Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why I Became a Director

I've talked a lot here about what it's like for me to be a library director, how I go about my daily work, and even about the path I followed to this stage of my career, but I didn't realize until recently that I've never talked about why.

Truth be told, I never expected to be talking about this at all. Back when I was a baby librarian, my director went on maternity leave and a couple of us split her duties between us... I took on her committee responsibilities. Let me tell you: I did *not* enjoy that. I was talked over and ignored, even in small meetings, and when my director came back I firmly told her that I thought she was a crazy person for taking that job and that I'd never follow in her footsteps.

And yet, over the intervening years, I set about gathering all sorts of knowledge and skills that equipped me to follow exactly that path. For instance, I became increasingly interested in how a library fits into the overall landscape of parent institutions, in assessment beyond information literacy and programming, and in building relationships beyond the library and even beyond the campus walls. I was preparing myself to become a library director, despite my repeated avowals that I didn't want that job.

Flash forward a bit to me attending a small, CLIR-sponsored symposium about the future of libraries at library arts colleges. If I remember correctly, it was geared more towards library directors but I was already going to be in Milwaukee for another conference earlier that week and my boss asked me if I wanted to go to two instead of just one. How do you say no to something like that? At that symposium, I was my usual loud self. I remember saying something along the lines of, "perhaps at your institution you can get away with doing things like that, but the culture is very different where I work." The person I said that to was this very self-important kind of guy, and a few other people in the room appreciated me confronting him. Afterward, I ended up chatting with someone I admired a lot at the time, and the fact that I wasn't a library director came up. The person I admired told me, point blank, that I should be one.

I have to admit that got me thinking. I, like so many people, had moments of "I could do a better job than that" when watching my directors. I'd also learned about the gender disparity in academic library leadership (women make up an estimated 80% of academic librarians, but only 50% of administration roles). But still I resisted. I love instruction and I don't love meetings. Then one day I mentioned the conversation with the Much Admired Librarian™ to a couple of friends, both of whom were and still are library directors. Both of them said "yes, you definitely should be a library director." I talked about it with my director at that time, who also agreed, and I started applying.

So, why did I become a library director? 30% natural progression; 30% feminist agenda; 30% thinking I could do a better job; and 10% peer pressure.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Interview Post: Cecily Walker



Cecily Walker

Current job?

Assistant Manager for Community Digital Initiatives, Vancouver Public Library

How long have you been in the field?
I've worked as a librarian for just over 8 years now. I worked in user experience for about 3 years before making the switch.

How Do You Work?

What is your office/workspace like?

Sparse. Even though I've had this job for awhile, I was temporary for two years and moved around a lot. Boxing up desk toys and office accoutrements lost its allure. I have a single monitor setup, an L-shaped desk that gives me additional writing space (even though the L is facing the wrong way) an ergonomic chair, and an office with a window that opens.

How do you organize your days?

There's no real rhyme or reason to it. I usually start with email, and then I handle questions with my direct reports, as needed. I have semi-weekly meetings with the Community Digital Initiatives team, and a weekly meeting with the supervisory team in my department. The rest of the day is spent either on administrivia, project management, or keeping my door open in case anyone wants to stop by for a chat/with questions.

What do you spend most of your time doing?

Procrastinating. ;-)

Officially I'm a supervisor, unofficially I'm a project manager, and both of those things require that I spend the lion's share of my day removing obstacles, facilitating discussions, and helping my direct reports be successful. I also do a fair amount of email/Slack chatting, so there's rarely a moment that I don't have fingers to keyboard.

What is a typical day like for you?
Mostly quiet, with infrequent bursts of fussing about/keeping projects on track. Nothing terribly exciting.
What are you reading right now?
Joan Didion's South and West. I don't know why I'd never read any Didion before now, but better late than never. I love the way she paints pictures with her words, and I'm intrigued by her assertion that the notes in her notebooks aren't always true, but over time they become more true than the original story. The pieces in this collection were written over 40 years ago, but the people and situations she describes sound similar to the political circumstances we find ourselves in today.
What's the best professional advice you've ever received?
I don't have a pithy aphorism to share, but it has meant a lot to me to meet and connect with librarians of colour, especially Black librarians, and to lean on them when I find myself experiencing difficulties that arise from cultural differences. These women and men have helped me understand that no, I'm not imagining things. They've also encouraged me to look outside my workplace to find inspiration and opportunities, particularly speaking opportunities. As a result of their gentle encouragement, I managed to give a keynote at the LITA forum this year, which thus far has been the height of my career.

What have you found yourself doing at work that you never expected?
Working with community partners to build a digital collection of the Women's Memorial March Quilt. Even though my library places a premium on community-led librarianship, I wasn't prepared for the emotional labour involved with working with a community that still lives through the trauma of Vancouver's Missing and Murdered Women.

Inside the Library Studio

What is your favorite word?

What is your least favorite word?
A tie between squid and custard.

What profession other than your own would you love to attempt?
A pyrotechnics engineer. Whenever I get frustrated with library work, I find myself looking at the explosives and pyrotechnics program at one of the local polytechnic schools. I think blowing things up would be cathartic, and I imagine I'd never go home in a bad mood at the end of the day.

What profession would you never want to attempt?
Surgeon. Bodies are gross. Well, not the fact of bodies, or when they're intact, but I can't even stand to watch the surgery scenes on Grey's Anatomy, so I'm clearly not cut out for this.

Everything Else

What superpower do you wish you had?
Teleportation, though I suppose that might have to go along with invisibility. If I could teleport, I'd never have to worry about not fitting into airplane seats, and I could see my friends/loved ones whenever I wanted.

What are you most proud of in your career?
That I'm still here, even though health challenges and a lingering suspicion I'm not cut out for library work make it difficult to stay in this line of work.

If you're willing to share, tell about a mistake you made on the job.
My chronic illnesses mean I live under a near-constant mental fog, and I don't read closely/comprehensively on the best of days. The biggest mistake I made was convincing a boss to upgrade a product we used based on features I thought were offered as part of the upgrade, when they would cost us more on top of the upgrade. I'm glad I don't have to worry about this anymore in my current position.

When you aren't at work, what are you likely doing?
Tweeting, marathoning shows on various streaming services, hanging out with my cat, or having a few pints with friends.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Tara Robertson

Cecily is on Twitter as @skeskali.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

How I Interview

We're getting ready to do another round of hiring for a library associate position (works at the circulation desk with other assigned projects), so I'm revisiting how I've hired in the past. One thing I'll never change is that I don't look at an applicant's name until I've looked at their resume - it's one way I've found to fight unconscious bias against names that don't sound Caucasian. Another thing I'll never change is to have someone besides me (aka the boss) give candidates a tour of the building. But, as much as I like the questions we've asked in the past, I'm considering changing them up. Below is a list of the questions along with a brief explanation of why we ask them:
  1. Can you tell me why you’re interested? I'm pretty sure we've asked this because everyone asks this. I think I'm going to cut it, actually.
  2. How do you handle a bad customer service interaction? (Give example.) Students, faculty, and staff don't always act their best when they are stressed, and the person working at the front desk is the front line. I need to know that they aren't going to take it personally when people get angry.
  3. When you use libraries, how do you use them? To be honest, this is more of an intro to something I want all candidates to know - that this library is an academic department and a physical location and that we do plenty of things that are traditionally seen as student life. I want to give them a head's up about the things that aren't necessarily in the job description.
  4. How do you like to learn new work skills? We give preference to people who have either experience in a library or in a public facing role in higher ed, but regardless of what they bring to the job - there's a lot of learning for them. We need to know how to tailor what we teach to how they learn.
  5. How do you handle projects you’ve been given? This is a way to get at how they approach things when they aren't supervised. 
  6. Tell me about a previous job — what did you love and what didn’t you like? This is another question we ask as a way to introduce a topic I want to discuss, namely my management style. 
  7. How do you respond when you don’t know the answer to a question? We need people who are willing to admit they don't know everything and know how to handle that.
  8. What is good customer service? We're looking for people to talk about respect. Most of our students are first generation college students, so making sure our students feel comfortable coming in the building is important.
  9. How would you handle it if the phone rang right as a line formed at the circulation desk? Trying to figure out how they handle stressful situations - hypotheticals are good for that.
  10. How do you handle it when you disagree with coworkers? How about with a boss? This is important information, but yet again it's an opportunity to talk to them about my management style - about how I want people to let me know when I've made a mistake.
  11. What questions do you have for me? You can learn so much about a person by the kinds of questions they ask.
What do you all think? Anything you'd change? (Feel free to borrow these questions if you like them.)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Just for Fun: In Case of Emergency (Cute Therapy)

I talk about this occasionally on Twitter, but I have an entire tag on my Pinboard account that is just cute/funny things: InCaseofEmergency. I've tried to label all the animals, because I don't want there to be any surprises like a snake I think is cute but you're an ophidiophobe. I offer this up because this is a crazy-inducing time in politics, and I think we could all use some gratuitous cuteness today. Here are some of my favorites, but please @ me on Twitter or comment here with others and I'll add them to my files... to my little mental health public service.

If you don't know about the adorableness that is the fossa, time to learn:

Then there's this ridiculously cute creature:

A squeaky baby fruit bat (not sure why there's no image here, but the video does work):

And perhaps my favorite of all my saved links, an argumentative ibex:

So how about you? What makes you laugh no matter what? What helps you calm down? Please share!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

How I Lead

Donna Lanclos published a short piece yesterday about being a leader. It's a great. short read if you have time to read it. In it she talks a bit about the JISC Digital Leaders program, and says that during the program she "will be resisting any requests for to-do lists, or top-tips around practice." And while I agree that approach is sound, I'm still going to offer a list of things I've learned - some of them the hard way.

Here are some leadership traits and behaviors that I think should be universal:

  • You should have responsive leadership/management style. This is my phrase for how I describe adapting my style to the needs/strengths of each member of my staff. There is no one size fits all way to lead and manage. You'll have people who are amazingly self-directed and you pretty much just need to get out of their way, with occasional check ins. You'll have people who *think* they're amazing, but they aren't, so you'll have to keep them focused without killing their enthusiasm. You'll have people who have been treated badly in the past and you'll need to help them find their enthusiasm again. You need to tailor your management style to each person.
  • I've talked about this before, but you need to be able to admit mistakes. You're going to make them. It happens. I made a joke that someone took seriously, and I was absolutely mortified later when I realized what I'd done. I apologized and we found a way forward, but it all started when I admitted the mistake.
  • It's all well and good building consensus and getting people on board, but sometimes you're going to have to be able to make unpopular decisions. Maybe it will be money. Maybe it will be lack of personnel. Maybe it will be something coming down from administration. Maybe you'll even have to fire someone. I'm as transparent as possible, explaining everything that leads up to a decision. And let me tell you - this was a hard lesson to learn.
  • Another hard lesson was learning to own my strengths and weaknesses. I cannot be all things to all people, but I tried at first. I really tried. I cannot recommend the Gallup Strengths Quest enough for this, because not only did it help me understand my strengths but it also gave my staff a common vocabulary.
  • One thing that wasn't as hard for me was being able to handle change. Yes, I'm kind of talking about this in a generic "things always change" kind of way, but I'm also talking about change as in a specific "people move on" kind of way. At my current library, there are only two full time employees - and I'm one of them. Everyone else who works here is a part time employee, which means no benefits and no more than 29 hours per week. And that means I have a fair amount of turnover. Is it inconvenient when people move on in the middle of the semester and leave me scrambling? Sure it is. But it doesn't mean I take it personally. In fact, I've helped more than one person in my employ find a better gig when it was better for them.
  • This phrasing comes from Jake Berg, but it's so important: the chain of yelling goes up, not down. It's not that you'll never correct people (I wrote about that previously), but when things go wrong I take the blame and if it's not my fault it goes up the ladder. 
  • Your most important duty as a manager and leader is to run interference so your people can get shiz done. That's why I picked the gif above to accompany this post - it's the thing I spend most of my time doing. Making things easier for our students and for our faculty, for the staff outside of this department and most especially for the staff inside of this department. One thing from Lanclos' post that really stuck with me was the title of her post: "Being a Leader Isn't About You." The reasons I became a library director are complicated, but I always knew it wouldn't be about me once I got in the captain's chair - and I was right.

If you're considering moving into a leadership role, whether it's leading from the middle or from an administrative role, you have to be yourself - but be the best version of yourself. The things I put in that list are general qualities and skills, but I really believe they make me a better leader. That and the fact that I never give up trying to improve.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017


I'm in the same situation I was about a year ago: a few things in various stages of written, but none that I think are ripe for finishing and publishing. So I'm once again looking for suggestions.


Here's what I'd like to hear about... do you:
  1. Have an idea for a topic that you don't feel comfortable covering yourself?
  2. Want me to revisit something I've talked about in the past?
  3. Have some other kind of question/idea for which you'd like to see my response?
  4. Want me to revisit a topic I've covered in the past?
Hit me up! Email me or @ me or comment here. I'm waiting to hear from you!


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Three Things That Worked for Me in My First Professional Librarian Position, by Emma Olmstead-Rumsey


I was hired for my first professional librarian position in March of 2016. The rash/generous institution that first gave me the ‘librarian’ title was the Cromaine District Library, a public library serving a small town and the surrounding rural area in the southeastern part of Michigan. Librarianship is not my second career, so this was the first time I’d been given any professional responsibilities, let alone ones that (theoretically) required an MLS.

I’m sure I could have taken it as a vote of confidence, but after brief trainings on the building, emergency procedures, administrative procedures, the ordering system, etc., my manager pretty much left me to my own devices to work out how best to spend my 20 hours per week. Here is what I found worked well for me in the first few months.

#1: Read a lot…
Unless you work in one of those rare libraries that is hands-on about training, you’re going to have a lot of time on your hands for the first few weeks. Keep yourself busy by reading everything you can about your new library and community. I read our Wikipedia page, the town’s Wikipedia page, and a bunch of demographic information from the U.S. census on my first desk shift. I also looked through all the brochures, quick reference sheets, etc. that had accumulated on the reference desk. I even spent an entire afternoon in the back looking over our staff intranet and opening any folder that sounded like it had information I should know about. It gave me a lot of useful context for my work, although obviously not everything turned out to be current or relevant. Which brings me to…

#2: …but don’t believe everything you read
Library workers are hoarders, of documents as well as items [Editor’s Note: Ain’t it the truth?!]. If a policy is updated, you can bet good money that instead of trashing the old one, the new one will be saved as “Policy revised mm-dd-yyyy” in the same folder, and the file name will only be changed if you are lucky. Also, the policies and procedures in practice never look exactly like their written versions. Accordingly, pay attention to what your coworkers actually do and say, not just to the written policies. I was fortunate enough to be in easy earshot of the circulation desk when I was at reference, so I spent a lot of time eavesdropping on the staff there to learn how it was normal for staff to talk to patrons, and vice versa. Similarly, it was what I focused on when I was shadowing my manager and colleagues on the reference desk, because I already know how to conduct a reference interview. This helped me a lot to learn which "rules" existed only on paper, and how the librarians and the clerks divided up responsibilities. It even helped me make educated guesses about who was the best person to go to if I myself had questions or needed help—whose response style would fit me the best.

#3: Get a project (I recommend weeding)
Although you’ll have a variety of responsibilities other than staffing the desk, a lot of them can be hard to pick up when you’re new. For example, my library schedules programs months ahead of time in order to advertise well. That turned out to be a good thing, since it was a big challenge for me to figure out what would and wouldn’t go over well with the community, and to do that I needed some experience and information that would take time to get. But if you don’t have anything to do but be on the desk, you might go a little crazy. The project that saved me was weeding. I was assigned my areas of collection management right away. I had a written collection development policy to reference, training in weeding tools, and familiarity with the principles of public library collection development. In short, I had everything I needed.

Making weed lists kept me entertained on the desk when it wasn't busy, and spending time in the stacks when I was off-desk helped me get to know my collection really well. I was a little worried that I would get a reputation for getting rid of library materials rather than adding to the collection, and I sort of did, but not in the negative way I was expecting. My librarian coworkers didn't pay much attention at all, but the clerks and the pages (who have to pull items on hold and re-shelve materials, and thus don't appreciate overfilled shelves) noticed my work and as a result I started out on good terms with them right away. Heavy weeding early on also left me in excellent shape later when I got busy with my other responsibilities. I could let weeding slide for a little while, knowing that I had plenty of space in my collection areas for new materials.

I have just passed the one-year mark in this position, and this approach continues to provide a good foundation for my work there.

How about you? Would you do anything differently?

Emma Olmstead-Rumsey fell into public librarianship as a fortuitous result of dropping out of a Ph.D. program in history and received her MLS in 2014. She is currently an Adult Services Librarian at the Cromaine District Library in Hartland, MI and a Public Services Librarian at the main branch of the Capital Area District Library in Lansing, MI. Some of her areas of interest are accessibility, collection management, and evidence-based practice.