To Be Or Not To Be A Library Director

About two weeks ago, there was a thread on the Library Society of the World group whether or not people were interested in becoming a director (or for those are directors, why they chose it). At the time, my answer was that I wasn’t interested in the position, but I’d prefer to be a higher-up-but-not-apex position. That is, I’d want to be in administrative position of some kind, but I don’t want to be where the buck stops.

Currently, I enjoy being the second-in-charge at my branch. I get to be to the chief when my boss is out of the building, enjoy a certain level of autonomy, and don’t carry the bulk of the responsibility that would come with being the branch manager. My underlying rationale was that I like and enjoy working on the public desk and being able to interact with the library members. I love teaching classes, working on programming, engaged in outreach, and doing publicity, all those ‘librarian’ things that are most closely associated with the profession. In a library system like mine, taking steps up the administration ladder means less public interaction, more budget and behind-the-scenes-paperwork, and more of the political/diplomacy that is needed to keep the system going. It’s not that I can’t do those things, but it doesn’t appeal to me. The thought, at the time, was that I wanted to still be in touch with people and change their lives.

But, over time, that logic slowly eroded away.

Me: “I want to make a difference in people’s lives! I do that by helping out, one person at a time! I can do that in my current position!”

Brain: “But if you’re a director, then you can do things that will effect more people.”

Me: “Explain how.”

Brain: “Directors can develop and set practices and policies that affect entire communities, states, regions, and even be a model at the national level.”

Me: “Woohoo!”

Even with that Simpsons-esque inspired turnaround thinking, I still have some hesitance. The first is pretty basic: I don’t have much experience working with a budget or supervising a staff. (Or, in the case of the latter, supervising a library staff.) I know these are things I can learn with some help and experience, but it still hovers in the realm of unfamiliar territory for me. It doesn’t hold me back, but it does impact my resume in this tight library job market.

The second is less of my qualifications and more of the ones that I see in some of job postings for director positions. They aren’t so much looking for a director as they are looking for a unicorn (a phrase I really wish I could take credit for but someone smarter than me said it). I’m constantly amazed that none of these positions include “must be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”. The kicker usually arrives at the salary listed, a constant reminder about how much or little our job skills are valued. I’ve seen them range all over the place, marvelously unattached to the cost of living around the state. I understand that towns and boards want to find the best candidate, but at some point it just creates unreasonable expectations. That wouldn’t stop me from applying, though.

The third is something that arises out of my impending marriage to The Fiancee. Simply put, she is the breadwinner in the relationship. As such, this creates a geographic limit as to where I can look for a position, director or otherwise, within the Burlington or Camden county area. (Translation for people who don’t know the area: that area roughly across from Philadelphia and areas extending north along the river.) There are two county systems (one of which I work for already) and maybe almost a dozen town libraries in that area. This isn’t exactly the biggest area to pick from, but it does have some great libraries in it. Basically, I suffer from the same problem that some unemployed librarians deal with: moving is not an option for employment prospects. So I’m locked into this area so long as The Fiancee is still posted here. (This is not a gripe, just an observation.)

I’ll concede that I don’t have a complete picture as to what a director actually does. I have friends who are directors that I talk with on a regular basis; I get a good idea of what their work lives are like. But there is a vast difference between someone who is the director of a small rural operation that draws its budget from a foundation versus a large urban operation that is just another cog in the city wheel. Even in holding these two public library examples aloft, there are so many factors that morph the picture of the position. The demographics, the communities, the legacy of previous directors, the relationship with the purse string holders, and the public opinion of the library can shape it into a widely supported community asset or a begrudgingly funded specter of the institution. In listing these kinds of factors, I would hope that you don’t see them as ways that public libraries are different but as ways in which they are unique.

My reasoning for not seeking a director position was initially steeped in the public interaction that I enjoy, but I cannot deny the possibility of greater beneficial projects and efforts if I found myself in the position. So, setting aside the limitations for a moment, I find myself asking, “Can you get both?” I would imagine that you can and that is certainly something I will be looking out for in the future. (Although I have to yet to determine the wisdom of such a desire.)

To repeat the question that Martha asked: “[W]ho either is a library director (or dean) or desires to become one? Why? What draws you towards this work? What do you love about it?”

11 thoughts on “To Be Or Not To Be A Library Director

  1. I have spoken at library staff development days about a career as a library director and I said, quite frankly, that I became a director because I prefer telling people what to do to being told what to do. (bossy by nature) It doesn’t really work out that way because what I do is fix things. I mend staff relationships (with each other, mostly), I arrange for building repair, I find money for projects – you get the idea. Staff and the public (and the Board!) come to me with problems and assume I can figure out how to fix them, whatever they are. And, new ones crop up all the time; I cannot count how many times I have said “I’m not sure why you think I know how to accomplish that, but let’s figure this out”.
    But, as kind of words of warning, I am in what would be considered a larger library but I serve as CEO, CFO, COO, and head of HR! I started as a children’s librarian and have spent 27 years now as a Library Director (in two different positions). I say that, when I retire from this director gig, I will take a job in a library in a different state where I won’t be in charge; my colleagues laugh because they can’t imagine that.
    And, yes, I make more $$$ than the rest of the staff but I do occupy several positions (see above!).

  2. The majority of people that I respect in the profession either are currently directors or were directors. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

    What draws me to one day rise up to that position is the opportunity to make needed changes within a system and work with others to help push the system in a right direction. I think the pay raise is another reason, but I also have seen how much of your life a director has to sacrifice in order to accomplish what is needed; the pay raise does not seem to compensate equally based on the time that is required to put in. I also like the fact that it’s one of the few positions in a system where you should know everyone in the system and interact with them, and to go out in the community and show everyone what their library can do.

  3. Do you know yourself? Do you understand your gifts and flaws? Can you build a team that includes those who gifts match your flaws? Can you get out of the way and let them do what they do?
    If so, to all, become a director.

  4. I always wanted to be a library director because I care about students and I want to create the best possible library that I can for them. In middle management, I learned how to be political. But, at that top now, I take what I learned in running a department of a library and I affect the larger conversations on a college campus. Being the library director isn’t really about running the library as much as it is about being the face and voice for the library in the larger conversation on my campus and even within venues like consortia.

    Wawoo, libraries need you in the directors office 🙂

  5. Directorship found me. From the moment I began volunteering in a library, doors started opening for me and I just kept walking through them. It was a short journey in terms of my work in the library, but a long one when I consider it as the culmination of a lifetime of experience that included a variety of work, education, venues, and relationships.

    The first day I sat in my new office, I could not decide if I was there by fate or by accident. I felt a little bit like a fraud – who was I to take on a job I had never done before, when so many people were counting on me to do it well? It is interesting, though, how knowing that people are counting on you can give you the wherewithal to rise to the challenge.

    Here are some exciting things about being a director:
    • you get to help build the place you always wanted to work, where employees have the opportunity to help create the job description that inspires them
    • you set the vision for the library
    • you spend a lot of your day learning and thinking and figuring things out
    • every day is different

    Some important things I have learned so far:
    • Directorship is as much about leading (supplying the vision) as it is about supporting. Rather than being at the top, you really are at the bottom – you support the staff and volunteers, and they support the public. You supply the vision, and the staff and volunteers interpret and execute it.
    • The buck does stop with you. Every unresolved issue eventually filters down to you.
    • You have to be prepared to make the tough decisions on behalf of your staff. If you work for your staff, your staff will do amazing things.
    • A team structure works better than a tiered structure. Everyone must feel the impact of their contribution to the team.
    • I hire people with different skills than I have – people who are smarter and more capable than I am and who know things I don’t have a clue about. You cannot lead by yourself – you must have people you can share the load with. They will make you look like Superman when you are in fact a mere mortal.
    • I got a nice pay raise but I work a LOT.
    • Everyone who works with the public in our library is the face and voice of the library. I am happy to share that. When there are opportunities for public exposure, the staff partakes. I am not a limelight sort of person, and I find I do not have to be.
    • Leadership is really about relationships, and I have been surprised how much past relationships (marriage, parenting, work, school, friendships) have informed my approach. You really need to understand boundaries, because you will spend a lot of time helping people negotiate them.
    • This isn’t a job that comes with a lot of praise. You get your rewards from things like staff retention, seeing happy people in the library, seeing a staff member connecting with a member of the community, seeing good statistics, seeing a new program or resource being used, having people (staff, volunteers or the community) bring you new ideas – watch for signs of success and enjoy them.

  6. I don’t want to be in charge. I have been the director of libraries; in each case the budget and personnel struggles have taken much of the joy out of going to work each day. When the director position was vacant a little over a year ago I did not apply. The things that feed my soul, like connecting people with information, were far more important than the salary being offered. I can and do innovate and lead from my middle management position. I don’t need the title or the incremental cash I would wind up spending on therapists.

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