How to Chair an ALA Committee Meeting

Although I haven’t the decades of experience of some librarians, I have recently returned from my 26th ALA Midwinter or Annual in a row and have been a member or chair of one or more committees since my first ALA attendance. I’ve been a member of committees at the ALA level and the ACRL section level, and a chair and member of committees at the RUSA division and section level. In that time, I’ve been to a lot of bad meetings and many good ones. I think I can say without too much immodesty that most of the meetings that I’ve chaired have been better than average, at least if the goal is to get the most amount of work with the least amount of time spent. And if that’s not the goal of meetings, then why have them? Below are some tips that I offer freely to anyone who will be chairing a committee meeting at ALA, especially any meeting I’ll be attending.

Remember the Chair is in Charge

The committee chair is in charge, period. Everyone should participate and have a say. Decisions should be the result of group deliberation. But if something derails the meeting, it’s the chair’s job to get it back on track, even if that means being blunt or forceful. The committee is there to get work done, and anything that takes away from that needs to be dealt with. When disorder reigns, people look to the chair to bring things back to order. Don’t let them down. The chair can keep charge of the meeting while still being polite, considerate, and even amusing. While it might seem rude to stop timewasters and squeaky wheels, it’s actually rude to everyone else not to. Members can get away with just showing up, but chairs have to work, and if you can’t do the work, don’t take on the job.

Do Everything Virtually That You Can

This might seem obvious, but the pattern of work of some librarians hasn’t progressed along with the technological capacity for virtual work. Based on my experience, the old norm was for long, multiple face to face meetings, because it was much harder to do group work at a distance. Email has modified that considerably, and tools like ALA Connect and Blackboard Collaborate finish the job. If it doesn’t need some extended discussion, then it can be handled virtually. I once took over a committee that had been meeting twice for a total of 4.5 hours over the course of a conference. I streamlined it to 1 meeting of 1.5 hours and got just as much work done, because everything that could be handled virtually was, and by the time we got face to face we had to deal only with the stuff that required a meeting.

Give the Committee a Structure

Again, it seems like an obvious point, but it’s not. Librarians tend to be nice, democratic people. They want to solicit opinions, gather viewpoints, and then consider acting at some time in the future. But as a volunteer organization, most librarians don’t want or have time to think a lot about the work of a committee until they absolutely have to. They typically won’t respond to general questions like, “tell me what you think.” Instead, don’t ask them what they think; give them something to think about. If the committee needs to come up with a plan, give the committee a plan. If it needs to review a document, review it and submit your suggested revisions. If it needs to create a document, then provide a possible outline. If the committee is between projects, don’t just ask people what the committee should do next. Give them concrete suggestions to consider along with a request for further suggestions.  Then give people the options: adopt this, critique it so that it can be improved, or ignore it and propose your own alternative. Make it clear that you have no personal investment either way. Chances are, they’ll choose the middle option, which will give the committee something detailed to work on. Sometimes it’s just adopted. And then every once in a while someone actually proposes an improved alternative. So much the better. Everyone gets a say, but people are more likely to speak if they have something in front of them to critique.

Give the Committee a Deadline

Again, because of the volunteer nature, librarians are prone to procrastination regarding committee work. So, along with the structure, provide a deadline. Something like this usually works (although fleshed out more to sound less brusque): “Here is a possible plan/revision/document that moves us along on the project we’re working on. Please adopt it, critique it, or provide an alternative by one month from today. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll assume you approve.” That last bit is crucial. Always take their silence for assent. If they know this, those who care will respond, and those who don’t care won’t feel bad for not responding, and you won’t feel bad for ignoring them later if 6 months down the line they don’t like something. People will usually respond, often enough with good criticisms of the proposal. Those who don’t respond had their chance, and everyone knows it.

Call for Agenda Items

Agenda items should require in-person discussion and action. Calling for them includes everyone in the discussion. This is important both to be courteous of the committee members as well as to give teeth to the agenda later if you need to deal with timewasters (see below).

Create an Agenda

Regardless of whether anyone submits anything, create an agenda. If you can’t come up with any agenda items that require in-person discussion or action, then you should cancel the meeting. Avoid announcements or anything that could just as easily be handled in an email.

Send out Documentation Well in Advance 

Any documentation that’s necessary to understand the agenda items or prepare people for action should be sent out well in advance. A month is a good lead time, because it lets you wait to set the agenda, but gives people ample time to read the documentation. Announce that the documentation needs to be read in advance of the meeting. There are two typical failures here. Sometimes the chair sends out documentation at the last minute, and by last minute I really mean anytime in the week leading up to the meeting. The week before a conference is almost busier than the conference itself. If you send it out that close to the meeting, there’s a good chance it won’t be read, and it’ll be your fault. The other failure is people not reading things even if sent a month in advance. That’s too bad for them, because the meeting isn’t the place to be reading or going over background documentation. Don’t let it devolve into that. The absolute worst thing to do is to bring documentation to the meeting that no one has seen before and then ask people to read and react to it. Save that discussion for another meeting unless it’s an emergency, and really, how many ALA emergencies are there.

Start on Time

Time is increasingly precious at ALA. Also, anyone who is late to a meeting (barring some sort of emergency or alternate commitments) is being discourteous to those who showed up on time. Don’t do a further discourtesy to those people by saying, “let’s wait another ten minutes to see if more people show up.” Unless you have rules about quorums for votes, then who shows up shows up, and start on time. Since you never know why people are late, don’t draw attention to them when they come in after you’ve started. At a minimum, you could just announce, “we’re on agenda item X and the question under discussion is Y,” and then proceed as if they’d been there all along. Given the tightness of the schedule, they probably had to attend another meeting simultaneously anyway.

Stick to the Agenda

After you start, stick to the agenda. You might move things around depending on events, you might even drop something, but don’t add anything or allow for irrelevant discussions until you get through the agenda. People know the time and plan in advance, and respect them enough to stick to it. Focus, focus, focus.

Don’t Talk Too Much

By the time the meeting has started, you’ve sent out documentation well in advance, called for agenda items, sent out the completed agenda, and prepared everyone to discuss and act on the agenda items. You’ve done the bulk of your communicating. The meeting is the time for the members to communicate with each other regarding the agenda items. After introductions, move to the first agenda item and ask an appropriate leading question. Don’t give long speeches about it. Don’t try to fill up dead air if no one speaks immediately. The longer you talk, the less they will. So state the question, ask for discussion, then shut up. Your job now is to guide the group through the agenda and make sure action is taken.

Deter or Defer the Timewasters

Timewasting is relative. In this case, it’s anything that’s not on the agenda or relevant to the discussion at hand. Whether you deter or defer depends on the importance of the timewaster’s point. Committees need to get the work of the agenda done. That’s what meetings are for. Some people like to spend time whining or complaining about the organization, or its members, or something else. That’s what bars are for. Don’t confuse the two. If someone brings up an irrelevant and unimportant issue, acknowledge it but then say we have to move on and we can possibly discuss that after we’ve completed the business at hand, by which time everyone will have forgotten about it.

However, sometimes people bring up important issues that just aren’t relevant to the business at hand. They should be deferred, not deterred. For example, I recall a meeting where the discussion went something like this:

“But I thought Important but Currently Irrelevant Question A was decided in Manner B by Organization C.”

“No, it wasn’t,” reply multiple respondents.

“But I thought it was.”

And so on for several rounds, frustrating everyone. Instead of letting that kind of thing take away from meeting time, a good response might be: “No, I don’t think it was, but that’s an important question, even though it’s not directly relevant to the work we need to do right now. However, because it’s an important issue, after the meeting I will consult with Organization C to make sure what actually happened and will communicate the results to the committee. Perhaps that is something we can take up at a later time.” With this response, the agitated timewaster is recognized as a person with a worthwhile point, is provided an explanation of why that point won’t be addressed at the moment, and is promised further action to follow up and to possibly address the point in more detail later on. (And do the following up; don’t be lazy.) Recognition, explanation, promise of activity. Reasonable people will stop there.

If the timewasters persist, then it’s appropriate to be more blunt and say, “we have to move on now,” and then go to the next item on the agenda. Don’t seem angry or annoyed. Just calmly announce that it’s time to move on. The agenda has strength as a guide because everyone has been invited to contribute and everyone has approved it. Furthermore, not deviating from the agenda shows everyone else the courtesy of not wasting their time. Committee members are reluctant to stop the ramblings of timewasters. That’s okay, because it’s the committee chair’s job. The only person who might be upset will be the person who unreasonably expects to take up everyone else’s time. Everyone else will be silently thanking the chair, just as they were silently cursing the timewaster.

End on Time, or Early

Time is tight and people have other commitments. If they don’t they’ll still be tired of sitting in the same chair for an hour or two. End the meeting on time. If you run out of time, postpone the business. If you go way over time, that means that you planned badly or let things go awry during the meeting. Don’t make everyone suffer because of your errors. There’s rarely anything so crucial that it can’t wait. And if you’re focused and get done early, everyone will be pleased. It’s an example of what Edmund Burke called “the unbought grace of life.” Add a little bit of that to someone’s day and they’ll appreciate it.

An important consideration for all these points is that they show courtesy to the committee members, all of them and not just the squeaky wheels. Members of the committee who want a say in the agenda have it. Members who want to propose alternatives to the chair’s suggestions are free to do so. Everyone has a say at the meeting, and everyone has some control, but that control is regulated to ensure fairness and productivity.

Leading Change

Recently, I’ve been thinking about a lot about organizational change. I’m not a manager, and possibly not much of a leader, but here are some of my thoughts. 

Change is such an ambiguous term, much like moving forward, because in some sense everything is always changing. As Heraclitus might say, I never step into the same library twice. The rush and flux of working life always changes and adapts, sometimes to the point where if you analyze an organization you can only ask, "How in the heck did we ever get here?"

I’m assuming that any directed change should lead to improved performance related to the organization’s mission. This sounds like the kind of thing everyone can get behind, like freedom or justice. Many of the articles I’ve read over the years, or pleas for change I’ve heard, don’t get much more specific than that. They assume agreement on a mission, and agreement that any specific change will help accomplish that mission better, without connecting the two. Coming up with a mission is easy in academic libraries. Coming up with reorganizations and changes is also easy. The problem is linking them together in a persuasive way.

As I see it, the core mission of academic libraries is to build collections and facilitate their use to support the scholarship and teaching of the university. Collection development, cataloging, reference, outreach, digitization–it’s usually pretty clear how these things support our mission. We have the ends, the problem is figuring out the best means.

Assuming that we have a shared mission, to promote useful change, we have to ask at least four questions at the beginning.

  1. What are we not doing now that we should be doing to support the mission?
  2. What are we doing now that we can do better to support the mission?
  3. What are we doing now that we should not be doing?
  4. And how do any proposed changes answer those three questions?

If we can’t answer those questions, then there aren’t any good reasons to change, and we will be forcing change for change’s sake. There are good reasons to oppose such change. For one, change is disruptive and stressful, so before we change, we should be very clear that it is worth the disruption and stress. Also, we must analyze our situations carefully to make sure we won’t be eliminating something we don’t understand but that serves a useful purpose. Sometimes situations look poorly organized, when really they work but we don’t understand how. The biggest reason to oppose such changes is that they take time and energy away from serving the core mission of the academic library and devote it to other things.

Answering those questions can sometimes be very difficult. It takes a lot of experience, understanding, and analytical ability to answer them. Let’s assume some bright people have answered those questions. Where do we go from there? Identifying necessary and productive changes is but the first step, and not as difficult as implementing those changes.

If you want to avoid a confused and discouraged staff or a toxic work environment that will be unpleasant and unproductive, you can’t coerce change. You’ve got to persuade the relevant people that change is necessary and worthwhile. This seems to be the point where a lot of people fail, primarily through a lack of rhetorical skill. To persuade others, there are a few things you need to do:

  • Demonstrate a thorough understanding of the situation
  • Appeal to shared values or premises
  • Demonstrate how those shared values or premises lead to your conclusions
  • Address objections and counterarguments in a credible, but sensitive way
  • Show respect for your opposition and a little humility, because there’s no way you’re entirely right and they’re entirely wrong
  • Focus on your positive message and not get lost in useless criticism or defensiveness
  • Focus on results, not attitudes
  • Remember that threat hinders communication

This last one is especially important. No matter how credible your arguments or positions are, you can’t persuade people who feel threatened. The goal of rhetoric isn’t to win arguments, but to gain agreement on a set of propositions or a course of action, and that’s very different. If people feel threatened, they won’t even hear what you have to say.  It’ll just come out, "blah, blah, blah." Threat works both ways, though. Managers wield more power than lower level employees, but managers are people, too. They have worries and feelings, and they want to be respected and well treated. (I’m excepting the subset of managers who are just plain malignant and incompetent. They deserve all the disrespect they get.) To have people stand around constantly denigrating them is harmful professionally for them and the organization, but also for them personally. And when managers feel threatened, they too stop listening. Either way, discussion and deliberation stop.

Avoiding threat isn’t easy, though, because in some situations people naturally feel threatened. Knowing that change is disruptive and stressful means that calls for change can easily be considered threatening. Knowing there’s a boss who can force you to do things you don’t agree with can be threatening. Defusing that threat and leading change takes analytical and communication skills of the first order. Seeing criticism and dissent as necessary catalysts to constructive change rather than just angry resistance is difficult for us all. It seems to be  human nature that we think we’re right regardless of our reasoning and we have trouble understanding how anyone can possibly disagree with us.

But even the above list is very general, and assumes that the people involved are capable. The first suggestion requires that someone not only actually understand a situation, but is able to demonstrate that understanding to others. Remembering that threat hinders communication is abstract. The difficulty is knowing in practice when and how people are feeling threatened and having the skill to disarm that threat. That ability is the result of phronesis, or practical wisdom, and not something that can be learned from a bulleted list.

In earlier posts I’ve tried to disambiguate leader and manager. A manager can very easily call for change, and often can enforce it. But to identify worthwhile changes and persuade others to embrace them despite the stress involved, and to do this whileinspiring confidence and unity and without creating a toxic work environment, requires a leader.

Leaders and Followers and Me

At the risk of having Walt Crawford never link to one of my blog posts again, I’m going to talk about some things that have been bothering me about the Library Leadership Network. No, that’s not quite right. I’m going to talk about some things that bother me about some of the things the LLN links to, so maybe this is more participating in the conversation than criticizing the LLN, and thus Walt might link to me again one day. I’m not uncomfortable with talk of leadership, but there’s something about the idea of "leaders," and especially their concomitant "followers," that sometimes rubs me the wrong way.

At other points I’ve criticized people who conflate leader and manager, thus designating anyone who happens to be in a supervisory role a "leader." This is a category mistake that should be easy to spot, since I’m sure most of us have known supervisors who were neither leaders nor managers, but instead uninspired and incompetent mediocrities. Or maybe I’m the only one who’s known anyone like that. So I contend it’s a mistake to confuse leaders and managers. To judge by the "leadership literature" LLN sometimes links to, this sort of sloppy thinking is endemic to the field. I’m not sure who’s a "leader" and who isn’t, but anyone incapable of disambiguating the various terms that allow even remotely intelligent discussion of the issue isn’t going to get me as a "follower."

But the literature displays more than just a tendency to insufficiently parse terminology. Tonight I’ve been going through some entries in another LLN category: Leaders and Followers, linked from the latest LLN Highlights. One entry I found especially irksome: "What every leader needs to know about followers." (It’s down a way on the page; the link to the original article is broken.) The LLN summary reads: "This article identifies five types of followers–followers being those who ‘are low in the hierarchy and have less power, authority, and influence than their superiors.’" It took me a couple of minutes just to get past that. This sentence, especially the spurious definition of "follower," implies that everyone who is a "superior" in some sort of hierarchy is thus a "leader" (since leaders have followers, while superiors have inferiors), and that anyone below this "superior" "follows." The sloppy language is made more bizarre by the very obvious fact that some of the types discussed don’t "follow" at all. Just read the description of Isolates, Bystanders, Participants, Activists, and Diehards.

This is another example of using language sloppily and conflating terms, but the writers of this leadership literature have surpassed sloppy categorization and moved on to just making words mean whatever they want them to mean. I don’t see what the purpose could be except to aggrandize anyone in any supervisory position and turn everyone who isn’t into some sort of inferior "follower" who waits breathlessly for words of wisdom to fall from Der Fuhrer’s lips. (The unpleasant connotation explains why, as i understand it, the Germans don’t write much about "leadership.") It also makes nonsense of the very obvious truth that if you don’t have any followers, then you’re just not a leader, despite whatever authority and power you might have to energize people or make them miserable at work.

Let’s back away for the moment from the sloppy thinking of some leadership literature and consider another blog post I read today on professionalization at Rory Litwin’s Library Juice. (Perhaps the confluence of events inspired my own thinking.) In that post, Litwin cites an article listing some of the characteristics of a profession, which includes "Autonomy and control of one’s work and how one’s work is performed." Litwin opines that " it is endemic of the period of deprofessionalization that we are in that library managers have begun to say that ‘professionalism’ means performance of ones tasks according to high standards of quality (as judged by them)."

Though I don’t know if he would agree with this, in the context of my discussion, this would mean that "professionalism" is being redefined to mean whatever The Leader says is good, and the good professional is the Good Follower who does what The Leader says. If this is the case–if all "managers" are "leaders" and everyone else is a "follower" kowtowing to the leader–then it does either lead to deprofessionalization or merely indicate that no professionalism is present anyway.

This brings together much of what bothers me about the intellectually sloppy literature on leadership that I’ve read. It’s not that there aren’t organizations that it might apply to (though this might be the case); it’s more that it doesn’t seem to apply to the sort of organization I work for or the sort of work I do, either practically in my case or ideally in anyone’s case. There are jobs in which pleasing the boss is the job, but librarianship shouldn’t be one of those jobs.

Professional academic librarians should look upon such thinking with disdain, just as professional academics should. The key is the concept of "professional." Here are a couple more entries in the definition of profession:

  • Motivation focusing on intrinsic rewards and on the interests of clients – which take precedence over the professional’s self-interests
  • Commitment to the profession as a career and to the service objectives of the organization for which one works
  • Sense of community and feelings of collegiality with others in the profession, and accountability to those colleagues
  • Self-monitoring and regulation by the profession of ethical and professional standards in keeping with a detailed code of ethics

I interpret all this to mean there is a sense of obligation by each professional to shared standards that determine the appropriateness or quality of conduct, rather than the words of wisdom spoken by Der Fuhrer.

We’re told by the leadership gurus that "Good followers actively support good (effective) leaders and oppose bad (ineffective, immoral) leaders." But in an atmosphere of professionalism, good "leaders" may be entirely absent, yet good work may still be done.

This leadership literature all seems to be written for commercial rather than academic organizations. Thus, in addition to the nonprofessional assumptions that people are "followers" there’s the lack of rigor and intellectual standards that makes so much of this writing no different than the typically execrable self-help literature for the ignorant masses. In fact, part of what bothers me about so much of this is the demonstrated inability to think carefully. In academia, thinking carefully and developing articulate arguments are minimal criteria for being taken seriously. To the masses one may be a leader, while to the educated one is merely a demagogue.

Other organizations and academia are perhaps analogous to dictatorships and republics. Dictatorships operate under the Rule of (One Person’s) Will, but republics under the Rule of Law. A standard definition of a republic is that it is governed by laws, not people. We are professionals precisely because the word of Der Fuhrer doesn’t decide what is right or wrong in our profession. Professionals have shared standards–the rule of law–to which they appeal. Individual supervisors or managers may violate those standards. They may even insist that we violate those standards in order to keep our jobs (or get raises or whatever). But that doesn’t make us wrong for defying them. That makes them unprofessional in their behavior. That’s because, ideally, o
ur profession is one governed by principles and standards and not by the will of The Leader.

Actual leaders rise and attract followers not because they are in a certain place in a hierarchy. They  do worthwhile things and inspire or encourage others to do worthwhile things. Only demagogues are obsessed with whether or not they are leaders. The best leaders in librarianship don’t prattle on about leadership or insist to us that they are "leaders."  They don’t seek followers or the acclaim of shallow praise. Instead, they inspire us to meet the challenges of our own professional principles and standards. They don’t lead by telling people what to do or writing performance evaluations. They lead by making us want to do great things not to please the boss/fuhrer, but to meet shared standards that transcend us all, not to follow their orders, but to do or do better what we should already be doing even if they weren’t around. When those people come along, they don’t need to talk about leadership. We know them for what they are.




Gen X Leadership

According to the Harvard Business blog (discovered via the LLN Leader’s Digest), Gen Xers are the "leaders we need today and tomorrow" because of our accelerated contact with the real world, our distrust of institutions, our looking outward, our acceptance of diversity, our rich humor and incisive perspective, our work-life balance, and our pragmatism. Obviously I’m a Gen Xer myself, and these traits might apply to me. You won’t find anyone who distrusts institutions more than I, except maybe anarchists, and I look outward and accept diversity and all that. My humor is also incredibly rich, and my perspective so incisive some people find it painful. And I was a pragmatic, resilient latch-key child back before that was all the rage. "Contending with a world of finite limits, no easy answers, and the sobering realization that we are facing significant, seemingly intractable problems on multiple fronts"? That’s the sort of thing I do two or three times a day before breakfast.

The description sounds like a more positive spin of the same traits I’ve been hearing about Gen Xers for years. Did my latchkey childhood make me resilient and hardworking? Or did it make me distrustful of figures who claimed authority but never could do anything to benefit me in any way? Did the self-reliant independence just make me comfortable with innovation and technology? Or did it also mean I don’t really need much from others, or that I’m uncomfortable with people who don’t adapt as quickly as I do? And that work-life balance thing, does it mean that I want to be a good parent, or that I’m not going to work myself to death for an institution, and thus am some sort of slacker? Does my rich humor and incisive perspective isolate practical truths, redefine issues, and question reality, or does it mean that I’m really good at mocking incompetence and muddled thinking and have no tolerance for humorless stupidity?

In short, do the traits listed in this article mean that Gen Xers would make the "leaders we need," or does it mean that they’re distrustful of people who claim to be leaders and don’t need much "leadership" themselves? After all, if I’m resilient, hard-working, resourceful, self-reliant, independent, innovative, incisive, humorous, adaptable, then how likely is it that I need leaders for much? And how likely is it that I would want to lead anyone who wasn’t as independent, self-reliant, innovative, incisive, hard-working, resilient, and resourceful as I am? If we’re going to make generational generalizations (which I really don’t like to do), why wouldn’t I tell my boomer elders they just need to suck it up and deal with a rapidly changing world, or my millennial colleagues that I’m too busy being innovative and self-reliant to give them the constant reassurance and feedback the media claims they need to succeed?

Alas, I fear that this generational generalization may be lacking. I’ve known plenty of Gen Xers who are helpless, dependent, authoritarian, timorous, dogmatic, humorless, or some combination of those traits. Maybe those Gen Xers weren’t latchkey children, though. Or maybe this is all spot on, and I’m just being too skeptical and incisive, and thus just the leader you need for today and tomorrow.


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.

Library Leadership

ACRLog had a thought provoking post yesterday on creating library leaders for the future, asking what libraries are doing to create those leaders. A commenter wrote: “As a library administrator who tries to be intentional about nurturing the leadership skills of my staff, I have to admit that the thought of conflating “leadership” with “administration” gives me the willies.” I didn’t get the willies, but the post does tend to conflate administration with leadership. This conflation is evident in the following question: “Ask newer members of the profession if they plan to seek an administrative position and too often the answer is ‘no.’ Are there good models this profession could follow for developing its future leaders?”

I would have to agree with the commenter that leadership isn’t the same as administration. If it were, then all administrators would be leaders and all leaders administrators, which we know not to be the case. Library administrators might lead, but they can be just as effective in recognizing and supporting the talents of others and letting them lead change. According to my extensive research on leadership, one way to look at the difference between management and leadership is that “management involves power by position” while “leadership involves power by influence.” When position and influence coincide, one has a great manager, but there will always still be leaders who influence others regardless of their position, for both good and bad reasons. Scandalmongers and gossips might lead a library into decay. Creative innovators and collaborators might lead it into glory. But neither need to be administrators. I once had a terrible experience with an administrator who could neither administrate nor lead very well, and as I look around the profession these days, the people influencing how I think about libraries and where I think they should be going aren’t necessarily administrators, but frontline librarians trying to find new and creative ways to solve old problems.

Still, what struck me most about the post was the assertion that if we “ask newer members of the profession if they plan to seek an administrative position and too often the answer is ‘no.'” I don’t usually ask newer members of the profession this, but I can understand the “no.” I’m not sure if I’m a newer member of the profession anymore (I’ve been a librarian for 8 years, which seems long to me sometimes, but is considerably less than many of my colleagues), but I can speculate on some reasons why librarians wouldn’t want to be administrators.

First, job satisfaction. A lot of academic librarians like the academic part of academic librarianship. I like being involved, however tangentially, with the intellectual and scholarly life of the university. I like developing the collection as well as using it myself, and I like helping students use it as well. Last week I had a research consultation with a student I’ve worked with before, and at the end he said he thought I had a great job. I asked why, and he said because I got to learn so many different things especially during the research consultations, and he was right. In many ways I do have a great job, and one of the things I like most is the preparatory research before consultations, where I study whatever the students are working on so that I can give them the best help. I’m intellectually interested in philosophy and religion, and doing my job well means I read philosophy and religion books and articles, which I would be doing anyway.

Like a lot of people, I became a librarian after I’d done some other things. To give you an idea of the other things, I sold out to become a librarian. In library school, I talked to a lot of librarians and decided that initially at least the best library job for me would be a reference/bibliographer position working with philosophy and religion at a research university, preferably not at a state university because I wanted to avoid the tenure-track hoops I saw so many librarians going through (and have since seen so many old friends from library school go through). Two years out of library school, I had that job and liked it. If I moved into an administrative job, a lot of what I like doing would go away, and I’m not sure how I’d feel about that. Administrators should be there to support the work of others, not do that work, but I like doing the work. A professor who’d given up being a dean once told me he went back to being a professor because he wanted to be out doing the sorts of projects he was helping to support as a dean. There’s an administrative position open at a fine university nearby, a head of reference sort of position I’ve been tempted to apply for. I don’t know how competitive I would be, but I think I could be great at the job. But I hesitate because I like so much of what I do now, and I fear the loss of good things.

Another reason might be the expectations of libraries. I see a lot of job ads for department heads that expect the applicants to already have several years of supervisory experience before they consider the person qualified. I’ve talked to librarians frustrated by this old Catch-22. Many libraries seem unwilling to take a chance on someone who has the capacity for good management but not the experience. There seems to be the assumption that because someone has supervised before, that they must be good at it, and that unless they have supervised before they are a completely unknown quantity. I don’t know how accurate those assumptions are, but it seems to me that some libraries are better at rewarding degrees or experience than talent. Based on how many open administrative searches there seem to be right now in academic libraries, I think libraries are either going to have to change their expectations for some of these jobs. Notice I didn’t say “lower” their expectations. But for the reference librarian who wants to be a head of reference, how does that person break through the “supervisory experience required.” And at what point does one just give up seeking such jobs?

Some people might also want to avoid administrative positions because of the lack of financial incentive. Good managers aren’t compensated as well in libraries as they would be in the private sector. One might say that no academic librarians are compensated as well as they might be in the private sector, but that argument only goes so far. For example, I can’t do what I do with a large academic library. What I do isn’t just finding information, but has an integral relationship with information in specific fields communicated in specific ways that I also have an intellectual interest in. But management is a more universal trade. One can be a good administrator without knowing much about the specifics of much of the work. Good library directors don’t necessarily know how to catalog or answer reference questions or select materials any more. Management has some claim to being an art and science of its own. But out in the world good management is compensated, whereas in libraries one gets the burdens of administration without as many of the financial benefits. Some schools are worse than others, but not too long ago I talked to someone on a search committee for an AUL position at a university library in a major east coast city who said they planned to offer a salary in the mid-50s, which is the same or less than a lot of non-administrative academic librarians make already, especially on the east coast. That was an extreme, but I have noticed in those job ads that post salary ranges that the salaries for administrative positions aren’t significantly higher than the position just below it. For someone reluctant to apply for an administrative job, would the possibility of a few extra thousand a year (before taxes) be much of an incentive? Probably not. They’d have to want to be in charge.

But what makes people want to be in charge? If they’re good leaders already and they have power through influence, they might already be getting things done they want to get done. Why take on the hassle of performance reviews and solving people’s problems when one can instead work collaboratively and yet still somewhat independently to get things done?

Unfortunately, I suspect that the best reason might be because of already existing bad administrators, administrators who aren’t interested in recognizing their talented employees and supporting their efforts. I know some librarians who want to be in charge because they believe the people in charge at their libraries are just doing a terrible job, and they want to take over and set things right. Setting things right is a powerful incentive.

Finally, though, I wonder whether this is even a problem. If the management vacuum that seems to be emerging continues as more librarians retire, libraries will have to either flatten their organizations and promote creativity and initiative in their frontline staff, or they will have to take chances on people who might not have had the traditional preparation, but who still might make great department heads and directors. Or they may just promote incompetents, but let’s hope that doesn’t happen often.

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.