What I Learned from One Year of Being an “Accidental Library Manager”

OK. I now have one full year of being a library manager under my belt. While I wish I could say that I have nothing left to learn about management, that is definitely not the case. But, I am still here and have had some successes under my belt.

My venture into management has definitely been a baptism by fire. I got my position as a regional manager (they call me “e-Learning Services Manager”) in a fairly large public library system right out of library school . My job consists of a good amount of community work, finding and managing government grant projects related to technology and making decisions about technology services for the system. Here are some of my tips for anyone coming out of library school and going into a library management position:

  • Library Management and Library Instruction are not the same thing

I learned something important about myself as a recent graduate early on. After three years of learning from professors, I must have come to the conclusion that the way to lead was through lectures, knowledge sharing and the like. That’s how I started out. Every meeting I wanted to tell everyone about what great new technology is changing the world. Every meeting I stopped myself from doing so. Why? Well, I do think it is important to keep people informed.  But it quickly became clear that I a) could not possibly know everything about technology on my own and b) could not expect everyone else (with all their own priorities) to know about it too.

My mentors have taught me not to instruct but to inspire people to learn about the important things on their own. You do this by describing problems and showing technology as one of many possible solutions to that problem. When people begin to see that technology can help them give more for their customers, they do (in varying degrees of course) begin to appreciate and learn about technology.   Some will learn enough just to do the job.   Others will catch the bug and become one of your greatest advocates.
This was a very important lesson, I am glad to say I have learned early. Just because technology is not on your colleagues radar screen does not mean that they need lessons. Much better to have your colleagues teach you something new. That way you have double the learning in the organization.

  • Communication is Almost Never to One Person Directly

I am a good communicator. I came out of my BA (English) degree with distinction. I know how to write a good document with few typos, excellent grammar and a clear, concise style. I thought I could write for a particular audience until I got this job.

When you are in library school you are writing largely to one person — your professor, who gives all grades, feedback and opinions. At work, you give your document to your boss, but the document is for alot of people. Take a procedure. You create the procedure for, say, “collecting fines and fees” at your library. You give this to your boss, a public services manager, who thinks everything is great. But then the document goes to a Senior Management Team. The finance manager will have something to say about how emphatic you are about blocking customers with fines over a certain amount. Why? Because that impacts his/her revenue. The CEO will have something to say as well since he/she may have to present this to yet another group, the library board, who will have to give final approval. Your systems people may want to know what kind of technology you need to implement this procedure — maybe there is a system load issue?

Then the procedure goes to the branch managers who have to explain this change to their staff, many of whom are taxed to the hilt with busy circ desks and so on. It is amazing how a very clear, excellent document in one context can appear lame-brained in another. While it is your boss’s job to guide you through possible issues in other areas of the system, it is always a good idea to consider who is impacted by your document and write accordingly.

And remember, no matter what you do, you will hear feedback. Which brings me to my next lesson:

  • Accept Feedback but Never Apologize

Ok. So you missed someone in your document writing and now they’ve sent you a frantic message about how the fine collection changes in your procedure are going to be a disaster for their branch. Believe it or not, this is a good thing. The mean and nasty thing that could happen is that something is a disaster and your colleagues do not tell you about it. A temporarily unhappy staff member is something you can usually overcome; unhappy customers are often permanently unhappy ones.

The important thing to remember is that feedback is almost never about you. A person who comes to you has a problem and you have a problem too, or you wouldn’t have made your “fines and fees” decision in the first place. Your problems came together with their own special kind of repellent and this is not an uncommon thing. Your job now is to understand your colleague’s problem while helping your colleague to understand yours. Maybe there is a really easy solution that resolves both issues with no problems.  Maybe you have to stick to your guns. Maybe you have to go back to your supervisor and re-think your fines and fees procedure. It’s all part of decision-making. You have to make decisions, and sometimes these decisions will cause headaches for other people. That’s your job — focus on the problems at hand, resolve the issues to the best of your ability — but don’t apologize.

  • When you say something enough times, people will begin to believe it.

A prof of mine joked about the famous Newfoundland orator, Joey Smallwood, that the key to his speaking success is that he always said the same thing at least three times. Repetition is an extremely effective way to influence people, but it can work in reverse.

I am a self-effacing person. I will crack a joke at my own expense on a dime. I even did this in my anti-meme post where I said I have a hard time accepting that I am an adult. It’s my way of saying “I’m not such a big shot.” It keeps me on the level.

When I worked the circulation desk many years back, I used to joke that I “must be the worst shelver in the branch” because I realized I mis-shelved a book. Then a person came back to me with that  “the worst shelver in the branch” phrase.   I may have been a better shelver than that person, but I had convinced (him or her — I’ll never tell) I was the “worst,” simply because I told them so.

This may go back to the “management isn’t instruction” line, but it is worth saying twice. Being self-effacing to a group of first year students learning Historical Abstracts is one thing. But as a manager, the story is different. If you make a presentation that says “we ought to put our scarce resources into this activity” and then you say (in one way or another) “I’m a complete idiot,” or “I only think I know what I’m doing” or “I’m a little shaky on this one” it gives a mixed message. Either you are sure or you are not sure about what you are doing. If you are not sure, you are not ready to make your presentation.   If you did do your homework, you know more about this project than anyone else. Be confident and provide a credible voice to your colleagues. Don’t undermine yourself with negativity.

That’s it for now. Of course I learned alot of other things, but these are the things that come to mind now. I hope to work more on these things myself as I grow with my organization.