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This post is a summary of my presentation at the ALA Annual Conference entitled “So You Want to be a Director: Fleas, Death Threats, Budget Cuts, and Prison Wardens.”  Good title, right? (Thanks Nicolette!)  Several people asked me to write up my thoughts article-style, so here ya go.  One ginormous caveat: I am figuring out this whole Director thing as I go along, but that was rather the point of this presentation and this post.

In February of 2011 I was hired as the Assistant Director at the San Rafael Public Library, a two-library system for a town of 60,000. I was moving into an administration position after working for a decade in technology and technology management in large system libraries.  The Library’s Director left for another job after I’d been there for nine months (November 2011), and I was appointed Acting Director.  Six months after that (May 2012) I was selected as Director after a recruitment process.  I have now formally been the Director for over a year.

When I first became Acting Director, I had visions of rainbows and pixie dust. Wow, I was finally in charge! This was my home library (I’d lived here for many years but always worked elsewhere). I could make things happen! I could effect change within my hometown! I could guide the direction of an institution and make it one of those kick butt libraries that energizes the community and inspires other libraries!

Then reality hit me like a cement truck.

During my first year, these are some of the challenges I faced. Trial by fire took on a whole new meaning for me:

  • substantial increase in homelessness, substance abuse, and untreated mental illness in our town which unsurprisingly spilled over into the library population
  • 2 written death threats directed at me
  • inability to fill the assistant director position, so I had/have no back-up
  • needing to complete a community needs assessment and strategic plan for the library sans any outside help
  • a 20% budget deficit in our parcel tax budget (which makes up 1/3 of our overall budget)
  • numerous FOIA requests for public records
  • a lawsuit filed against the library
  • a staff member wrote a letter of “no confidence” in me before I even took over as Acting Director
  • a “friend” of the library wrote numerous letters similar to the one above, again before I even took over at all
  • facilities issues ad nauseum, all unfunded and adding to the budget hole, including black mold, more ceiling leaks than I can count, major repairs to the main library’s HVAC system, federally mandated (and unfunded) lighting replacements, and fleas and other pests in and around our two libraries
  • a physical assault from a San Rafael resident while on break and another physical assault from a librarian while at a speaking gig
  • Getting the San Quentin warden upset because our Friends of the Library accidentally listed his direct line as their # in some publicity materials (whoops)
Also keep in mind that this whole time I was in the middle of a divorce. My brain was not in the happiest of places.
I was left questioning my decision to take the job, questioning my decision to become even an Assistant Director, and doing a lot of self-examination in between solitary hikes and weekends of intentional social isolation.
I came up with “10 Things I Wish I’d Known as a New Director” as a way of trying to help people thinking of becoming an administrator realize A) what they’re getting into and B) not to feel as alone or isolated as I did.
1. Fear is Normal
I was terrified as an Acting Director. By the time the actual Director appointment rolled around, a lot of that fear had dissipated. I went into this without enough time with the previous Director for training, without enough time to bone up on management issues and city policy, and (quite honestly) with no career drive to ever be a Director. But I tried it anyway. I reached out to a small network of library administrators whose opinions I trusted, seeking advice as a newbie and help with specific issues when necessary. Everyone was super helpful, especially in letting me know that each of them had gone through a period of fear as well.  Being new at something is usually scary, especially when you have naysayers attacking you from all sides before you’ve even begun the job.  The trick, as with any fear, is to acknowledge the feeling, make a plan to move forward, and act on it.  Everything else takes care of itself.
2. No Money = No Love
I walked into a negative budget situation, as I discovered many new Directors do. I had to say no to pretty much every request and was cutting materials, substitute staffing, and other budget lines from day one. Need a way to make yourself hated very quickly? That’d do it. I didn’t have a choice, but I wish I’d realized ahead of time that there was no winning in this situation. I had hoped that all of our staff would understand that this wasn’t me being mean or stingy for the sake of it, but trying to fix a very real budget problem that had landed in my lap. Most did understand, as did most of our stakeholders and support groups. The few who did not, however, were quite vocal about how I wasn’t as “nice” as the last director, didn’t let people get what they wanted, and was an awful person. I had hoped for universal understanding but settled for almost universal begrudging acceptance.  Also, do not become a Director if you need to be loved. You will be hated by someone for something pretty much every day.  It’s the nature of being in charge.
3. There is No Magic Pill
I had hoped that I would find one magical thing I could do for the public to make them happy. Likewise, I wanted that one magical thing to win all the staff over. There is no magic pill. A thousand things have to be done to appeal to the thousand different priorities and interests of our diverse populations, including staff.
4. Avoid Burnout
I made the mistake of trying to do both the Assistant Director job and the Director job for the first year or so. Big mistake. Working 80 hour weeks burned me out quickly. I did get a lot done and kept the ship floating, but at a great personal cost. My health suffered as did my sanity and my ability to remain mentally dedicated to the job.  I saw myself fast approaching true burnout where I’d need to take an extended leave of absence, and so gradually dialed back my working hours to a more sane 50 or so. I know it’s tempting to just keep going when you’re trying to fix a broken situation.  But I work better in the hours I work now and my mental and physical health are surely improved.
5. Get Ready for the Angst
I’d been a manager for several years before becoming a Director but I truly did not appreciate how much of this job is listening to negativity and being reactive to one negative situation after another.  Personnel issues, complaints from staff and public, things breaking, someone disagreeing with pretty much every decision you make, being the one to ban the really awful patrons, go to court, withstand personal attacks, and the list goes on.  When you’re Director you have a big old target painted on your back. Be ready for the fire and brimstone to rain down. I wasn’t, and the shock of the “Holy Ceiling Cat, isn’t there anything positive right now?” feeling was a lot to handle.  I’ve gradually learned not to internalize as much, though I still do internalize a lot.  As more happens I do find myself becoming desensitized to the smaller issues and feeling free to say to my staff “You know what? You can handle that. You’ll do great.” (instead of jumping in to fix every last problem brought to me).  There are still sleepless nights and panicked moments, but far fewer.
6. People are More Important than To Do Lists
I was so focused on getting things done (balance the budget, write a strategic plan, keep the peace between support groups, go to all my meetings, write all my reports) that I focused less on the people factor at the library. I focused less on individual patrons, on individual staff, and that was a mistake. I am trying to step back and focus on the people in the library more (after all, what is a library but its people!) and finding it challenging with the workload still doubled up as it is. But, hey, at least I’m trying.
7. Morale is Fussy
Just as I was focused on getting things done, I was also overly focused on trying to control my own reactions to things. I didn’t want to paint a rose-colored picture of our budget situation. I wanted to be as direct and transparent with staff as I could be, which I did. But the side effect of that was a whole lot of not-so-great news showering down on all of the staff members…which meant that they ended up internalizing a lot of the same grief I was. I can see pros and cons to sharing information with staff, but I think I may have over-shared. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing I did. I was so concerned about being a good transparent manager and not making the mistake of the silo-ed, closed-off administrators I’ve worked for in the past, that I forgot to pay attention to the morale of the staff at large.  And unfortunately a whole lot of morale-damaging stuff was happening in quick succession. Morale is a hard one. There’s no magical solution, but with some constant attendance and a few key boosters, it can be kept healthy at least. This is another area I’m working on, particularly now that we’ve been able to have a stable budget year looking forward to 2013/2014, and are starting to be able to make some of the major changes staff have waited decades for.
8. Ask for What You Need
Our library was in such a mental state of scarcity that people had ceased to ask for what they needed.  When I became Director, I started asking.  We needed stepped up police patrols.  Check.  We needed freedom to re-allocate end-of-year remaining funds to replace non-ergonomic staff desks and chairs from the 1950s.  Check.  We needed to stop charging for DVD check-outs like we were stuck in the 90s.  Check.  We needed new carpeting to replace the nasty, torn stuff in the library that’s the same age as I am.  Check.  I personally needed support and advice from the other department directors.  Check.  So far, there’s only one thing I’ve asked for from our parent organization and partner departments that I haven’t gotten (and I’m working on that thing too).  Lesson? Ask! (and bring visual aids – they help)
9. Timid Librarians Are Not Allowed
I’ve been called a lot of things as a Library Director.  The nice ones include scrappy, feisty, go-getter-y, and my favorite: “She don’t take no crap from nobody.”  I’m glad that I entered this fray with an assertive personality.  If I’d been timid, I think I would have been eaten alive, spit out, and ended up with a nervous breakdown or abandoning libraries altogether.  You simply cannot and should not be a library administrator if you are timid.  You truly will not be able to do your job well if you’re afraid of conflict, avoid confrontations, can’t deal with raised voices or criticism, and want to be friends with everyone.  It won’t work.  Either you or the institution will break and no offense, but I’d rather it was you, because your institution is more important than any single individual.
10. Do It Your Way
Something I was massively worried about when becoming a Director was having to conform.  I am not good at conforming. In fact, when asked to do so I usually do the opposite and become more non-conformist.  I didn’t want to have to schmooze with people, to lie and smile, to go to events I would hate like the Plague, or to dress and speak like the majority.   I made a conscious decision not to do so from the get-go and in my final interview with our City Manager told her point blank that I would continue being me and doing things my way, and that my “being me” would probably get me into trouble at some point in the future, but that I couldn’t pretend for 10 hours a day to be someone else.  She still hired me (bless you for your openness, Nancy).  So I do my thing the way I do it.  Yes, I meet with council members and the mayor.  But I’m me at those meetings.  Yes, I go to Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce, but I also go to the Community Media Center events, GLBTQ fundraisers, and nerdy local meet-ups.  You know, stuff that’s a natural fit for me and my strengths.  I don’t schmooze and lie, but I do smile. Because when I’m talking about why libraries matter, I automatically smile. I love libraries and it shows.  I dress the way I dress, listen to electronica full blast at my desk, dole out espresso shots to tired employees, and send out irreverent and sometimes funny items in our missives to City Council and our Board of Trustees.  Basically, I’m just me.  I don’t have to put on a mask.  I can be me and still do this job well.  And so can you.
For those of you who are new-ish directors, what lessons have you learned?  What things do you wish you’d known before you started?  Keep the conversation going!!!

“So You Want to be a Director”

  1. John Cohen Says:

    I was a library director for a year and a half of a small town library, and I’ve just accepted a position of director as a different small town. A year and a half is not a long time, but:

    You are your own worst critic – chances are, people who aren’t inherently biased against you (such as the no confidence person Sarah mentioned) think you are doing better than you think you are doing. You are agonizing over every tough decision, but they see someone who is making hard choices. You second guess yourself constantly, but they see a confident manager. You feel like your dithering on choices; they see someone carefully considering your options.

    Your board is a resource – while some on a board may just want a title, many people on the board of trustees have skills you can take advantage of. I’ve had board members who are grant writers, CPAs, HR personnel, fundraisers, and more. They should, can, and will help you out if you ask. And you should ask. Never turn down help.

  2. Cindy Says:

    Bravo, Sarah. I became a director at the tender age of 32, moving up from the position of children’s librarian (many cross-over skills, btw). I have to say that, sometimes, naivete helps. I assumed we could achieve things in the library that, if I were more battle-scarred, I may not have attempted. And, I’m so glad I tried to get a new Main Library (it worked), among other things.
    After 14 YEARS, I moved 4 miles away to a director position in a neighboring town that is very poor, very diverse, and had a terrible library system. Anything I did was an improvement, but man – the challenges. No money. Wary staff. Residents that flat out didn’t know good library service if it punched them in the nose. Some staff waited for me to leave (I heard this when i had been there 5 years!), but I guess I’m really determined.
    I’ve been a director, all told, for 27 years now, and still have fears, sleepless nights and fits of frustration. I have (unprofessionally, I admit it) yelled so graphically at a maintenance worker (for saying “I’m not going to dust the f**king shelves”) that he looked up at me with fear and asked “are you going to hit me?” I have cried with frustration in front of the Union President when I told her that we had to have staff furloughs (she cried, too). I must be crazy, because I can’t imagine doing anything else.
    The people of my community deserve good library service and I am doing to do everything I can do to make sure they get it.

  3. Seth Roberts Says:

    Why were you physically assaulted (“a physical assault from a San Rafael resident while on break and another physical assault from a librarian while at a speaking gig”)? The other bad stuff seems normal, this doesn’t.

  4. Vanessa Says:

    1. “Acting” vs “Reacting”. I thought that I’d have more time to act and do cool things and make a difference! and put my own personal mark on the library and profession as a whole. Instead I find myself mostly “reacting” to external problems, to staff concerns, to patron issues, to CPRA requests, to public comment sessions at Board meeting that go from zero to full blown crazypants in 15 seconds. It’s hard to let go of the feeling that I should be doing more, because it’s impossible in the time allotted.

    2. As the sole Director with no dedicated Admin staff I underestimated how much I would miss working with and bouncing unformed ideas off of an Admin team. At first I was kind of like “yay! No one to get in my way” and now I feel isolated, especially since there are some topics I can’t discuss with staff (mostly personnel, because I’ve very open). For example, I made the mistake once of trying to explain a complicated personnel/legal issue to an inquisitive staff member and since I had to explain things in hypothetical terms I said something like “so, hypothetically, say I fire you…”. The staff member couldn’t focus on my brilliant legal breakdown of CA employment law because she was so worried that I kept hypothetically firing her. 🙁

    3. Ruling by consensus is not always best. I also came from the place where I didn’t want to be an authoritarian leader, but at first I went a little too much with consensus based decisions and thankfully led to some great results but also it got in the way. You have to be smart about which decisions to open up to consensus and what to forge ahead with on your own.

    4. Many staff aren’t going to see the “big picture” and that’s ok. At first I’d get a little upset when I would try to be open and transparent and people would still worry about their own specific positions and roles but I’ve realized that it’s not only understandable but it’s o.k. that some staff don’t see the “big picture”- because that’s what I’m paid to do and also they shouldn’t have to worry about things to the extent that I do.

    5. It’s so important to have support and if you don’t have it at work find it elsewhere. I’m lucky to have a spouse who is “in the industry” and have made some great contacts who are willing to let me vent.

    6. A sense of humor is a very good coping mechanism.

  5. The Book Maven Says:

    Thank you for your honesty, Sarah. I think you may have just helped me finally decide something that Ihat I have been contemplating since I became a librarian seven years ago–I’m not cut out to be a manager, of any sort. I do hate conflict, I internalize criticism far too much, I do loathe unkind words and tension, I would rather just get along and maintain good relations with as many people as possible. I’d rather be your friend than your boss. I’m a great librarian and colleague and readers’ advisor and worker bee, and I like the thought of influencing my work environment, my community, and my profession–but I would suck as an administrator. It’s dispiriting, of course (shall I just be a plain old entry-level librarian my entire career? Is this all there is for me? Is this all I am good for? blah blah angst woe blah), but at least I won’t spend the next 25 years constantly trying to pursue something that runs counter to who I am.

    Your fearless, brutal honesty are the best mentor I’ve ever encountered.

  6. Sarah Says:

    Seth: Asking why someone was assaulted is kind of weird. But, to answer your question without going into uncomfortable details, both individuals were people who felt they had a connection with me (though I’d never met either), that we were meant to be together, and physically forced themselves on me (or tried to). Best descriptor would be: unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature. It’s more common than you might think, but always unacceptable.

  7. Amanda Says:

    The Bartending Librarian was my favorite post, until So You Want to Be a Director. I don’t often respond to your blog but love to listen. Thank you for your perspective, Sarah.

  8. Hillary Says:

    This struck a nerve, and I wish I had been at ALA to see it. I was made Acting in January 2011, got the job in July 2011 (after cutting the budget as Acting), and have been struggling to redefine myself ever since.

    I would add three things – learning to look through the telescope at the REALLY long view of the organization – knowing you are making choices now that are aimed at results five years from now. This view most others will not or cannot see with you, so you are really alone.

    And, finally politics is not a dirty word, it is part of the job. Not being false (I agree with you there), but knowing that attending meetings, talking to people, and building relationships is part of how you get things done. It makes asking easier, and makes you more likely to get a yes. when I’m away from the library attending a luncheon, a reception, or participating on a Citywide Committee, that’s what I’m doing.

    And an emphasis on – if you need to be liked, this isn’t for you. You won’t be, often, no matter what. With management you get 10% of the credit and 90% of the blame, no matter what role you played in a success or failure. If something succeeded it was despite you, if something failed it was because of you. If you dare to take credit, you are hogging the spotlight from deserving others. If you duck you are letting others take the hit. You can’t win in this realm, and I often feel like I’m back in junior high, so I just focus on the long term and stop counting these small things.

    When you can only laugh or cry, always choose to laugh.

  9. Edith Sutterlin Says:

    Well said. I, too, would err on the side of being a “possibly too transparent” director, but feel that is the right way to tip if it is that or towards leaving staff in the dark, as happens too often with some library boards or directors.
    “a whole lot of morale-damaging stuff was happening in quick succession. Morale is a hard one. There’s no magical solution, but with some constant attendance and a few key boosters, it can be kept healthy at least. This is another area I’m working on, particularly now that we’ve been able to have a stable budget year looking forward to 2013/2014,” this is a hard one. Just finished a course called “Inspiring leadership through emotional intelligence” which gives mindfulness, play/humor, hope, and resonant relationships as some of the keys to staff morale. adding that the mood of the director/manager can be contagious… and explaining that the positive feedback/comments/emotions have to outweight the negative ones about 3 or 4 to 1 at least in order to be heard/felt by the employee/colleague. It was a good course.

  10. Douglas Lord Says:

    Hi Sarah – long time follower, first time commenter. Excellent post! I don’t have much to say other than offering a sincere “thanks” for giving an honest and transparent look at what directorship takes. We are fortunate to have you in librarianship!

  11. So You Want to be a Director | LibraryLinks Lie... Says:

    […] When I first became Acting Director, I had visions of rainbows and pixie dust. Wow, I was finally in charge! This was my home library (I’d lived here for many years but always worked elsewhere). I could make things happen! I could effect change within my hometown! I could guide the direction of an institution and make it one of those kick butt libraries that energizes the community and inspires other libraries! Then reality hit me like a cement truck. During my first year, these are some of the challenges I faced. Trial by fire took on a whole new meaning for me…  […]

  12. Dennis E. Robison Says:

    I’m currently Chair of our regional library trustees and we’re looking to fill the Library Director’s position. I retired some 14 years ago after having been an academic librarian for 37 years, 25 of them as a director. Sarah’s posting was helpful to me on several levels. It reminded me of one of the most important things I learned as an administrator – if someone brings a problem into your office, don’t let them leave it there (#5). It is also important to realize that not everyone can or should be a director. It takes a special talent and ability. It can be very rewarding when you and your staff together achieve something good for those you serve. Which reminds me of Robert Greenleaf’s servant leadership concept (see Yes, sometimes you have to make the hard decisions when consensus can’t be reached or someone just needs to be fired but your job as director is akin to that of a servant – making sure your guiding principle is to resource your folks to get their job done. It is not all about you. It is also good to know that Sarah recognized that there are Board members who are willing to do more. The challenge is to keep it balanced between helpful and meddling. Well done, Sarah.

  13. Kristi Says:

    Being a new-ish director myself (just over 1 year), I have learned that stepping up and becoming the front line was not as difficult as I thought. I am there to support my staff and patrons, to liaison to the Board and City. Being able to converse with both the people who have been there 30+ years and those who are new to the library helps.

    Thanks for this post! (I was sorry I couldn’t see it in person, but glad I got to say hello to you before it!)

  14. Nini Bookworm Says:

    I am just coming up on a year and a half as the director of a library in a small town. I walked into the job with absolutely no experience. I am the only staff, and had no training of any sort. There was an acting director who applied for the same position whom I worked a partial day with, then I was on my own.

    I have also had many jobs in my lifetime. Bar tender, barista, waitress, and body work – but my love of libraries and books, people and a challenge are what drew me to the job. I also mistakenly thought it would be easier on my body…..hahahhaaa!

    I have had an infinite number of “fires” to put out from the beginning. Daily disasters with patron computers, my book system crashed, struggles with the various politics I was blissfully ignorant even existed, helping write a budget 2 months in, toilets and bugs, having too many books, having the wrong books, having no books, threats of closure by the powers that hold the purse, malfunctioning alarms, setting off the alarms myself on accident, an actual fire….. I could go on but you’d swear I was making it up.

    But the point is this –

    I have never read anything online before I related to as much as your story. This job can be a head trip, but I truly believe I am the right person for it right now. Thanks for helping me quit doubting myself, because if I don’t believe I can do it no one else will.

    My advice to other newbies:

    Develop good boundaries, focus on the little successes, and keep in mind it is a job.
    Remember what you enjoy, and make it part of your day.
    Change what you can.
    Don’t seat the small stuff.
    Be kind to yourself.
    Laugh at your mistakes, and learn from them. Sometimes they are cosmic as well as comic.
    You bring something to the table no one else does.

  15. Nini Bookworm Says:

    Added to above comment:
    When disheartened, read Sarah’s “So You Want To Be a Director”
    That’s what I am going to do.

  16. Mary Rayme Says:

    Hi Sarah!

    I am a newish director in a tiny library in rural WV.

    I have learned that even though I live 23 miles west I am still an outsider. It is hard to be the director of a library in a community where I am perceived as an outsider.

    I have learned to rely on the professional expertise of others because I am so isolated. The ALA has been a great resource as are other rural librarians in the state.

    I have learned that many grants are not worth the time they take to write, esp. considering the $ amount promised. I have successfully found ways to supplement our book buying budget (of $2,000/year) via grantwriting and requests. I have received free or significantly reduced books from First Book, Ex Libris, and the DUC program of Art Resources Transfer.

    I have learned to be creative in promoting my library. There is a new medical clinic nearby where I drop off a rotating collection of books for kids, and the previous librarian started the habit of a rotating collection at the senior center. It boosts circulation and promotes the library.

    I have learned that I will never please all my patrons, nor board members. I do hope that most find what they are looking for in my library.

  17. Kim Says:

    I love what you said about fear, that is right on target. Fear is usually what holds people back from what they really want. My goal is to become a library director; it’s a long road still, but I will get there someday. This article was very inspiring to read.

  18. Peggy Says:

    I have just become an assistant librarian in a very small town in South Dakota. In the last year we have just gotten wifi and digital books! We still hand check out and check in books. Nothing is on computer! We have a very small budget and are looking for ways to upgrade but not use the whole budget. We have our Summer Reading for kids going on right how and have received very few donations. Any advice from anyone would be welcome. No I am not a timid librarian! I just found this page and I love IT~

  19. Sarah Says:

    Is there a chance that you could organize a few super-dedicated citizens to being a Friends group to the library? Friends groups can often help fundraise much easier than the library can itself, and they typically support library services as recommended by library staff. That would be my first suggestion. My second would be to pursue grants, either through LSTA, tech organizations, local non-profits, etc. There is a lot written about grants in libraries–books and articles–that can help you get started 🙂

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