Monday, April 04, 2011

Library Administration: Necessary Evil or Necessary Advocate?

Poking my nosy nose into a mild kerfluffle between Jenica26 and @campbell_b, I landed smack in the middle of the greater debate on the evils of Administration. I jokingly (sort of) suggested that administration might be more appreciated if there were a wide walk-out, and library staff were left to live without the work administrators do.

Note: I don't take issue with folks who complain about bad administrators. I've known excellent ones, and I try to be a good mid-level manager myself, but I have been at the mercy of awful administrations, and there's little else that can make your professional life a living hell. I don't deny the existence of bad administrators.

What I do take issue with is the idea that library administration do nothing to add value to the library or to librarians' work-lives. Per Bryan's tweet to Jenica & me, "Walkout week? How about a few months? Staff will flail, adjust, move on. Try it. Maybe an innovation we need"

I don't doubt it will cause innovation - slack will be picked up, and people will try to figure out what needs doing and how. We're versatile creatures. What I do doubt is that the staff will be pleased about what gets added to their plates. In terms of academic libraries, the meetings and negotiations with university administrators-that-be to battle for funding dollars, providing oversight and leadership regarding the direction of the library - this is what a good library administrator does. A good administrator facilitates things so that the library staff can concentrate on their jobs.

How many reference and instruction librarians would be happy about leaving the desk and classroom to do more paperwork, have those negotiation meetings, pore over the budget, provide broader contexts for decision-making, and the various other non-patron-contact work that gets done in administrative chairs? Even Jenica notes that the more her plate gets filled with administrative work, the more she has to actively carve out space for librarian-like work. At a recent management council meeting, my own dean (who has developed an organizational culture I would be loathe to leave, and whcih I wish on everyone) celebrated that our University recognizes the good our library is doing - and lamented the necessary consequence that the impact of this is to increase her administrative responsibilities whcih pulls her further from the librarianship practice she loved.

At a certain point, and particularly as the library grows in size, services, and constituents, administrative duties begin to eclipse what we think of as traditional librarianship roles. And while some libraries have this to a lesser extent than others (based, I would posit, largely on size of institution, mission, and engagement level), I don't think it is a situation that can be entirely avoided. And so yes, library staff may adapt to having no administrators, and the pain wouldn't show in the short term - where the hurt comes in is over time with lack of leadership, lack of organizational clarity, lack of wider context for decision-making, and the like. Where the hurt comes in in the longer term is that all of the librarians who currently sing a song of never wanting to be management would be forced to take on those responsibilities, taking them away from the work they love and prefer.

Unhappy with management/administration? Become management and change it from the inside. Leave places with bad management, and make it clear why you are leaving - don't reward them with your hard work. (If enough people did this, such places would be forced to change. I believe this.) Talk to administrators and find out exactly what they do, how they spend their time, and how they facilitate the library's work.

Truly, do you know what your administrators do? Due to our transparent culture, I know that my dean's time is largely taken up by meetings with the Provost about budgetary and staffing issues; meeting with student development about some problem patrons and making policies more user-friendly; preparing materials to speak to the full faculty and the Faculty Senate about ongoing projects including the library's current collection review project; attending and leading library committee meetings such as IT Council, Management Council, and the electronic resources committee, among others; monthly meetings with department heads to ensure we are on track with our own projects and have the resources we need to accomplish them; chairing the campus-wide IT task force which is looking at revamping the current campus IT organization and infrastructure; attending state-wide (TennShare) and system-wide (UT/TBR) meetings around the state, where she provides input on our behalf on initiatives such as a possible courier service and more resource sharing and price-sharing agreements between UT-system libraries; being on the search committee for a new dean of the Graduate School; negotiating to keep a staff line or to convert it into graduate assistantships instead of losing it completely; meeting regularly with the architect and campus regulatory folks about our new building, in addition to the biweekly internal library building committee meetings; gathering and distributing data for the annual report, IPEDS, and for the accrediting reports for the individual department; attending after-hours university functions to represent the library to administrators, donors, students, and bigwigs; acting as our subject liaison and collection developer for Film Studies and for Library Science; going over budget figures regularly with our head of materials processing to see how money is spent, from whcih accounts, and by various university account breakdowns; working the circulation desk two weekends a semester; and much more.

That list only covers this semester, and I am certain I've left any number of time-consuming issues Theresa tackles regularly off the list. She is a more active dean than most in terms of also doing librarians-level duties such as liaison/collection development work and working the service desks. I will say that the reason I can concentrate on what needs doing in my own department in terms of staff development, training, re-imagining workflows and innovating in services is because she does all of that. Even spreading her to-do list around the fifteen librarians we have wouldn't be enough to cover it all, given that we are all active professionals both in terms of our librarianship at home and in the wider profession.

And so, I was thinking. If my dean walked out, would I be able to "flail, adjust, move on"? Flail, certainly. I work with fantastic people, so I have no doubt we would adjust to absorb those responsibilities. But it would have a devastating impact on our services, and I have no doubt that our staff would feel the pressure of that new time crunch. My colleagues and I pride ourselves on being advocates for resources and facilitators of improved workflows. And yep, I would indeed probably move terms of leaving my position for one where I could actually do my job effectively.

Unless most library staff have significant problems with having too much time and not enough to do -- which I find unlikely in the current "we do less with more" environment -- I don't know that such a redistribution would be beneficial.

Perhaps there are some administrators folks might welcome doing an administrative walk-out. But I wouldn't assume that administrative duties at large are unnecessary to the running of a library. (I would also say that if your administrator could walk away for a few months and you wouldn't notice, think seriously about getting a new administrator.) A good administrator paves the way for librarians to do - and concentrate on - excellent work, as much as a bad one hinders it.

So tell me, how would you feel about, say, a four-month library administrator walk-out? Would it impact you much? Would you toss confetti, or go into panic mode? If you're feeling free enough to air it in public, say something in the comments.


Virginia L. Cairns said...

I've worked for 2 strong and engaged library leaders and one who was often more of an absentee landlord and I cannot overstate how crucial good leadership and management are to organizational (and personal) success. I would be firmly in the panic mode camp if my current boss walked out. I chose the job I have now in large part due to my desire to work with her and for her.

In the case of my absentee landlord, we got used to doing things without his involvement, but it was isolating, wearing and our overall impact on the organization was hampered due to not having a good advocate at the top. After several years in that environment, I was burned out. In my current job, quote the opposite.

Alison said...

I'd like to see what would happen if STAFF left. What would administrators do?? I doubt most would know how to unlock the front door. Just seems that way from a staff person's point of view.

Colleen said...

Alison - Too true. I suppose I took it for granted that if the staff left, the library couldn't run at all in the immediate term. I think the impact of administrator abandonment would take awhile to trickle down, since their work is felt more as long-term effect and not day-to-day operations, whereas a widespread staff sabbatical would simply mean we couldn't open at all.