Tales From the Library Trenches, Part 1: Learning to Adapt
by Justin Hoenke
We librarians have a passion for our work. Whether we are connecting young readers with a great book, helping an adult navigate technology, or providing excellent day-to-day customer service, we are librarians because we believe in supporting our community. With our passion comes a desire to always be the best librarian we can be, and over the course of a career, that takes many different shapes and forms. Over the next few months, we’ll be diving into the nitty-gritty of what moving up the management ladder in libraries looks like with this four-part series, Tales From the Library Trenches.
|Benson Memorial Library
|Justin Hoenke (holding sign) with his staff
[Photo courtesy of Justin Hoenke]
I became a librarian in 2006 for one reason and one reason only: Somehow I was bestowed with what my first library director called a special gift, which was the ability to hang out with tweens and teens in libraries, make them feel welcome, and get them involved in the local community. She insisted that I hold onto this gift for the rest of my career and that before I knew it, I’d have 25–30 years under my belt as a teen librarian and wouldn’t ever have to worry about changing the way I worked in libraries.
I’m not the kind of person who wants to have one role all of my life. I want to grow, expand, fail, and ultimately succeed at everything I can get my hands on. Perhaps those are the same qualities that helped me be successful as a teen librarian. So in 2015, I recognized that I needed to make a change in my professional life. That’s why after almost 10 years of working in Youth Services, I made the jump to becoming a library director. But before we dive into how my tenure as a library director has unfolded over the past 2 years, let’s backtrack to the slow, gradual process that happened in my mind years before I made this change.
When I say slow, gradual process, I mean slow. The adjustment from working with tweens and teens in libraries to writing budgets, doing strategic planning, and attending board meetings does not happen overnight. You may have already identified back when you began your career as a librarian that being a director is where you’d want to end up in the long run (I didn’t!), but that doesn’t mean you can become one just like that. Every library director should go through it all, including emptying the book drop after a long holiday weekend, dealing with an overly unruly customer, and handling the inevitable emergency bathroom clean-up duty. Experience, patience, and understanding are the three tools you will need to be an effective leader. Any librarian can learn these skills, but if you’re a youth services librarian working with kids, tweens, and teens, your day-to-day work with youth will make you into a Zen master in no time. You’ll be capable of handling any situation, be it in the moment or down the road, with great ease.
Identifying a Need for Change
The first step I recommend taking is to recognize that you are in the middle of a change in the way you think about things. How do you know that you’re in the middle of a change? Consider your career arc up to this point. What have you been focusing on with your work in libraries, and what do the day-to-day activities of your job look like? When you have a firm grasp on where you’ve been and where you currently are, start to ask yourself some questions. Am I getting tired of going to work? Do I feel as if I have accomplished my professional goals in this career path? If you’re answering “yes” to these questions, you are beginning to recognize that you’re in the middle of a big professional change. At least that’s how I began to feel after 8 years of working in Youth Services. Instead of looking forward to that after-school rush of teens in the video game arcade at the Chattanooga Public Library, I found myself really enjoying the time spent in the morning analyzing statistics, preparing work schedules, and projecting budget numbers. Something was changing in my life, and I had to look inside myself to not only recognize that change, but to also tell myself that this was healthy.
In moments of change, projecting inward can help you deal with what’s happening around you. After seeing Kenley Neufeld, dean of educational programs at Santa Barbara City College, speak about leadership at the New Jersey Library Association Conference in 2011, I began to think about how meditation and mindfulness could be used by librarians to get through any situation, especially in moments of big change. When I recently reached out to Neufeld, I asked him to sum up, in one sentence, how meditation and mindfulness have helped him with his work. He said, “Meditation has made me a better leader and manager by teaching me how to listen, be present, and remain calm.” These three qualities will not only aid you in your transition, but they will also become valuable tools to have as a leader and manager in the future.
Gaining Valuable Experience
Once you’ve recognized that change within yourself, it’s time to put your ideas into action. The next step in this slow process is gaining the experience you need to enter the following chapter of your professional life. There’s no better experience than taking on small management roles in your library. But before we get into the details, let’s address the elephant in the room: Getting this experience in work situations is one of the scariest steps of professional growth. In doing so, you will be committing yourself to spending a few weeks or months outside of your comfort zone. You will encounter situations that will test your ability to listen, be present, and remain calm.
I found the day-to-day management of employee schedules to be a very rewarding—if extremely excruciating—task that helped me understand the path I needed to take forward. The staff member who worked on it before me, having herself switched from working as a children’s librarian to a branch manager, told me to “have fun with it, but remember that it’s like playing with a Rubik’s Cube with spikes.” Her words have never left me, and I think they sum up one big thing that the move into leadership and management will change for you: As you grow, you will learn that you must balance the needs of your organization with the needs of those you manage.
Management asks you to navigate the invisible line between keeping your co-workers happy and motivated while keeping the library open and functioning for the public. Most of the time, these two things will occur in perfect harmony, but every once in a while, they will meet—and clash. In my past experience, it usually happened with weekend work schedules. My library was open 7 days a week, and with that came the task of reshuffling days off during the week combined with keeping track of who got to take long weekends off when there was a holiday. In a few instances, I had to tell some of the staff members that I could not approve their time-off requests for one reason or another. This led to some difficult conversations, which then led to some uncomfortable days at work. In the long run though, everything evened out. The library was staffed when it needed to be, and my co-workers eventually got their chance to take a long weekend off when their turn came around. Navigating the situation in the moment was difficult, but the ability to remain calm and present made each situation work out in the end. The key takeaway here is to get out of your comfort zone and experience the tough stuff, but to practice the mindfulness you will need to get through it.
Becoming a Leader
There are many other ways to get out of your comfort zone to gain skills as a leader and manager. One is to lead a small team on a project. The project could be anything, such as implementing a program or being on an interview panel. Laura Koenig, team leader for Central Library Children’s Services at the Boston Public Library, recently shared a story with me about her transition from teen librarianship to management:
In my second job in libraries, as the teen librarian at a busy urban branch, I had a supervisor who encouraged staff to take initiative and leadership roles. Paul Edwards (branch manager) would encourage the librarians at our branch to collaborate on projects that crossed boundaries, and he provided constant support while still allowing each of us to be decision-makers. We knew that we didn’t need to ask whether it was OK to start a cross-generational community gardening program, or whether we had his permission to take a failing book club directly into the high school where it could thrive, or if we could move forward with a collaboration with a group of local Wikipedia editors—we had permission to make the decisions that would lead to strong outcomes for the communities we served. His leadership fostered one of the most creative library communities I’ve ever been part of, gave me room to grow as a librarian and a leader, and was that environment that made me feel ready to take on a position as a department manager.
Being the leader on a team helps you learn how to quiet your inner monologue and listen to what others are saying. Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts, once said that “the leader’s job is not to provide energy but to release it from others.” The ability to listen to the opinions and ideas of others on a team is a quality that the best managers all seem to have. Managers and leaders must realize that they are not the be-all and end-all of the organization, but are instead a guiding force that recognizes the importance all contributors have to the organization.
When we have a talent, it is best for us to recognize it, nurture it, and keep it in our lives as long as we can. And yet, on the flip side, it is also best for us to recognize when we may have done all we can with our talent and that it is time to take a different path in our lives. Our professional lives can be similar to a video game at times: We tackle different scenarios in an attempt to “level up” and move on to the next stage. When we expand our horizons with new experiences, talk to different people, and get out of our comfort zones, we grow and expand our own idea of who we are and what we can do. That’s the first (and probably biggest) step toward becoming a library director. Recognize what is in your head and your heart, and you will get to where you want to be.
Next month, I’ll focus on what those first few days and first year of being a library director may look like for you and how you can positively navigate the big changes happening in your life. Stay tuned!