The Accidental Library Director

If you would have told me just over a year ago that I would be a library director, hysterical laughter would be my response:

But here I am. I keep calling myself the “accidental” library director. That’s how I introduced myself with a group of new college library director peers. My husband told me to stop saying that. “You’re devaluing your worth!” or something to that effect. I can’t help it. Midwestern self-deprecation is my coping mechanism. No one should seem too self-important.

There was never a desire for a career in library leadership. Up until now, my entire 15+ year stretch as an academic librarian has been focused on information literacy, research assistance, and outreach. I got to do “fun” things like 3D printing, managing a children’s/young adult literature collection, teaching a podcasting course, and designing active learning exercises. I had the freedom to be as creative as I wanted to be.

Conversely, being library director sounded like a creativity killer: budgets, human resources, management.

But truth be told, I was inching toward leadership: I had plenty of programmatic leadership experience, and in the past few years also managed staff.

In October 2017, the interim library director at our small-ish academic library (approx. 3,400 students) resigned. We did not have a back up plan. That’s not a criticism–we just all had too many other things to do. Succession planning was not at the top of the list.

After realizing that none of the other librarians wanted to step up, I offered to. I also told the Provost that I was not interested in the job permanently. Well, you can see where that went: Accidental Library Director.

I filled the interim role for 6 months before applying for the permanent position. Even though an internal applicant, I still had to go through the full interview process: resume/cover letter, phone interview, in-person interview. And I’m glad I did: it made the process transparent and worthwhile. In May 2018, I was appointed permanent library director.

Why Didn’t I Want to Do It (at first)?

  1. I like being a front line librarian and the interactions and energy with students, faculty, and staff.
  2. We had no one trained as a #2 person who could step up to the top role.
  3. At our small-ish academic library, the library director also oversees access services (circulation, interlibrary loan, reserves) and I had absolutely no interest in that.
  4. I really enjoyed my coordination area of info lit and research assistance. My office in the Information Commons was a hub for student activity. I would miss that.
  5. I wasn’t sure I was the right person to be an effective advocate for the library with senior administration (cue imposter syndrome).

Why Did I Change My Mind?

  1. As director, I’m still a front line librarian! At a smaller institution, all of the librarians are front line. I may not be doing as much info lit as I did previously, but I have plenty of interactions. I just worked with a senior capstone English class and their outstanding research topics have energized me as reference librarian this semester.
  2. I got over my “I hate access services” feeling. We all have job duties that are not our “favorite.” You sometimes just have to suck it up. I’m backed up by an incredible circulation manager who handles a lot of day-to-day access services issues.
  3. Yeah, I did enjoy info lit over the years (and I still happily participate as library director–I just don’t have to do as much). But secretly, I was getting to the point where I could potentially see myself getting burnt out. It was time for a change. I got to re-write my “old” position description and hire a new Teaching & Learning Librarian who is off to an outstanding start!
  4. It took some non-library people to convince me to apply: a professor, a senior administrator, and a staff member to say: “Joe: You could TOTALLY do this job!” For me, I gradually realized that all of my experiences prepared me for this. My feelings transitioned from “I could do the job” to “I want to do this job.”
  5. In the interim role, I started making small changes. Then I wanted to see those changes develop. Library administration is not boring. I love collaborating with colleagues from inside and outside the library. I’m proud of the exciting things that library staff are doing. I want to promote that and work with stakeholders on carrying out the library’s mission of student success.

With that said, there is so much to learn and you can be pulled in a million different directions. It’s a big switch for me. For the first year, I’ve been doing a lot of listening: amongst library staff, students, and faculty on campus. I’ve been energized in interactions with the College Library Director Mentoring Program and some of my professional associations and by great colleagues on Twitter.

In a few months, I’ll run a follow-up post on what I’m learning. Lately, it’s been mostly HVAC issues, hah!

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What is Your Leadership Style? Ask Your Colleagues!

Happy New Year! I’m currently enjoying a brief break from working on my master’s in education before classes start up again in late January. So far, I’ve completed 7 out of 11 courses!

The experience has helped fill in gaps that my master’s in library science lacked — that degree was all about library content (books, journals, databases), but surprisingly lacked anything about people. To me, libraries are *all about people* and that’s been the focus on this master’s in adult and continuing education.

This past semester, one of the courses I enrolled in was a management and leadership course. I don’t often take time to consider my leadership style. I’m a manager, but to me, any employee regardless of supervisory responsibilities can (and should!) be a leader.

Leadership Assignment

One assignment I worked on was a concept paper to examine my leadership style through the perspectives of colleagues and friends and then identify the leadership style of a “famous” person that I wish to emulate:

Use five original quotations from your friends or colleagues on how they see you as a leader: write a 3-page paper 1) describing the leadership you demonstrate in practice, and 2) compare and contrast your personal traits and characteristics with an effective public leader of choice (living or dead).

The text of paper is below.

Leadership Styles

Whenever I take a “find your leadership style” quiz, the result is usually the same: I never fall strongly into one category. So hopefully that means I bring in skills that touch upon multiple styles?

In browsing online for leadership styles, I first read Rooke and Torbert’s (2005) classification of seven leadership styles: Opportunist, Diplomat, Expert, Achiever, Individualist, Strategist, and Alchemist. I was not attracted to this classification, since several of categories indicate a leadership deficit. After doing some Googling, I found that many sites and articles reference the following common styles: Charismatic, Participative, Quiet, Servant, Situational, Transactional, and Transformative (Chen, 2006). I like this schema since it plays to people’s strengths.

Feedback from Colleagues

I wasn’t exactly sure what kinds of quotes I would get about my leadership style when I emailed my co-workers and asked professional colleagues on Facebook. I knew by me asking, I wasn’t likely to get anything critical; this is not an anonymous evaluation or performance review. I actually got “warm fuzzies” from a few of the comments.

I’ll start with the simplest:

“Have fun; it’s just work.”

This was from a current co-worker and I know where she was going with this one: As a leader in a workplace setting that is not life-and-death, I emphasize the “fun” aspect as it goes against the grain of the traditionally stuffy world of libraries. The library should be a creative and expressive place–even noisy, at times. The days of being a silent book warehouse are over. Libraries need to adapt and change.

A former student responded to my plea for quotes via a Facebook post:

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“I always felt that your leadership style suggested ‘one of us’ as opposed to ‘us vs. them.’ As an instructor, I never felt like I was assigned work, but more like I was taking part in something as a group. It was always a pleasure.”

Even before beginning the M.Ed. program, I knew my style was collaborative, but now I know the power of facilitating–I do not desire to be the sage on the stage. Each group member has something worthwhile to share, I like to build relationships with groups to tap into that.

Conversely, a former supervisor described me as:

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The part I focused on was:

“find[ing] it just as easy to do something yourself as to delegate.”

Although I have learned to delegate more in the past few years, I do have a hard time letting go. I have a picture in my head of how something should look and I can be a perfectionist in that regard. However, time has told me that reaching out to get additional perspectives is important and can help improve an idea that I already thought was “perfect.”  

A current co-worker stated:

“I would say you lead by example. You do what needs to be done, you behave in a manner which others seek to emulate, and your work ethic sets the bar for others to meet.”

This seems like common sense to me. I’m a person who likes steps and examples, so that’s my natural leadership style: modeling the way for others. In fact, that’s what frustrates me sometimes as a supervisor: If expectations and examples are laid out clearly, why do we fail?

My current supervisor focused on decision-making:

“Above all else, a leader must be able to commit to making a decision. Joe is capable of making decisive decisions, when needed, even in hectic moments.”

My first thought was, “I’m glad my boss feels that way!” because I don’t always. In my mind, I do a lot of back-and-forth when it comes to decision making (pros and cons, potential outcomes). I also feel strongly that you can also change your mind on decisions if presented with new information. I don’t call that “waffling” or “flip-flopping”: it’s adapting to changing situations.

Rachel Carson: Quiet Leadership

In regards to a leader I admire, I chose environmentalist Rachel Carson (1907-1964). Despite being able to facilitate and engage in transformation, I am, at my core, an introvert. After reading the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and watching the author’s TED talk (Cain, 2012), I started thinking about leaders who fall into the introvert category. Carson sticks out to me as a quiet leader. She did serious work that led to lasting change–much of it coming posthumously. She also didn’t seek the limelight.

Koehn (2012) describes Carson as a person “who preferred walking the Maine shoreline to stalking the corridors of power.” That is true of me: I like to get away and be outside. I want time to think about big projects before acting. Like Carson, I’m not a cage rattler, preferring to do my research and influence people with my findings. However, perhaps unlike Carson, I also recognize that a “just the facts” approach won’t work with everyone. You need to weave a story and touch both hearts and minds.  

With Carson, I’m struck by her “no complaints” lifestyle. Her family had financial difficulties putting her through college and was not able to finish her Ph.D. She cared for sick relatives, took in an orphaned family members, and had her own health problems. She often had to put aside her own work to take care of these matters. Work is important, but it’s not everything. I identify with this needed ability to be flexible with life and work.

People equate introverts with shyness. I disagree. Carson used her leadership skills to develop a wide network of associates (government, nonprofits, higher education) to help her with her groundbreaking environmental studies and stood up to the chemical lobby when needed (Koehn, 2012). I admire this ability to use quiet leadership to stand up for your convictions. Rachel Carson’s tenacity combined with modesty, preparation, and problem-solving are qualities I seek to emulate.


Post-Assignment Note

This assignment helped me see my leadership attributes through the eyes of my colleagues. It’s important to step back and see how others view you. In identifying a “famous” person whose leadership style I admire, I was attracted to Rachel Carson’s “quiet” leadership style. Perhaps predictable for a librarian, but a powerful style nonetheless.


References

Cain, S. (2012, February). Susan Cain: The power of introverts

Chen, S-S. (2006). Leadership styles and organization structural configurations. Journal of Human Resource & Adult Learning, 39-46. 

Koehn, N.F. (2012, October 27). From calm leadership, lasting change. The New York Times

Rooke, D., & Torbert, W.R. (2005). Seven transformations of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 83(4), 66-76.