I have now been in the position of Director at the San Rafael Public Library for seven months, officially permanently the director for almost two. Before that, I was the Assistant Director for nine months. For better or for worse, I think it is safe to say that I have made the transition from being a techie-librarian to being, as Nate Hill so aptly put it, ‘The Man.’*
The Hell You Say…
I believe my response to Nate at the time involved the oh-so-mature phrases “shut your mouth” and “nuh-uh, take it back.” Some cursing likely occurred in between. I may have even smacked him on the shoulder. I don’t remember. I think I actually blacked out from the shock of the epithet, so I’ll trust to Nate’s memories of that conversation instead of mine.
The Man Suit
Suffice it to say that the idea of being in charge, of being an administrator, raises mixed emotions in me. I’ve always prided myself on being the fighter, the principled one who stood up in meetings and said the thing the person in charge least wanted to hear and took the beatings afterward gladly. I am the iconoclast, the rabble-rouser, the pain in the behind of pretty much everyone who’s ever supervised me (sorry to David, Pat, Carol, Mary, Jane, the list goes on…). The idea that I am now a Director still makes me crinkle my forehead and make a little kid pouty face. The concept that I’m running a library is still foreign to me, it’s still weird, and it’s still a suit I’m getting comfortable wearing.
All of that being said, those same supervisors I tortured would be the first to say that I like being in charge of things. I believe that my younger brother and sister will echo that sentiment, telling stories about me being just a wee bit bossy even as a seven-year-old. I admit that I fully enjoy having the ability to say “Yes, we’re just gonna buy those shelves” or “Good idea–try it and let me know in a month how it’s going.” But that ability comes at the cost of being the person ultimately responsible when things go badly, messes need cleaning up, and when mistakes are made.
How I Became The Man
When I was debating whether or not to apply for the Director position, I asked a dozen or so close friends and colleagues what they thought I should do. I got the same answer from almost everyone: “You need to do this. We need more public library directors who are tech-savvy, willing to take risks, and who embrace change.” I thought “Well, grrr to your making me some kind of weird representative of the tech-savvy-librarianship class–it’s not my responsibility to shoulder that burden!” But it is, just as it is for everyone else who represents a particularly specialty or area of expertise. So I applied, was offered the job, and accepted. I am still humbled and grateful to the City Manager for showing such confidence in me. I will continue to try to be worthy of that confidence.
Which brings us back to present day, and me being The Man. *shudder* A local colleague thinking of moving from front line librarianship into administration asked me yesterday what I’d learned so far in my recent role as The Man. It’s weird how everyone keeps using that phrase, and I was reminded of Nate’s postscript (sometime after I stopped hitting him) which was something along the lines of “No, you really are The Man but it’s not a bad thing. You’re good at it–at organizing people, working through bureaucracy.” Something like that. Maybe I dreamed that in an effort to pad my ego as I stepped off the cliff into Administration-dom. Nate will have to chime in
So what have I learned? Some tough lessons. And here they are.
7 Lessons Learned While Being The Man
1. Budgets will hamstring your dreams
I have grandiose plans for 3D printers, enhanced item displays, better signage, community outreach and partnerships, multimedia production…the list is endless. However, when working in a short-staffed situation, it becomes nearly impossible to realize any of those wonderful dreams. Even if you could get donations for any items with a direct cost, the reality of short staffing in most libraries means that it’s all you can do to keep the doors open and the desks staffed. Off desk time! What off desk time? When, precisely, do you want your staff producing that weekly digital literacy program for local cable? During their lunch breaks? I am facing a specific budget challenge at present, beyond the year-upon-year-upon-year of regular funding cuts. And that challenge kept me up at nights, literally wondering how I was going to keep the library open. When that is the very real concern, 3D printers sound a lot less important. Sorry, but it’s true. I think through this crisis I’m learning quickly that when there’s no money to go around, anything “extra” just ain’t gonna happen…and that’s no one’s fault, it just is. I feel badly for losing my cool with managers in the past who said no to my requests for upgraded networks, web hosting, and equipment. It’s possible they were facing similar challenges to mine. But if so, they never said anything…which leads me to #2.
2. Be transparent
As soon as I realized our budget situation, I started telling the supervisors, then the rest of the staff, the support groups, etc. One of the things I have had the hardest time with as a librarian has been the obfuscated decision-making processes that I bore witness to, the closed door meetings, the “nobody gets to know this except for us” mentality. It is my goal to be as transparent as possible about what’s going on with the library, both internally and externally, and I hope I’m walking the walk so far. I’m really trying very hard to do so, even when I know what I say will make people mad. Someone asked me earlier this week for a $500 piece of equipment. That budget line was already well-overspent so I had to say no, but I told the person why I was saying no. When I send out messages reiterating a particular procedure or asking staff to be careful about something, I don’t leave it up to the vague-rumor-mill to figure out what prompted my email–I say so…in the email. Transparency is good, period.
3. Not everyone is going to like you–too bad for them
I know this might shock people (not really) but not everyone likes me. There are people within the organization and outside of it who made their opinions of me very well-known when I was the Acting Director. There are people whose opinions of me have changed, and people who still think I am the Anti-Christ. Too bad for them. I’m the Director and I’m not going anywhere. I can’t, nor do I expect to, make everyone like me. In fact, if I’m not pissing somebody off at any given time about something, then I’m probably not doing my job very well. If you need to be liked, then being in administration is not for you. I’ve seen too many friendly, good-hearted people get chewed up by the great administration machine. You gotta have thick walls and clear boundaries, my friends, to do this.
4. Your job is to make everyone look good
Someone makes a mistake? You take the blame. Someone does something truly awesome? She gets all the credit. You do something truly awesome? Tell your own boss, but otherwise stay quiet. I’ve been doing stuff I’m proud of, and part of me wishes I could crow about it but I don’t. It’s not about me…it’s about the library.
5. Small details matter
That little unnecessary extra step people take in a routine process? It matters. Get rid of it. The paint that’s chipping in the hallway that drives someone nuts? Fix it. It’s easy to get lost in the macro issues. Don’t forget the micro issues matter a lot too.
6. You’re always on
When I go out walking downtown at lunch, people know me as the Library Director. They say hi, ask me how the library’s doing, some try to give me books to return. When I am shopping for tomatoes at Whole Foods, I’m still the Library Director. When I’m pounding back a pint of Guinness at the pub, I’m still the Library Director. Any time I’m in public, no matter the day or the time, I’m still the community’s Library Director. This is why that Guinness consumption now always takes place outside my immediate area. I cannot have a conversation about library policy with you at 11pm on a Saturday night in a bar. Any time I’m in public, including when I’m taking the garbage out in my jammies at 7am, I have to remember that some people know who I am and anything I do could potentially reflect positively or negatively on the library. Is it fair? Nah. It’s just the reality of being a public servant.
7. The days of sleeping well are over
This one’s hard. Maybe it’s just me, but since I was appointed Acting Director I lost any semblance of a normal night’s sleep. Perhaps that will fade with time (hey, more experienced directors–does it fade?). I wake up at 2am thinking of something I should add to a report. I toss and turn trying to fall asleep thinking about the 7 mistakes I made in the spreadsheet I drew up yesterday. I stress out about how to address personnel issues, about whether or not I’m going to say something stupid at a City Council meeting, on and on. I have a recurring nightmare involving a particularly scary patron. I’ve always been on the stressier side, but it’s intensified since the new job. I really hope this goes away, but I don’t expect that it will.
If you’ve made the transition into library administration, what lessons did you learn? What would you share with your colleagues? What crash-and-burn mistakes did you make that you can help us newbies from making? What helped you succeed most? Do share!
* I don’t want to hear any crap about ‘The Man’ being a sexist or gendered term. You know what I mean. If you have a better way of saying it, let me know.