February 17, 2018

Library Managers and Administrators, Part 2: Library Administration: Straight, No Chaser | Not Dead Yet

Curiously enough, I think this column is going to be very personal, because I have some very definite ideas about what I want in top library administrators. As I haven’t aspired to be a high-level administrator since I first worked at a reference desk and found a well-loved vocation, I’ve observed those leaders from afar, and not from within. I do know that being a library administrator, especially in these fiscally depressed times, is no picnic. I actually have some friends who are now, or have been, top-level administrators, and I’ve heard their pain. And in any circumstances, being at the top can be difficult: it’s isolating and stressful. But whatever the economic climate, some folks just seem to run libraries better than others, and I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about them and their work that makes them so effective.

Communication, Communication, Communication (repeat ad infinitum)
The chief characteristic shared by really good administrators is skilled, ongoing communication. They provide a constant stream of information about what they’re working on, and constantly seek opinions, feedback, and insight from everyone using and working in the library. That lets me (as an employee) and researchers (as users) know what they’re thinking about, why they’re planning what they’re planning, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. And it informs their thinking, planning, and doing because they discover what patrons want and need, and hear from staff what they won’t hear in formal meetings or read in annual reports or official memos. That kind of ongoing, open communication is necessary to me if I’m going to be an effective member of the library staff, it’s necessary to patrons to see that the library brass is responsive to their needs, and it’s necessary for the upper administration to know the concerns that staff and patrons have about library matters. This should be a constructive, never-ending cycle of communication.

This kind of communication is especially important if a library is about to undergo significant change. I’ve talked before about the bad rep librarians have about change: we’re often misrepresented as being automatically against it. Not true. But I will say that when told to change without any back story or context, for hidden or quixotic reasons, any sensible person will question why. If you’re not involved in the process of change, if it just goes on around you with periodic announcements and dicta handed down from above, it’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to feel engaged in the plan. You wont’ be eager to make these changes work, either—especially if the proposed changes are counterintuitive to your experience, and the administration has not revealed its “hidden reasons.” A good administrator has excellent two-way communication going well in advance of undertaking change, because it’s going to bring about necessary adaptations more quickly and more effectively than shutting stakeholders, such as library patrons and staff, out of the process (and it’s going to make administrators lives easier in the long run).

As a library staff member I want to know that the folks at the top are as committed to the library I’m working in as I am. I want them to care about that library, and its success, as much as the library patrons and staff do. Turnabout is fair play here: if that’s what we expect from library administrators, it’s what they should be able to expect from we who are on the frontlines, as well. To be committed to the enterprise, it’s necessary to be actively engaged in its success.

Give me the opportunity to have an impact, and I’ll be engaged in my work from dawn to dusk—and beyond. Smart administrators involve patrons and staff in policy and service decisions because an engaged user population and engaged staff can work wonders with whatever resources they can muster. Conversely, shut me out of having any real impact and I’ll be alienated and demotivated in record time, no matter what material resources there are at hand.

Risk Taking
Administrators who encourage staff to try new projects and ideas, and then try again, even if they fail, are good administrators. I don’t want to belabor this (since even Taco Bell is on this bandwagon with their sauce packets declaiming: “you won’t know if you don’t try”) but feel I have to say it. Many of us have worked for administrations for whom failing at anything was anathema, and if you tried something that didn’t work, would never give you another chance. About as unproductive and repressive as it gets – but it has happened.

We’re Still All in It Together
Yeah, we’re back to that conclusion again. It’s not the library administration against the rest of us or vice versa. We are all in the work of libraries together. And yes, friends, this is where we all join hands and sing Kumbaya.

Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at claguard@fas.harvard.edu, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.

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