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
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
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
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
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.