Friday, July 29, 2011

Academic Library Management for Non-Managers by Jennifer Lann

I was a sophomore in college when I first realized that I wanted to be an academic librarian.  It was my answer to the question, “How can I remain a generalist in a college setting?”  To test that answer, I spent my junior year’s January Term in my home town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania as an intern at the Franklin & Marshall College main library.  The staff was gracious.  They were happy to discuss their jobs with me, and even better, happy with their jobs.  I shadowed them, assisted with literature reviews, talked some but mostly listened, and basically confirmed that I was on the right path for finding my profession.

That was the gestalt.  But as with most experiences, there were a few discrete memories that survived the years since 1995.  One was my introduction to the World Wide Web part of the Internet, and how it could not only transform librarianship but also my ability to decipher song lyrics.  (I’ve long held that R.E.M.’s first album Murmur should have been titled Mumble instead.) 

Another memory was my discovery that I did not wish to become a government documents librarian.  Even though I liked and respected Franklin & Marshall’s gov docs librarian, his work was akin to translating an obscure language to reveal information that usually bored me, at least then.  (And as an avowed generalist, I admit that boredom with a little shame.  I was also 20 years old, if that’s an excuse.) 

Finally, there’s the memory that’s the point of this post: the advice of a young staff member who was working on his library degree.

“I have one piece of advice for you,” he told me.  I perked up. 

“When you go to library school, take an academic library management class.”  I slumped a little.  I explained that I had no aspirations to become a library director or any other kind of library manager.  Too many examples of the Peter Principle cautioned me that administrative positions can pull good people away from the heart of the professions that called them.  “Oh, I don’t plan to become a manager either,” he explained. “But a management course can help you become a better librarian.  You’ll understand the library as an institution better, you’ll be a better employee, and you’ll even be better equipped to ‘manage up.’” 

Manage up? 

“That’s when you decipher your boss’s management style, and learn to work with him or her accordingly.  It also means managing yourself and finding ways to make yourself useful as possible in your organization.”

Hmm, management, huh?  Still not my favorite topic.  “Have you found the class useful here at the library yet?” I asked him.  “Yeah, I see this place with a new perspective, and it’s helped me to suggest some projects that help the library and that I enjoy doing, and as an added benefit, my supervisor is pleased with me.”  The course sounded useful enough, and so I willed myself to remember his recommendation.   (Full disclosure of the obvious: the above quotes are paraphrases filtered through nearly 17 years, and so they resemble historical fiction more than a true transcript.)

Two years later and I’m enrolled in the Academic Library Management course at the School of Information Sciences (they dropped “Library” the year I enrolled) at the University of Pittsburgh.  The instructor was the director of the entire university library system, and there were a dozen or so students gathered for his course in one of the main library’s conference rooms.  “Show of hands: which of you aspire to become a library director?”  Two or three of the few male students raised their hands. 

“Is that all?  Then why are the rest of you here?”  He sounded genuinely surprised, which in turn surprised me at first; wouldn’t he be like that library student I met at Franklin & Marshall College and assume that his course was valuable for anyone in academic libraries?  I responded with that student’s recommendation and its rationale.  Some of my classmates had received similar advice from librarians.  The instructor raised his eyebrows thoughtfully: “Well, good.  I can see that.  In fact, some of the management literature you’ll be reading for this course would support those reasons. …But don’t you want to be a director someday?”  We shook our heads no.  We were in school to become librarians.

Fortunately, he didn’t hold our lack of leadership aspirations against us, and he proceeded to teach us about management and organizational theory, as well as about the history of libraries in general and academic libraries in particular.  All the while, he used his own leadership of the university library system as a case study.  That same semester I served as a reference intern on that front desk, and so I got to ask different staff their own take on this director’s leadership and decisions.  It wasn’t exactly a 360-view of that library, but it came pretty close.  Of course, not every academic library management course is taught by the manager of a library in which the students can intern.  Nevertheless, I gained all the more from my internship because of the course readings.  They changed how I observed the staff dynamics and the questions I thought to ask.  And that perspective carried over to my first full-time professional position at the library where I now direct, despite my initial lack of desire to ever become a director.

The course didn’t give me the answers; rather, it gave me a set of lenses through which to look for answers, as well as the awareness that they were lenses, plural, and not the Truth, singular.  Perhaps that metaphor comes as much from my undergraduate anthropology studies as it did from that academic library management course.  Once I took a medical anthropology course, all sorts of Western institutions lost their self-evidence in my eyes as their cultural underpinnings emerged.

That’s me being philosophical.  On a pragmatic level, the course gave me ideas about how to be a more effective librarian within my library and its larger institution.  It made it easier both to effect change and to work with the changes I couldn’t fully control.  And when my director announced she was leaving to direct a far larger library on the other end of the country, I realized that the course would help me serve as the library’s interim director.  It was a small enough library and I had worked with the director closely enough that I was the de facto interim director.  The “interim” part was a comfort; I still didn’t strive to be the actual director.  When my departing director first suggested I apply for the permanent directorship, I thus balked.  Then I paused and opened a door in my mind…but that’s another entry.

Jennifer Lann is the Director of Library Services at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont. (She's also my former boss.)

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