is relatively new in his position as director at the Skokie Public Library, IL, in the “urban suburbs” of Chicago, having taken the position in July 2016. Promoted from deputy director, Kong—a 2012 LJ Mover & Shaker (M&S)—finds himself impressed by the “sheer volume of information I need to take in daily and the decisions I need to make based on that information. I’m still finding my rhythm!”
Of course directors, while the top of the professional staff org chart, themselves report to the library trustees, often to city or county government, and, in a broader sense, to the whole community. A good working relationship with the board is essential to an effective directorship.
Marshall’s Semifero explains that the transition can be challenging for new directors. “There is something odd about moving from having your work evaluated by one person to having it [voted on] in a public forum,” she says. “I am also evaluated on different criteria than I have been in any other position, such as community involvement, acting as [the board’s] fiscal agent, and knowledge of building maintenance and construction.” Ultimately, she finds the similarities are greater than the differences. “It [can be] similar to working with people in the library world, as many of them…are just as passionate about what they do…. [My] main responsibility…is to find ways that the library can integrate our mission and services with [the board’s].”
Eva Davis, director, Canton Public Library, MI, explains such a productive relationship can mitigate a director’s sense of going it alone. “I’m an introvert, and I hate conversation,” she says, “but focused conversations about the library’s role in the community, the library’s goals…those really excite me, and I have had some great discussions with my trustees.”
Making teamwork work
Brett Bonfield, director of the Princeton Public Library, NJ, and a 2012 M&S, models his leadership philosophy on a comment from a fellow director (who prefers to remain anonymous): “She said her job was to hire people who were smarter than she was and put them in position to succeed…my job is to give [my employees] the resources they need and ensure that workplace culture helps to promote their success.”
Staff buy-in is also an important facet of the work Davis does at the Canton library, located in the suburbs between Detroit and Ann Arbor. “I find that asking the people doing the work for their ideas and opinions helps me make better operational decisions,” she says.
“I suggest anyone seeking to be a director examine their personal reasons for pursuing the post,” says Jill Bourne, director of the San José Public Library, CA; a 2009 M&S; and LJ’s 2017 Librarian of the Year. “The best executives I know approach the role from the perspective of assuming the highest level of accountability and operate through influence rather than positional authority.” Bourne mirrors Bonfield in her desire to “identify talented, driven people and open doors for them to innovate, create, and improve services for our communities.”
Working with a team means there are going to be tough spots as well as success stories. “I hate firing people,” shares Davis. “Nobody enjoys being the bad guy.” As a new director, Davis had to lead her library through the 2008 recession. “Having to explain that we were losing 25 percent of our revenues and therefore had to reduce our expenditures by that much did not endear me to some of my coworkers,” she says. In the end, Davis was proud to see her library board and coworkers pull together to maintain service. “That teamwork is what got us through a very tough time.”
Bonfield notes that “the only aspect of my job that’s ever kept me up at night” is “not always being able to pay people what they’re worth…. Sometimes you lose great people, either by failing to make them an appropriate offer when you’re recruiting them or failing to give them the raises they deserve…. Sometimes you have a colleague with untapped potential and you want to promote them…and you can’t identify the funds to make that happen.”
Learning on the job
Preparing for, and moving into, a director position likely means developing new skills and joining different networks. “No one is born knowing how to be a library director,” says Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, coordinator for library sustainability at New York’s Mid-Hudson Library System. She consults with new directors throughout New York and notes that “just because you are a good manager does not mean you can necessarily transition to the leader of an organization.”
Patrick recalls that in her first directorial position she hired a business coach for the first two years in the role. “She worked with me on…communication, work flows, budgeting and finance, interpersonal relationships, vision setting, and goal achievement…. It was a great investment.”
Semifero attended director-focused workshops offered through the Library of Michigan, along with reading “a number of books on organizational leadership, human resources, strategic planning, and public relations,” she tells LJ. The connections she’s made with other directors have been the most helpful. “It’s wonderful to have a network of people to rely on for help when you run into something you’re not familiar with,” Semifero explains.
State library training also benefited Kong, who attended the Synergy Leadership Initiative in addition to attending the Public Library Association (PLA) Leadership Academy. “Both helped me become more aware of my personal leadership styles and strengths,” he says. It also helps to develop and maintain a professional network outside of the library, something that, Kong says, helps combat a sense of isolation.
Davis “took advantage of any workshop or conference opportunities that related to management, leadership, supervision, dealing with difficult people, [and] personality typing, at the regional, state, and local level.” Prior to moving into her director spot, she also took a workshop on how to read municipal financial statements. “It wasn’t library-specific but it helped me understand municipal finance and reporting regulations and requirements, which I did not learn in library school,” she says.
Leverage all your experience
For some directors, their current position is a culmination of experience gained both inside and outside the library field. David Leonard moved into the director role at Boston Public Library after a year as interim director. Prior to that his experience was in the realm of academia, the nonprofit sector, and technology and consulting worlds. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in library and information science. Bonfield also had “five-plus years in nonprofits and higher education” before attending library school and a lot of background in fundraising and IT.
Jane Eastwood, director at Saint Paul Public Library, found that her years working for the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM) opened her eyes to the possibility of a future in library administration. In her time at SMM, she helped design and open a new building, led the marketing and communications department, oversaw a career development program for youth, helped diversify membership and visitorship, and learned about crisis management and fundraising.
Eastwood moved on to the Saint Paul mayor’s office for five years, gaining a beneficial municipal perspective. “There were a lot of transferable skills,” she says. When the library’s preceding director retired, the mayor appointed her to the position. “It was the perfect move for me,” says Eastwood. “This is the work I’m qualified for; I know education, I’ve built critical partnerships, I’ve led big things in the past.” Now, about 16 months into the job, she fully appreciates the nontraditional path that brought her here.
One additional piece of advice? Davis says, “If you think you want to go into library management, whether that’s middle management or being a director, say something to your boss right now. I would never be where I am today if my previous director…hadn’t known about my interests and made sure I had the experiences necessary to be a well-rounded candidate when the opportunity arose.”
Although being a director can be challenging, isolating, even frustrating, it can also be rewarding in a way that few other library jobs can match. “you can be the best assistant director in the world…but you are still not the director,” Bourne says. “The buck doesn’t stop at your desk.” “Every day, if not every hour,” will be different, says Leonard. Kong states, “I can honestly say that I look forward to going to work each day, and I feel like I’m able to make a real difference for the people in our community and within our organization. Says Bonfield, “Until it became part of my job to serve as the face of a beloved [local] agency, I had no idea just how much good there was in my own community.”