"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Sep 29, 2009

The tradeoff of leading

I had a conversation today with a colleague on the reference desk (I am currently doing an internship at a local library. It started last week and they are being just fabulous). She spent some time in administration, even at the assistant director level -- and now she is back to being a regular reference librarian.

I don't recall her precise words, but one comment she made spoke to a conflict I'm still struggling with. She said something to the effect that managers in libraries do very different things, and have very different kinds of contact with patrons, than non-managerial staff.

Eventually, I intend to become a manager, maybe even a director. I want to have the chance to shape policy, to guide the growth and development of a department or even a whole library. I enjoy leading people, and I feel as though if I were in a supervisory position I could foster meaningful growth, both personal and professional, in the people I supervised. I've rarely been one to sit in the backseat. I enjoy guiding, directing, organizing, managing. I don't see myself being a "front-lines" staff member forever.

And yet what draws me to this work is precisely what we do on the "front lines", in direct interaction with the patrons. It's why I could never work in archives -- too much back-room stuff, too little interpersonal contact. It is such a good feeling to see and talk with the people I'm helping, face to face. And I love the problem-solving aspects of reference work, the variety, the fact that I can learn something new and interesting with every reference transaction. I love having my hands physically on the books. I love watching the wide swath of humanity that walks through a public library.

Therein lies the crux. Because it seems to me that it's a rare library director who gets to spend any significant time interacting with patrons other than those who've been referred to the top because they have some sort of problem that the lower echelons can't deal with. But I don't ever want to stop doing reference. Ever. I suppose there are probably library directors out there who carve out some time to do that kind of work. Certainly the director of the library I was at over the summer spends some time every day doing some of the same things as the rest of the staff (although he's never scheduled for desk shifts or anything like that). Maybe a very small system is the answer. Or perhaps a branch library where I could take on a managerial role. Those kinds of situations bring their own stresses, of course. When the director/branch manager is on the desk regularly, it is probably because there's not enough staff for the director/branch manager to do otherwise. And understaffing of course has all sorts of bad consequences.

I suppose I'm jumping the gun a little bit... I have no idea what the timeline is supposed to be to move from entry-level librarian to library director, but I'm sure it's relatively long. (Though I am aware of someone who apparently got a director's job right out of library school! There's an exception to every rule...) And given how much things seem to vary from library to library, this may just be something I have to work out in whatever library I end up in. But being a future-oriented, planning kind of person, it's hard for me to sit back and let it go. So I keep poking at it, wondering where the balance might lie for me.

On the other hand, thinking about it now means I get to pick other people's brains on the topic -- my coworker today being a case in point. Thinking ahead (waaaaaaay ahead) isn't all bad...

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