Steven Bell has a typically thought-provoking blog post at the ACRLog entitled Sorry But You Can’t Have it All. I don’t really know Steven, but since we did meet once years ago I’ll be informal and call him Steven. Before I begin discussing this post, I want to note two things for the record. First, I often disagree with either the substance or the tone of Steven’s blog posts, though not necessarily this time. Second, in terms of raising and framing issues of interest to academic librarians, discussing them intelligently, and provoking response, I think he is one of the best library writers around right now. He riles me up in a good way, and I’m thankful for it. Though I rarely do it, when I read one of his posts I often want to write one of my own in response, if only to argue the point. This time I am responding, but unfortunately to something within the post rather than the argument of the post itself.
In the post, he discusses a talk he gave to a group of library directors called “The Search for Tomorrow’s Library Leaders in A ‘Dissin’ the Director’ Landscape,” as well as some of their responses to his arguments. He points out that many Gen-X and Gen-Y librarians are critical of library directors and unwilling to sacrifice their personal lives to achieve a library directorship. These cohorts want a better work-life balance than library directors appear to have. He also argues that part of the problem is that they don’t see the potential rewards, and that the current generation of library directors should do a better job of communicating with the younger librarians, teaching them about leadership, setting good examples of leadership, and cultivating the next generation of library directors. And the goal isn’t to get just any library directors, but to attract the best and the brightest to the directorship.
And notice I’m saying “directors,” though he often uses the term “leaders.” I’ve written before about my disagreement with Steven’s conflation of the terms library leader, director, administrator, etc. The person in charge isn’t necessarily a leader, and to conflate the terms unnecessarily both aggrandizes the incompetent directors and leaves us without a way to praise those directors who are great leaders as well as acknowledge those librarians who are in fact leaders and not directors. For some reason, he doesn’t want these terms parsed, but that’s neither here nor there.
I don’t necessarily disagree with him in this post, and indeed think he makes a compelling argument, though I was struck by some of the comments to his speech, in particular this one: “One director said this was all well and good but that the current generation of directors needed to give their nextgen colleagues a dose of reality. Getting the job done, said the director, requires certain personal sacrifices, and that a work-life imbalance, staying late, working weekends, getting emergency calls in the middle of the night, is occasionally necessary. Bottom line: you can’t have it all.” This comment seems to have inspired the title of Steven’s post, but it inspired me with irritation. Thus, I’m responding more to this comment than to the general argument of the post. I am hardly a voice for my generation (that would be Gen-X), but at the same time I’m not necessarily responding with personal arguments. I’m just putting forth some plausible reasons why bright people might not want to be library directors based on librarians of all ages I know.
Since I dislike these generational and “class” wars, I want to state my opinion of library directors up front. I’m not in the camp of “dissin’ the director,” and in fact just cringed when writing the word “dissin’,” though perhaps that’s more because of my concern for the English language than any concern for directors. I’ve gotten along just fine with every library director I’ve worked for, even when I disagreed with them. If we extend this to library managers in general, the same applies. Early in my career I did have a horrendous experience with a library (mis)manager, but instead of developing a suspicion of management in general, I instead took my issues straight to the library director, whom I liked very much and with whom I got on quite well. And I suppose it’s just barely possible I’ll be a library director someday myself, and I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite.
Back to the comment. I was particularly irritated by the notion that library directors need to give us mere librarians a “dose of reality.” The arrogance of that statement took me aback. We Gen-X and –Y librarians work in libraries. We know what reality is, thank you very much. Personal sacrifices, work-life imbalance, staying late, working weekends: many of us do that without either the title or salary of “director,” and to imply otherwise itself shows a disconnect from reality. The generational difference, if indeed there is one, is that perhaps the younger generation doesn’t see this sort of sacrifice as a badge of honor so much as a road to unhappiness and burnout.
This tough talk reminds me of people who brag about how hard they work and how little sleep they get, as if I’m supposed to be impressed by them ruining their health and running themselves into the ground for what is most likely an enterprise of dubious value. That these sacrifices are “sometimes” necessary is one thing. It seems that the larger issue is that lots of younger librarians see these sacrifices as always necessary for library management, and they’re not willing to make the sacrifices. Perhaps they have more fulfilling personal lives than this particular library director. Perhaps they have a young child, as I do. Perhaps they have hobbies or interests that transcend their jobs.
And then the inevitable platitude: you can’t have it all. But what if you don’t want it all? Isn’t that exactly what the younger librarians “dissin’ the director” have said? They don’t want it all, and now they’re being criticized for not being able to have something that they never wanted in the first place. Steven’s concern is to show the best and the brightest of these younger librarians the benefits of directorship, and not just the burdens. I don’t know if I would be included in his “best and brightest” category of librarians, though I’m no slouch, but I would like to posit some reasons why librarians might not want to become library directors that haven’t anything to do with “dissin’” anyone.
For example, a lot of academic librarians identify as much or more with the “academic” as with the “librarian.” For whatever reason, they’re more interested in being a librarian for a particular field than in just being a librarian or they identify more with the professors than the library administrators, and some of them have a horror of ever being identified as a “manager.” Management is what those commercial folk do. Being engaged in the teaching and learning of a university is enjoyable. Spending time reading widely and trying to understand a particular field or the entire world compels many librarians. A lot of librarians have wide-ranging intellectual interests that have little to do with librarianship, though they might need libraries to fulfill their intellectual needs. They might be interested in literature or history or politics or even books, but not in management, and they’re not interested in the hassles they see library managers burdened with. They’ve had a “dose of reality,” and they know they’d rather work with scholars and build collections and follow their interests than deal with these burdens.
Take, for example, the necessity to deal with people’s personal problems, which managers and directors sometimes have to do. They probably don’t like it, either, but it comes with the job. While making exceptions for emergencies of various kinds, some librarians think people should keep their personal problems and their work separate. Being professional means we do our jobs, and being decent human beings means we take into consideration external problems and opportunities that happen to us all but interfere with work and make allowances for them. But then there are the petty squabbles, the gossipy scandal-mongers, the perennial layabouts, the needy, the whiners and the pouters, the offensive and the offended that sometimes in some places take up inordinate amounts of time for some managers.
One might respond that directors usually have their middle managers to deal with this stuff. Well, that’s another issue. Even some librarians who might be interested in being library directors have no interest in spending ten to twenty years working through middle-management positions to get there. They might be brilliant visionaries, and don’t want to spend years making sure a service point gets staffed or the student workers show up or writing gobs of performance reviews. They don’t want years of being pressured from above and below. Having a vision and trying to make that vision a reality? That’s one thing. But decades of middle management might crush their vision and their spirit. One might respond that this trip through what some librarians consider the purgatory of middle management is necessary for seasoning a director. After all, people have to “pay their dues” (which goes along nicely with the banal cliché about a “dose of reality”). But the point is that a lot of librarians–smart, talented, capable, even passionate librarians–believe, rightly or wrongly, that these dues are just too high. The opportunity costs are disproportionate to the rewards.
There could be many other reasons why talented librarians aren’t very interested in being directors, and some of them might indeed have to do with a certain hostility to library administrators in general. The venom that some librarians have toward the powers that be can be potent stuff. These librarians seem to believe that stepping over the line into administration is like stepping over to the dark side, that the goal of all library administrators is to manipulate their underlings and destroy the library. It seems to me the people who think this way may have been the victims of especially incompetent directors, of managers who don’t know how to manage and may have been promoted by default, as was my horrendous (mis)manager. If this is the case, then Steven’s overall goal is even more compelling, because the way to prevent default administration by incompetents is to persuade the talented to step up and wrestle for control.
But for other librarians, the problem could just be they think being a library director carries too many burdens and not enough benefits, and that the dues paid along the way are just too high. Can those librarians be persuaded to become library directors? I’m not sure. However, I am sure that those librarians aren’t going to be persuaded by some library director’s version of tough love. They’re not impressed by the tough, and they don’t want the love.