Tales From the Library Trenches, Part 2: A Year of Firsts
by Justin Hoenke
Read Part 1 of Tales From the Library Trenches here.
In the May issue, we were chatting about how the first step to becoming a library director is recognizing that you’re in the middle of a big life change. Now you’re here, and guess what? It’s time for the second phase of your work to begin.
U Got the Look
It’s your first day in the office. You settle in behind your new desk, and it hits you: As a library director, you’re not going to be as tuned in to the day-to-day happenings at your library. How are you going to be able to understand your community when you’re not the one helping patrons create their resumes? How can you move an organization forward without being part of the troops on the ground? Hint: It’s not as daunting of a task as it sounds, but it will still require a lot of work. You’ll need to create relationships and connections with everyone around you.
The public library of today is people- and community-focused. Its end goal should always be to provide the best services for its specific community, and as the director, it is up to you to make sure that happens on a consistent basis. You are the community representative for the library. When people think about the library in their town, they will most likely think of you. Having this spotlight can be tough to manage at first, but with patience and time, it will become second nature. The public library director of today knows that this spotlight can be used to better publicize and share the great work the library is doing for the community. If something goes well, everyone will applaud you. If something goes wrong, all fingers will be pointed at you. In these situations, library directors must do two things: 1) make sure the community knows that all the good work being done is because of the amazing team the library has and 2) take all the blame for problems while continuing to support and nurture the staff. Everything begins and ends with the library director, and those entering this role have to know how to best achieve a balance between these actions.
My first few months as a library director in Titusville, Pa., were spent meeting lots of new people, trying my best to remember names, and shaking a lot of hands. At the time, these meetings felt like simple introductions, but later, I was able to see that they were very important in establishing the library as a center of our community. First impressions matter, especially at a local level. Make sure that when you’re creating these connections as a new library director, you do so in an honest and positive way. Clearly communicate to everyone what the library offers to the community (we’re not just about books!) and emphasize that the library is an integral part of why it is so great to live in that community. Statistics are not everything, but make sure you have a few to toss out here and there during these conversations. I’ve noticed that what works best for my community is to emphasize the success of our youth programs and our daily visits. Your community will have different statistics that are important to it, but the key takeaway here is that these numbers can help you better tell your story.
Understanding the past as a way to have a better handle on the present is always a good idea. A clear way to understand the history of your institution is to go back through all the board meeting minutes you can find. It would not at all be a waste of your time to spend a day or two reading through as many of these documents as you can. To make this as librarian-speak-friendly as possible, these are your primary sources. They help you understand why certain things are the way they are and will show you exactly how your library has grown from its inception to the present. In these minutes, you will see the discussions of the past come to life and in turn give life to an understanding of the present.
My big aha! moment was when I discovered why my library has two huge doors that lead to nowhere in our entrance. I had always wondered why we have these and why we spent so much money on installing them when they don’t lead to anything. It turns out that these doors had been decommissioned at some time in the past, but were the original doors to the building when it opened in 1903. Instead of simply tossing them aside or letting them go to waste in our basement, a previous director decided to have them installed as a nod to our rich and vibrant past. It’s little touches like this that have helped our library, over the years, become recognized as a vital part of the history of our town. (For those of you who are interested, Titusville is home to one of the first very successful oil wells in the U.S. and at one time was one of the wealthiest cities in the country.)
And finally (but perhaps most importantly), take a few days to spend time working beside all of your staffers. Get out of your office, don’t schedule any meetings, and instead spend your whole day with everyone else. Go out there and work the circulation desk. Be a youth services librarian for a day. Plan and run a program with one of your employees. It doesn’t matter what it is. It matters that you do it and that you do it with your staff. Everyone wants to feel accepted and understood, and there is perhaps no better way for a library director to reach out to his or her staffers than by working and communicating with them directly.
The days of the library director up in the ivory tower looking down on everyone while strategizing the next few moves are gone. The director of today is a conversationalist and a people person who has no issues with helping out where needed. Through these connections, you will be able to better understand the who, what, when, where, and why of your staffers. Knowing them and the work they do helps you as a director. It helps you share their success with other members of the community, and it helps you know how you can best get them the resources they need to do amazing work. Connection—with your community, with your history, and with your staff—is the most important thing for every successful library director to have.
Sign o’ the Times
Get ready for your close-up. As a library director, you are not just a person behind a desk staring at budgets and figuring out the future of the library. You are now a community leader. Sometimes it feels as if you’re up on your feet running around more as a director than you were working in direct public service. As I talked about previously, the main goal of the director today is to connect your library to as many people and organizations as possible. Some days will be chock-full of meetings, handshakes, and working lunches. Other days may be spent at public events or appearing on the local TV channel. All in all, being front and center in your community is a must for every public library director. A public-facing director is out there in the community to constantly keep the library in the public eye and also to be on the lookout for ways to work with other organizations.
If you read that last paragraph and are now doing some heavy breathing into a paper bag, don’t worry too much. You may be the kind of librarian who isn’t very interested in being a public person, but I’m here to tell you that I was once that way as well. There’s no easy way to get up in front of a crowd or in front of a camera. But if you’re passionate about the work being done in public libraries for local communities, you will not find it that difficult. You can also take a look at some other directors out there and see how they’ve done it.
One of my library director role models is Jack Martin. He has been the executive director of the Providence Public Library in Rhode Island for more than 3 years, and in that time, he’s led this midsize urban library through some great changes, one of which is an upcoming $15–$20 million renovation (providencejournal.com/news/20170313/providence-public-library-plans-15m-to-20m-renovation-at-downtown-site). Since Martin is a relatively new director, I’ve been able to watch his career from afar via social media, and it has been inspiring and helpful for my own journey. I reached out to Martin to get some of his thoughts on the importance of getting recognized as a leader in your community:
For me, what’s been really important is to communicate how Providence Public Library has evolved over the years. We’ve done that with launching a new annual program and exhibition series, increased outreach all over the state. I also try to make it to every event possible so people know who I am and who I’m representing. After three years, I feel like folks do know who I am … at least on the streets of downtown Providence, which is great. We get called on by various local officials (mayor, governor, senators, congressmen/women) to host events for them at the library. We also get invited to be part of various partnerships and collaborations across the city and state. … I think all of this is because I’ve been trying to get out there and talk about who we are and what we’re capable of.
When a library director is out in the community, great things will happen. Connections will be made, conversations will be had, and in the end, the community your library serves will be better off for it.
It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night
Lights, camera, action! Your shining moment comes at your board meeting. During this event, you get to work directly with your community, share the ups and downs of the library, and move everything ahead. A board meeting isn’t just an hour-long meeting that has to happen every month. It’s a chance to really engage with key members of your community. Every strong public library has a strong board of directors behind it. The library director works in tune with the board, and the two keep in constant communication and have open and honest conversations.
As a new library director, your first two or three board meetings will be all about finding a groove and connecting with your board members. You’ll begin to see what kind of reports they like to hear from you and what kind of projects they like to tackle. Your first board meeting will be jam-packed with information, and you’ll probably talk too much. I can’t blame you—it’s an exciting time. After a few, you’ll be able to fine-tune these meetings and get things done.
Your board will most likely be a who’s who snapshot of your community. Mine has two bankers, a local schoolteacher, a lawyer, a professor, and two other very dedicated community members. This unique and eclectic mix of individuals may not make sense on paper, but in reality, it is the perfect blend. As a director, you will come to rely on the input and suggestions of these board members. Remember, you’re a librarian and you think like a librarian. That’s not a bad thing, but sometimes you need a different point of view. Your board is that different point of view. Listen to them and trust them, and together you will move your library forward in the community.
Your first few months of work as a library director will make your belly feel as if it’s full of butterflies. But those butterflies are there for a good reason. They show you that you’re growing as a person and as a librarian. Change is difficult, but it is a necessary part of life. Being a library director requires a great deal of adjustment in both the way you work and the way you think. Blink, and the next thing you know, you’ll have been in your position for a whole year.
In Part 3 of Tales From the Library Trenches, we'll talk about a phrase that you'll be hearing a lot as a library director: strategic planning.