Tales From the Library Trenches, Part 3: Choose Your Own Adventure
by Justin Hoenke
Click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of Tales From the Library Trenches.
Let's set the scene: You've settled nicely into your office after your first year on the job as a library director. The walls around your desk are surrounded either by mementos of your past library life or drawings done by your own children. Your staff has gotten used to working with you, and everyone can now poke fun at your odd quirks without worrying whether the boss will get angry. You've done it! Similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure book series of the 1980s, you have two possible paths in front of you:
Sit there in your office for the next 30 years, keep cashing those checks, and keep the library humming along nicely at a very relaxed pace. You're getting paid, and things are A-OK, so who needs change?
Fully embrace your position as a library director, pull up your socks, and get to work on all of the projects and ideas that you have in your head. You're getting paid, and you've got the drive, so let's make it happen!
After being a director for a year or so, you'll start to get a feeling in your gut about whether this job is for you. Once the initial excitement wears off, it becomes clear if this is where you want to be. For those who may decide that library director is not the best career choice for them, I guess this is where you can stop reading this series. But if you're gonna "keep on keepin' on," Part 3 of Tales From the Library Trenches is for you.
You are a librarian, so there's a pretty good chance that you're a master of organization. This is a very good thing, as your new world involves managing multiple projects at once. To keep everything together and moving forward, you'll have to be organized with not only how you keep track of projects on paper or on the computer, but also with how you keep track of projects inside your own head.
A huge part of figuring out that you want to be a library director starts with your own first director, and I lucked out at the beginning of my career. For this article, I reached out to the first library director I worked for, Deb Poillon of the Cape May County Library system in New Jersey. She is an inspiring director because not only does she pull off managing an eight-branch library system, but over the past 10 years, she has also been involved with multiple renovations and the building of three brand-new branches. That's some hardcore library director stuff right there.
When I started at the Cape May County Library in 2008, I was a simple teen librarian who always had video games on the brain. Poillon changed me-in a good way. She taught me to think everything through, to focus on the patrons and the staffers, and, above all, to go for it. To this day, I still remember our 5-10-minute meetings, when we would get together to figure out the path of the library's teen services for the next 6 months. Poillon works quickly, dishing out extremely wise bits of library inspiration every time you chat with her.
So it was no surprise that when I reached out to Poillon-to ask her about how she's led the branches of the Cape May County Library through multiple renovations and the construction of brand-new buildings-she boiled it all down for me: "Obviously, organize. In whatever way you're comfortable. I use a combination of technology and physical files."
It sounds so simple, and yet, at the same time, it is the little stuff such as this that we often forget about when we're managing projects. Poillon's reminder about organization is driven home because what she's saying is, be organized, be comfortable, and do it your own way. When we are listening to ourselves, trusting our gut, and acting in a way that bests suits how we work, we can get things done.
Project management is similar to juggling: You've got so much up in the air, you're trying to do your best to keep it all together, and it's easy to make a small mistake and derail the whole thing. The way to get through it is to focus on the little stuff. When the little stuff in a project comes together, you end up with something that is amazing. That's why it is so important to remember details. When I asked Poillon how she pulled off building three new branch libraries for Cape May County, she said the following:
Little things-like how many adult fiction books fit on a shelf, how many DVDs, how many picture books-figure that out once and keep the info. ADA requirements, a reminder to make sure you're asking for-and getting-more outlets [than] code requires, ordering bike racks and trash cans-again, put all that down the first time.
When you're organized and you focus on managing the little stuff, you'll soon be looking at a successfully completed project.
The Involvement of Staffers and Partners
So far, we've only talked about your role in planning and management, but in reality, there's so much more to it than just you. Every great library director has an amazing ability to listen to others, and when it comes to strategic planning and thinking about the future, the voices of your staffers will be the ones you need to hear the most. You are the library director, but that does not mean that you are the all-seeing, all-knowing library master of the universe. Your staffers are the heart and soul of the library, and their day-to-day work gives them so much knowledge when it comes to what the community needs. Listen to them and trust them, and your planning and management tasks will be much easier.
When we don't talk to our staffers, we run the risk of making huge mistakes. At a past job, I watched from a distance as an administration carried out a multimillion-dollar renovation without seeking any serious input from the rest of the staff. The result was a truly stunning space, but with serious flaws when it came to how it could be used day to day. For the next few years after the renovation, staffers struggled to carry out their work without wishing that parts of the renovation had been different. We're all human beings, and we're bound to make mistakes from time to time, but once again, I refer to the wisdom of Poillon for advice on this topic: "It is easier not to take the time to get the staff involved, but that leads to mistakes. Your programming staff knows where the projector should go, your [children's] librarians know how much storage they need, your circulation staff knows where the money drawer is most useful. And these are all examples of mistakes I made by not asking."
Running parallel to all of this talk about listening to your staff is the ability to be flexible with the partners you are working with. Your library is most likely connected to another institution (local or state government, a university, etc.), and during the course of your project, you will need to work closely with these partners. For the Cape May County Library's renovations and building projects, Poillon worked with the county as well as with the public works folks involved. "They're the ones that are going to know about HVAC systems, concrete slump tests, and other stuff we don't learn about in library school. Also, get the county/municipal financial and purchasing people to help-they're the experts and will make sure you're not, for example, breaking any bid laws," she said. You sure don't learn this stuff in library school, but that's OK. There are a lot of other great people and resources in your area that do know about it. The bottom line? Have conversations. They will shape your project and send you down the right path.
Planning That Is Strategic
I've never been a big fan of the idea of a strategic plan, and I know I'm in the minority with this thinking. When I see a strategic plan slapped up on a library website, all I can think is, "How much did that cost, who actually looks at these things, and what do you do when the inevitable happens and things change?" I say all of that knowing at the same time that it is extremely important for every library to have something akin to a strategic plan in the background of everything that happens there.
Modern library directors are almost like fortune tellers, peering into a glass ball and thinking 1-5 years into the future, trying to fully understand where their organization is going. Even in today's world, where a single tweet can cause disruption, a strategic plan can help you make sense of where you were, where you are, and where you are going.
At some point in my career, I heard the phrase "a living, breathing document" applied to a strategic plan, and that has stuck in my head. A strategic plan doesn't need to outline every possible scenario, nor does it need to be followed exactly line by line. As a living, breathing document, your strategic plan instead keeps you on track and offers inspiration in the moments when you need it. Feeling overwhelmed? Feeling lost? Go to your strategic plan, read it over, see what you've accomplished, and pick out some things to focus on in the immediate future. I was reminded about this during my conversation with Poillon. I remember her 3-year plans during my time at the Cape May County Library, but I also remember her ability to adapt and change on-the-fly. "I used to do detailed 3-year plans and a separate Technology Plan. Now I have a loose outline, with some long term goals, and I update the details constantly. We are doing things I didn't know would be possible 3 years ago, like VR and [Wi-Fi capability] and [lending] Roku sticks. The rapid changes aren't just technology-driven either. We've added new positions and departments as new things have come up," she said. Put on your thinking cap, focus on the future, and see where you want your library to go-but don't think too much. Flexibility and adaptability are two key traits of a successful library director.
In the next issue, we'll finish up with the fourth and final part of Tales From the Library Trenches. We'll wrap everything we learned together into one nice little package and talk about the importance of maintaining your own super-secret and special library director social network. Stay tuned.