Tales From the Library Trenches Part 4: Within You Without You
by Justin Hoenke
Click to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of Tales From the Library Trenches.
In the May issue of Information Today, Brandi Scardilli’s Editor’s Note compares this series of articles to movie trilogies. We’ve made it through Parts 1 through 3, and here we are with the fourth and final article. If Part 1 is the introduction, Part 2 is the “dark” film, and Part 3 is the worst of the series, what is the fourth?
Because Every Series
Needs Special Features …
I’ve posted Tales From the Library Trenches: Bonus Features and Outtakes at
justinthelibrarian.com, so please check it out for more inspiration and goodies!
I did some research before writing this article. I watched the much-debated fourth installment in the Indiana Jones series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Talk to people about this film, and there’s a pretty good chance they’ll reply, “It stinks.” But does it really stink, or are we just unfairly comparing it to the other films in the series?
Here’s what I think: When it comes to being a library director, you’ve gotta think long-term, past your initial “trilogy” of work. The next part of your career doesn’t have to be compared to the first part. It is its own thing. Continue to do what you do best: Serve the community and focus on bringing positivity to everyone. And the next thing you know, 20 years have gone by, and the work you’ve done will have had a tremendous impact on the community. And remember: All along the way, you’ve gotta take care of yourself. That’s what this installment of Tales From the Library Trenches is all about: staying focused, not giving in to the hype, and taking care of yourself. (And if you’re curious about my hot-take review of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, here you go: It’s not that bad, and you should probably give it another chance.)
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
Were you one of those librarians who stayed in a job 3–5 years before either moving on to the next town or moving up to the next position? Now that you’re a library director, you may want to change your approach. When you look at some of the amazing library directors out there, you’ll see that they’ve been in their position much longer than 3–5 years.
There’s a reason for this. The work done by a library director is best shown over a long period of time. Quick fixes and headline-grabbing projects will pop up in the first few years, but the most amazing work is the long-term stuff that you start to see over the course of a career. For a great example of this, give another read to the third part of this series, which focuses on Deb Poillon, director of the Cape May County Library system in New Jersey. In her 11-year career as director, she’s been involved with three major renovations and the building of four new library spaces for the eight-branch system, while still managing and leading the library on a day-to-day basis.
Truly amazing things can happen when you fully dedicate your mind to the job that’s right in front of you. Here’s a personal example: After visiting New Zealand to speak at the 2015 LIANZA Conference, I suddenly had the urge to pack up and move my entire family 8,000 miles across the ocean and continue my library work in New Zealand. I was so blown away by the kindness and communal feeling from the New Zealand library world that I felt I had to be part of it. At that point, I had been at my job at the Benson Memorial Library for only 6 months. As I looked a bit closer at what I was feeling, I asked myself this question: Do I really want to do this, or do I want to focus on what I’ve got in front of me and make a difference in my community? I decided that it was best to dig in, plant my roots, and focus on what was in front of me. Has it paid off? I’m only 2 years into my journey, but the signs toward long-term change happening in my community are showing. Circulation is up 16% over 2 years, more community members are attending our programs, and community organizations and groups always make an effort to include the library in any partnerships and events.
As you continue your library director journey, you’ll see that you’re going through your own personal metamorphosis—from a librarian to a community leader. That’s why it’s so important to continue on the path that you’ve started. When a library director comes to be seen as a leader in the community, everyone benefits. The library becomes recognized as a pillar of the community that everyone can trust and rely on. In turn, great opportunities to better serve your community will pop up left and right. Organizations and groups will approach you and ask to work with you. Potential donors will arise and breathe some financial life into the library. Great things happen through engagement. Stick with it to see what you can do for your community, and get ready to make a difference.
If I Needed Someone
As the leader of your library, you become the face of what the library is and what it represents in your community—and now, it’s on a larger, international level. Our community should always be the center of our focus, but in today’s connected culture, we’ve also got the eyes of the library world on us. What your library may be doing in Small Town, USA, could now
grab the attention of a library in Big City, USA. From that, things could get busy really quickly: You may be courted to work for other libraries, you may be asked to travel and speak at workshops and conferences, and much more.
The phrase “library rock star” has been kicked around for the past 10 years. While I totally understand the desire to draw comparisons to pop culture idols (personally, I really admire the craftsmanship of Paul McCartney, the swagger of Josh Homme, and everything related to David Bowie), there is a danger in comparing the work that you’ve done to the work that others have done. You can easily get sidetracked, lose your identity, and lose the passion and drive for why you originally became a library director.
Part 4 of this series is the one in which we lay it all out on the table, so here goes: I fell into the muddy quicksand of believing that I was a library rock star between 2011 and 2013. I was more concerned with presenting at conferences and workshops, as well as diving into the wild, weird worlds that are lib- rary professional organizations and cliques. My focus changed from serving those who needed me to serving myself and the library profession. It was a terribly miserable experience, and I wish I could time travel and change almost everything that happened in those years. As a librarian, I was more interested in listening to what others had said about my past accomplishments, rather than focusing on what was in front of me and the nitty-gritty work that needed to be done. Awards and professional recognition are great, but once they start taking your attention away from the community you serve, you’ve lost your way, and it’s time to get it back.
A great professional support network will help you get through any tough times you may be having during your career as a library director. Professional colleagues, some of whom over time become great friends, will help keep you in check and make sure you’re not getting too big for your britches. When I’ve needed someone to bounce an idea off of or something to put me in my place, I have always turned to my good library friend, Michael Stephens (a library school professor, an author, and the founder of the amazing library blog Tame the Web; tametheweb.com), to give me an honest and kind response. In a conversation over Facebook, Michael and I briefly chatted about balance, egos, and how to be a successful library director. As always, I came away from the conversation refreshed and inspired. He said the following:
It’s a delicate balance between being engaged and visible in the community we serve and not letting it all go to our heads. I’ve long been of the mind to say ‘check your ego at the door.’ A director who also gets the spotlight
in various circles near and far should be a constant cheerleader for the staff back home and for everyone who works in our field. Don’t be the library director that needs to hear how wonderful they are before they can engage. Be humble. Listen. The director who deals with every situation with an open mind and open heart is the one who leads—in every sense of the word.
At our core, we became librarians because we have the very human desire to help others out. Whether it’s assisting a patron with a job application or working with a student to find a crucial piece of information for a thesis project, libraries are first and foremost in the business of helping people and communities reach their fullest potential. As a library director, you are the captain of the ship, and it is up to you to steer it toward success. When your focus is on something other than the community you serve, everything around you suffers. A great library director has an open mind, a kind heart, and an ego in check. And directors must constantly remind themselves that their first priority is to do work that best benefits their community and their staffers.
Looking Through a Glass Onion
To wrap this series up, I’ve saved the most important thing for last: Take care of yourself. Ask library directors how much work goes into their job, and they will all tell you the same thing: The work never ends, and you’ll always be thinking about how you can do more for your organization. Surrounding yourself with people you love and trust and filling your life up with things that make you happy and inspired are a must for any library director. This will keep you focused and sane.
The biggest thing that brings me love and joy is my family and our day-to-day life. Together, we own an arts and community center named Fidelia Hall (fideliahall.com), where we live, host events to bring our town together, build our gardens, and much, much more. If I get too focused on my work, my family steps up to the plate and tells me the honest truth. My 8-year-old son Finn is always there to remind me that it’s almost time to take a day off when I’ve been going full steam at the library. When your support network drops hints or flat-out tells you to take a break, listen to them. That’s what they’re there for. A burnt-out library director is of little use to a library. A day or two off surrounded by your support network or by yourself will clear your head and make you better prepared to start and complete the work ahead of you at your library.
When not working in libraries, archivist and writer Abraham Schechter heads down to the Boston Athenaeum for a day or two of writing and reading. For him, it’s a chance to clear his mind and get refocused on his task of archiving the history of Portland, Maine. In the Aug. 29, 2015, post titled “re-ground” on his blog La Vie Graphite (laviegraphite.blogspot.com), Schechter high lights just how important it is to take a retreat to recharge yourself:
Upon arrival, my racing and cluttered thoughts are so abundant and invasive, that I need time to shed the detritus that followed me here. Rather than to try suppressing thoughts, I ride them out, and let them go. Absorbing the immediate environment, and walks in the forest, are helpful. It’s an exercise of preferring the present, instead of tired old replays. This week, as usual, I find myself surprised at things I’ve long known, yet simply not thought of in a long time. A retreat is a chance to re-calibrate and prefer things that inspire.
A little love goes a long way. After being at ease for a day or two, your mind will begin firing on all cylinders once again, and the next thing you know, you’ve got your library director groove back.
That’s it for Tales From the Library Trenches. Thanks for reading, and starting this issue, I hope you’ll follow along every month with my new column, A Day in the Life, in which I’ll be chatting with librarians from all over the world to learn about something exciting and inspiring that they’re doing for their community. Stay tuned!