Thursday, May 28, 2015

On the Job, But Not the Org Chart: Leading from a Position New to Your Library, by Rana Hutchinson Salzmann


As of this writing, I’m approaching the end of my first decade in librarianship. Yikes! How did that happen? I’d earned an MA in English and taught at local community colleges for a few semesters, but then I started library school in 2004. Like most of us, I took one “Library and Info Center Management” class during my library science graduate program. I can honestly say I don’t remember much from that elective. Still, I’ve spent almost ten years managing libraries of one sort or another so I want to offer a few thoughts about a scenario they didn’t cover in that management class – what to do when you find yourself in uncharted organizational territory – in a position that is brand new to your library?

Act 1: Department head at a small suburban public library

Fresh out of library school, I took a job as a department head at a small public library. The job description added electronic services responsibilities (meaning website, database, and IT liaison tasks) to the more traditional adult services department head role. I came in after the retirement of a long-serving department head and supervised full and part-time staff who were more than 20 years my senior.

From day one, I knew that tackling the age/experience issue would be key to my happiness at work. Not only was I new to this library, I was new to the field! I will admit to some trepidation as I knew it would be challenging to fill the shoes of my predecessor. Fortunately, I worked for a strong director who helped me get my footing while my department adjusted. The director was convinced that the department could do more to support the changing mission of the library and gave me opportunities to excel and flex my management muscle. I was excited to realize I wasn’t expected to fill anyone’s shoes, but to be a new kind of department head altogether.

Management textbooks will tell you that matching your department’s goals to the larger library mission is key. When you’re in new organizational territory, you need a strong guide. If you don’t have one (like your director or other immediate supervisor) in your library, find a mentor in your library association, from your library school faculty, or in a neighboring library.  

Act 2: Manager of a specialized research library at a nonprofit professional association

Everyone likes to say that librarians wear many hats. Here, I began as a traditional solo librarian within a research department, simply replacing an incumbent. Then, due to staffing changes and budget realignments, my role shifted. I remained library manager but also took on education/content development and conference planning responsibilities in another department. Finally, I ensconced myself within the IT department, adding content strategy and taxonomy to my portfolio of responsibilities. In my last years at that position, I championed an initiative that brought publications, research, education, and IT staff together to promote our association’s publications. We streamlined processes, launched an e-book publishing program, and made the case to hire new staff. In the end, I wrote my own job description and became the Manager of Content Strategy.

In a special library where you are the only MLS-holder, management is about seizing opportunities to market librarianship to non-librarians. I found success because I found moments to argue for the centrality of information management to the visibility of the organization. I got outside the library silo and looked for places to say “hey, the library can do this!” Note: If the library function is in the wrong department or silo in your organization, argue to move it (and yourself) where it can be best supported.

Act 3: Director of the library and IT at a small graduate theological school

Today, I find myself almost 18 months into directing a library that supports a graduate program that teaches our students to become community activists and liberal ministers. Once again, I came in after the retirement of a long-serving, beloved incumbent. And once again, the job description added IT responsibilities to a more traditional library director role.

As part of my orientation into this intimate academic community, I was asked to audit one semester of the first-year seminar, following along and learning with our newest students. That immersion experience (while unexpected!) was invaluable in helping me understand the environment. I saw teaching and learning in action and became familiar with the mission of the school by assuming the role of a student.

I like to say I am an information strategy ninja or maybe a chameleon: in order to lead effectively I have taken on new roles and worn the proverbial many hats. However, clarity is important as you take on new roles and manage people’s expectations. (During the first year on the job, I’m pretty sure I was called on to articulate my new role several times per week as everyone learned where to place me on the org chart.) Success in this kind of environment is a balancing act of adapting to your setting without losing sight of your (or your department’s) central goals and convictions.


We all know that change is difficult. Librarianship itself is a field in transition. Don’t be afraid to argue for a more central role for library and information services within your organization.  Find the right place on the organizational chart for you and your library. Take a deep breath and take a look around. You can find ways to manage change from wherever you fall on the organization chart.

Rana Hutchinson Salzmann, M.A., M.L.S., is the Director of Library and IT at Meadville Lombard Theological School (Unitarian Universalist) in Chicago. Rana is a librarian by training and information/ organizational strategist by vocation. She has worked in public, special/non-profit, and academic library management for nearly ten years and loves geeking out about new things that can benefit her library. Rana is all about: open government initiatives, copyright, community informatics, taxonomy, content strategy, grant writing, and management strategies to remove roadblocks and allow her staff to excel. 

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