But What If I Don’t Want it All?

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.

2 thoughts on “But What If I Don’t Want it All?

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful response. I work at a small institution, and perhaps that gives me the luxury of thinking most of what passes for management and administration is self-generated busywork supervising people who are actually quite capable of doing their work without supervision.
    I like the peer-review model of tenure and promotion, in spite of all the negative feelings people have about it, but it is a group of peers examining a body of work and saying “that shows promise” or “hmmm… we expected more.” It gets inflated into some weird Academic Idol competition but it doesn’t have to if we decide to stop doing it that way.
    But then, I’m basically a cheerful anarchist who thinks people are capable of organizing together to make things work.
    The fact that we artificially divide our work into “work” performed by librarians and “visionary leadership” performed only by people with other titles sets up a totally false structure that has little bearing on what people really do day to day.
    I don’t feel there’s any shortage of leadership, just of imagination to change the way we frame it in this field.
    (And yeah, as if us ordinary peons don’t work evenings and weekends? Even custodians have to do that, and respond to emergencies. Sheesh.)

  2. I agree for the most part. When it comes to library work, I’m something of a syndicalist and think that librarians can and do organize themselves to get library work done. In fact, they have to in large places, because the director is certainly not going to be standing behind them making sure things work. The division between the worker bees and the director queens is indeed false. When it comes to running a library, the best director or “leader” in the world can’t do anything if the librarians are incompetent and listless and the resources scarce; with good resources and dedicated, competent librarians a library can run itself with an incompetent director if only the director will get out of the way. Having good librarians and good administrators is the ideal, but I bet if users had to choose one or the other they’d take the good librarians.
    I also don’t think there’s a crisis of library leadership and that things will work themselves out. Salutary change in libraries will not be the result of visionaries imposing their visions, especially if, as Steven argues, many of the best librarians are already hostile to the idea of the top-down management model this argument assumes. If anything, it’s more likely to come from those good librarians who aren’t willing to sacrifice themselves for unnecessary but traditional power structures.
    And then there’s the perspective I put forth in a previous post:
    There’s at least one other possibility as well, a faint hope or a daring dream. Libraries will always have leaders, but there may come a time when they have very few administrators. Thoreau wrote that that government is best which governs least, and concludes that if this is true then that government is best which governs not at all, and that when people are prepared for it, that will be the sort of government they will have. As power disperses and communication changes and librarians are more empowered because their jobs demand creativity and flexibility and initiative, less library administration might be not just a necessity brought on by circumstance, but a good thing. A library of motivated, dedicated librarians with creativity and initiative who lead and exert power through influence might need no administration at all.

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