Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Real Talk on Library Management Difficulties

At an ALA 2011 emerging trends discussion group on training and retaining middle managers, an HR official noted that if a manager is doing their job and properly training and documenting, then the HR office helps in the disciplinary process, and there is no reason a manager should have any trouble.

At an ALA 2011 pre-conference on the difficult parts of management, the refusal by some library administrations and HR offices to help managers properly handle disciplinary action with documented under-performing staff was a widely acknowledged reality among participants.

I will admit that I have worked in libraries with fantastic administrations and great HR offices, weak administrations and weak HR offices, and various other combinations. Given that experience, I have to say that the experience of poor management practices at the upper levels of an organization can make the life of a middle manager hell, and it does us as a profession no good to pretend otherwise.

The rest of this post is written under the assumption that with whatever performance problem a staff member has, it has been addressed verbally with a clear direction on how they can improve, with regular follow-up and documentation of any additional training and improvement, decline, or static-ness of performance. (Essentially, I'm assuming managerial due diligence on the part of the lower-echelon manager before they go to administration or HR to initiate any discipline.)

If your administration or your HR system will not mentor you and help you with your performance management responsibilities, and especially if, after all of your development attempts, they stonewall you on the written and established processes for disciplinary action, you have two choices.

(1) You can continue as you are. You can accept that some people will simply not perform their required job duties, and work around them. You can accept that as your lot in management life, and deal with it.

(2) You can job-hunt and leave, and work someplace where you can be an effective manager.

I cannot condone the first choice. If it has been established that your administration or HR system will not help (in the words of one pre-conference attendee, "My dean says that there is only so much you can expect out of some people, so you just take what you can get"), how can you stay? Your staff will see you as ineffectual. They will resent the fact that they work hard for the same salary as the undisciplined slacker. They see you accepting that differential treatment of them when you are supposed to be their advocate. And yes, while it may not be your fault you cannot address the problem,

you staying to work for that organization and perpetuate a system of unfair treatment is entirely under your control.

I'll say that again: you staying in that situation makes you a part of the broken system, and you have to accept responsibility for your part in perpetuating that broken system. It is no longer "they" but "we" when you talk about problematic practices. And you have to own that.

If you stay in a broken system, and practice bad management because of that broken system, that makes you a bad manager.

Full stop. Whatever your intentions or personal limitations on moving.

Even worse, if you stay, what you are doing is setting your successor up for failure. How many managers have walked into departments where under-performing staff have decades of excellent performance reviews behind them? Staff will be surprised when someone new points out deficiencies, HR's hands will be tied due to long histories of someone else saying everything was fine, and the quagmire starts all over again, placing a new manager in a difficult position.

I implore you: do not reward these places with your good work.

I've said this before, both in informal management conversations and at local and national presentations when someone brings the issue up. My very firm stance on this tends to either alienate people or help them feel empowered. Yes, I know it is easier for some of us than others to find another job and relocate. Some of us have spouses, or children, or ailing family members. But you need to weigh those responsibilities against your responsibilities as a professional, against your future marketability (since places with bad management aren't usually secrets once you start asking around), and against your mental and physical health. This creates difficult choices, but it is still a choice.

There is a lot of talk about library leadership and culture change. If there is a chance you may change the organizational culture to attach more accountability for responsibilities, you can work in that arena. I would caution, however, that one person (even two, three and four people) may not be enough to change an entrenched organizational culture. As a middle manager you can often make changes in your local (departmental or unit) culture; if you are dependent on upper administration changes, be both wary of and realistic about how much cultural change will happen under people who perpetuated the broken system in the first place.

If you have done everything within your power to carry out your responsibilities, and the roadblocks you face are your own administration and human resources, exhaust your options. Then look elsewhere. Otherwise you risk becoming the problem, and that helps no one.

Real talk.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reflections on ALA 2011

I miss New Orleans already, as I prepare myself for a lunch that doesn't involve oysters, alligator sausage, fried things of any kind, daquiris, or my far-flung library colleagues. I am trying to suppress my disappointment. Before everything gets lost in the haze of back-to-work, I wanted to get down some lasting impressions:

1. New Orleans, I Heart You

I don't know what I was expecting of New Orleans, but it is a wonderful, walkable, fantastic little city with great character and outstanding food. I could barely believe the tales of craziness (I never did make it over to Bourbon Street), until the evening I was walking back to my hotel and passed a number of folks in Santa hats. And they were immediately followed by a guy fully duded up as Santa - big hat, faux beard, heavy coat and gloves...and no pants, hollering "HO HO HO!" as he stumbled down the sidewalk. And apparently that's just an everyday occurrence, because no one else even raised an eyebrow. In any case, the alligator sausage po boys, raw oysters, delicately fried seafood, and daquiri stands made me a fan, and I'm already plotting a return. Thank you, New Orleans, for being a wonderful venue.

2. Pre-Conference Success

The preconference Jenica Rogers and I led on the tough parts of management went over very, very well. Not only did it sell out, but everyone came back from lunch for the second part. The participants seemed very engaged, asked some great and difficult questions, and it appeared to hearten everyone that they as managers are not alone as they navigate difficult situations. Many filled out our evaluation form, which will help us improve the preconference for the future. My dean noted that she heard some of our participants talking abotu the session the next day on a bus ride and they appeared to have been very happy with the session. (I will note that the preconferences ran into the opening session, which really should be avoided in future programming.)

3. Scalability/Generalizability of Presentations

I was struck by how much the sessions I attended focused on "how we done good" with very little emphasis on scalability or generalizing it to how other libraries may accomplish things with what the presenters learned. If "how you done good" is not something I can draw from and bring back to my own workplace, it's not terribly useful to me. I know my proposals through ACRL and LLAMA had to have a "three outcomes/takeaways for attendees" section on it; it would be nice if everyone had to do something similar to ensure that those takeaways are actually useful. (I'm talking to you, program planning committees!) I just spoke to my dean as she breezed past the circulation desk, and it turns out that many of us (a horde of us from UTC attended) had the same issue - not a whole lot we could actually bring back and implement. Whether that's because we're on the furthest edge of good already, instead of due to lackluster programming, I don't know.

4. Frankness and Honesty

Another thing I was struck by was the effect frankness and honesty has on the lifespan and usefulness of a discussion. A preconference on library management issues where we worked very hard to be frank and talk about such taboo things as how performance management systems are sometimes broken generated so much discussion that instead of the scheduled 9am to 4:30pm time frame, many attendees stayed until 5pm to talk informally about their own workplaces, issues, and solution - choosing to miss the 4:00pm opening session to do so. A two-hour interest group meeting on a similar management topic, however, ended nearly forty minutes early due to lack of discussion. I can't help but wonder if statements during the interest group meeting such as "these conflicts resolve themselves," and "if you follow HR procedures, that shouldn't be a problem" had a chilling effect on the conversation, since it was obvious that no one wanted to address the flip side of everything working well.

If we're not going to be very (perhaps brutally) honest in our discussions about issues in the profession, I don't see what the use of such discussion forums. Towing the party line and pretending problems don't exist we can do from home; no need to have people travel halfway across the country for that.

5. Can "Big Tent Librarianship" Philosophy Go Too Far?

Proposing a panel on library management for Annual 2012, I was encouraged to include public librarians as well as the academic librarians I had planned to have participate. I had initially restricted it because I know that as much as we are all librarians, we do operate under different strictures. I understand the desire to make such a panel as broadly popular as possible, so I agreed to alter it. but then someone noted that "Academic librarians already have ACRL, you know." Assuming all academic librarians who would be interested in a topic would have gotten it at ACRL is the same as assuming all public librarians hit their conference - give funding, it's probably an erroneous assumption, and I found it a very disturbing one. I do not want programs at ALA to be chosen or rejected with the attitude of "If you can get it somewhere else, get it there and not here." That's the case for nearly every topic, from IT to reference issues. Also, ignoring the fact that there are indeed differences between the types of librarianship - and not recognizing that a panel that can go in-depth into important issues in one type of library does not give it less value than a broader panel that can address many different topics shallowly - is not helpful.

6. Identity Crises

In LITA circles, there was discussion of the cancellation of BIGWIG, and much discussion of the Emerging Leaders' SWOT analysis of LITA which demonstrated a need for a clear mission statement. More than one person asked why ALA needs a division devoted to technology. I'll be interested to see how these discussions play out over the course of the next few months, particularly since I'm on the LITA program planning committee. I don't know that LITA is the only division with this issue, really; I attended some LLAMA meetings and felt distinctly out of place among the very-much-older crowd who didn't take well to any suggestions for changes, bringing in younger/newer managers, or generally making LLAMA much more useful in members' day to day lives. My dean also noted that what I will call LLAMA-lack was brought up in various different venues in New Orleans. A shame, because people are dying for good programming and guidance when it comes to management. Tons of stuff on the idea of leadership, and not a whole lot on management. Makes you wonder about who is going to actually get things done and how while everyone else is pie-in-the-sky-ing it.

7. Personality vs. Message

Interestingly, this is the first conference where I ran up against a situation where some folks took issue not with *what* was said, but *how* it was said, and said as much in their program evaluations. Later in the conference while pitching a program, those same folks happened to be in the room and asked that the *who* that had said it be stricken from future speaking proposals. Which was fascinating, since while three people took issue with the (occasionally informal) language used, 49 people reported that they found the conversation stimulating and useful. But the three unhappy ones are involved in program planning; everyone else was "just" an attendee. Guess whose opinion matters more? If shaking discussions up with blunt honesty is considered 'unprofessional,' I understand perhaps why that division's programming - and participation - is so lackluster.

8. On the "Doing Stuff" Style of Committee Work
I've been largely unhappy with my committee assignments in ALA to date, either because the committees were inactive, because the committees made random assignments without regard for skill requirements, or other mismatches. However, I'm now on the Program Planning Committee for LITA, and the idea that at the end of our work we'll have a finished product to point at and get feedback on is very satisfying to me. Plus, Abigail is our committee chair, so an awesome outcome is practically predetermined.

9. Meating Friends

Of course, one of the best things about large library conferences is that I get to see my many library folks who usually live in my computer. That we not only got to spend some great time together with much laughter, but do it with fantastic food, was a lovely way to spend my non-working parts of ALA!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Library Managers as Triathletes of the Mind? Meaghen's Wisdom for Librarians

Meaghen Ann Harris, award-winning athlete

I'm putting the finishing touches on my slides for ALA, where I'll be presenting the LLAMA preconference "The Tough Stuff: Leadership, Change, & Performance Management for Library Managers" with the incredibly wise Jenica Rogers. This past weekend I was trying to find a theme to run through my portion of the talk on managing change. In a fit of pique and laziness, I polled Facebook, and my sister Meaghen noted that triathlons were a pretty good metaphor. She noted that triathletes have to swim to T1 (transition #1), tear off their wet suits, put on bike shoes and helmet, and cycle to T2 (transition #2), where they "drop off bike, tear off helmet, throw on some kicks and the FINISH. Manage the change, Colleen. Manage the change."

My little sister is wise. (And a kickass athlete to boot, regularly taking 1st, 2nd and 3rd in her age group, while I cheer her on from under my covers and half a country away.) But Meaghen is right - triathletes manage not just their training, but issues of endurance and skill and training and awkward transitions. That sounds pretty much like library management to me. The next message she sent me via Facebook struck me right between the eyes:

“You always spend the most time on your bike. So it's a very important part of training. Swimming is the shortest part of the race (time and distance wise) but it takes skill and technique--- like- I can bust my ass to be a better runner/biker, but it doesnt work that way with swimming- if you try to swim faster by working harder you just end up thrashing through the water and looking stupid. It takes time to become a better swimmer (my current dilemma- because I want to be good NOW). Some people are JUST good swimmers- I like them- because I end up passing them on the bike and the run.”

Hmmm. Matching this up to library management issues, I see a lot of parallels. Where we spend the most of our time is an important part of our work (though perhaps we're not as well trained in it as we should be), managing the day to day aspects of our part of the library, the regular small changes that we absorb and move through with regularity. What is the shortest part of our management race/life? Maybe dealing with what I would call "catastrophic change" - things that happen rarely but are paradigm-changing. Like Meaghen mentions about swimming, I don't know that it is something we can do by working harder -- mostly, the folks I see who deal well with this are the library managers who work smarter, and who have gone through a few of these experiences and streamlined their responses. But if the only skill set a library manager has honed is the one necessary to deal with the huge, catastrophic changes, and they're not prepared to handle the more quotidian long-haul issues, they're not really prepared to hit any sort of finish line or goal with their organization.

Jenica notes in a recent blog post that the interest in learning how to manage - and how to manage better - is alive and well within librarians. My sister joined a team with a coach, and they support each other. I've found what Jenica might term my tribe of management peers largely through the luck of having great mentors, latching onto folks I want to talk to at conferences, and deciding to craft my speaking proposals around something I feel strongly about. I keep coming back to "[I]f you try to swim faster by working harder you just end up thrashing through the water and looking stupid."

Where are we working harder when we should be honing skill and technique instead? How (if at all) are MLS programs useful as a "training program" for library mangers? Should we instead be focusing on things like the TRLN Management Academy? I've asked before and I'll ask again, given the success of ACRL's Immersion for instruction librarians, why is there no Immersion for library managers until they get to the director level and can attend the ACRL/Harvard Leadership Institute? Why do we think we can develop library managers - mental athletes - by simply hoping they'll show up at the starting blocks, fully trained and ready to go?

These are the thoughts bouncing around in my head as I make my final preparations before heading to New Orleans tomorrow. Jenica and I will get to spend the day with forty-nine library managers on Friday who hail from academic, public, and special libraries, and I can't wait to hear what, how, and why they're doing at their own libraries in terms of management and leadership.

Disclaimer (for this blog post and for my slide deck):

I am not a triathlete. But my sister is. Take my advice about managing; take her advice about athleting.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Dissertation Problem and ProQuest's "Legitimacy" Lie

I located a great dissertation that I'll have to cite in my literature review for my own dissertation-in-the-making. While finding it thrilled me, it also completely crapped on my parade. The dissertation is not interlibrary-loanable, since the degree-granting institution has the only paper copy. And to get a pdf copy of the work from ProQuest? Will cost me $37.00.

I am now looking at this in light of comments my advisor, who is teaching one of my doctoral classes this summer, made. He said to a group of us who were talking about the dissertation in a discussion board that the dissertation is essentially a dead end research exercise - nobody reads them when you're through with writing the damned thing, it just provides a platform for your future research agenda.

Well, HARRUMPH, doc.

*I* read them. The useful-to-me ones, anyway. That is, if I can get access to them. The problem - as it always is - is access. How on earth is a dissertation supposed to be cited by others when access to it is so heavily restricted? It makes me wonder how much research is lacking because of the prohibitive cost of getting access to the research. It also makes me gnash my teeth that institutions awarding doctorates aren't fighting for the right to keep their students' work freely available in their own catalogs in digital format...even though digital format is how more and more graduate schools are accepting their theses and dissertations from students.

What really got me hot, though, was the phrasing on ProQuest's page for authors on why they should choose to publish their thesis or dissertation with ProQuest. (If it's even a choice - many graduate schools actually require this of their students.) On ProQuest's "Why Publish With Us" page for authors, they state:
"Publishing your dissertation or thesis with UMI provides you with a legitimate citation for your curriculum vitae and for other scholars who refer to your work. ProQuest's dissertation research tools have been the primary sources used to cite published dissertations and theses for decades."

Actually, having the school accept my dissertation as acceptable for the awarding of the degree provides me with a legitimate citation. Per Purdue Owl, in APA you would cite it as: Lastname, F. N. (Year). Title of dissertation. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Name of Institution, Location. ProQuest doesn't legitimize anything. If I find it in a database, I have to note the database and accession number, but there's no more - or less - legitimacy granted than if I had a paper copy in hand, or found it through the University's repository as a .pdf file.

I wonder how many students finishing their theses and dissertations are actually taken in by the legitimacy argument, and how many are just snowed under by the giant small-print forms they have to sign granting UMI? ProQuest the right to their hard work. Ah, well. I suppose that'll just be practice for when they sign away all of the rights to to their other research once they want it published in a journal, right?


Monday, June 06, 2011

Come Work at the Library We Love!

Want to come work with a fantastic team of librarian that includes @griffey, @vacairns, @librarianwilk, @caitlinshanley? Well, you're in luck!

At our own University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Lupton Library, we're hiring in an Electronic Resources & Serials Librarian and a Digital Integration Librarian. We've got the postings and a comparison of the requirements and qualifications for each position available here. Have a talented buddy you want to work with? Apply as a team! We'll look forward to seeing you in the pool -- remember, we start reviewing applications July 5th!

"You Shouldn't Call Here", Or, How To Lose A Customer

Just had another experience that reminded me of the importance of putting ourselves in our patron's shoes and making life as easy as possible, even if your university or library policies are a bit convoluted.

I called a medical specialist's office to see why I still did not have an appointment, five weeks after my doctor faxed my records and called to make the appointment. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Hi! I'm just calling to follow up and see what I can do to expedite getting an appointment. I know you likely don't have anything open for months, I just want to get on your calendar. My doctor's office faxed my information and called five weeks ago, but I haven't heard anything back."
Receptionist: "Your doc office has to call and set it up."
Me: "They did. You said you were swamped and would get back to them. Your office hasn't."
Receptionist: "No, we always make the appointment when they call."
Me: "They've called your office weekly for 5 weeks to no avail. My nurse calls me to give me a report."
Receptionist: "That's not true, because it's not our policy."
Me: "Okay, I'm not sure where things went wrong. You have my file. My doc's office has called. Can you just give me a time slot?"
Receptionist: "No, your doc office has to call, and we give it to them, and they give it to you. You shouldn't call here; we can't help you."

She never even took my name.

I hung up frustrated and annoyed that my care has been delayed because of someone's failure to play ring-around-the-rosie phone tag. So, my doctor's office has to call you, and then they have to call me, even though you already have my file, know I'm a valid patient, and I'm already on the phone with you.

Frustration. Right now, I see this in academic library terms as "Well, you see, the copiers in the library aren't really the Library's; they belong to the Copy Office. And the Copy Office is actually located across campus. And you have to deliver them a paper form to get a $.10 refund for the copy that the machine mangled. And then you will be able to print the one page memo that is due in fifteen minutes. Here, let me get you a map so you know where to go, because we can't help you."

This is not good customer service. It is an explanation, and perhaps a helpful one in case this occurs again. But in the moment that the student needs one single copy/printout/whatever, does it really hurt us so much to make the damned copy ourselves? It costs us a piece of paper, a little ink, some extra flexing of decision-making muscle, and earns our user's gratitude and goodwill in return.

Telling me not to call the specialist's office, and that they can't help me...well, I'll tell you this: if you can't help me with what should be the easy part of just getting on the calendar, how the hell am I going to trust you with my medical care and records? Could you imagine if "You shouldn't call here; we can't help you" was standard customer service fare?

Had the receptionist sympathized with me, but noted the call-circle requirements were somehow medically necessary, I would have been *ecstatic* had she taken the initiative to call my doc's office, straighten whatever it is out and get me on the calendar. Instead, I was left with the feeling that the office was unhelpful at best, and rude at worst. Given that I run what is essentially a customer service department, I was affronted. I'll guiltily admit had a typical patron-who-had-a-bad-experience response: I wrote negative reviews of my experience and posted them wherever Google was collecting and publishing reviews of local doctor's offices. Turns out I'm not the only one who had this experience.

I called the only other specialist in the field in town, and had an extremely pleasant encounter with a receptionist that gave me a step-by-step explanation of how to get my doctor's office to get me in as quickly as possible. She took my name and said when the call came in, she would put me on the cancellation list immediately to get me in sooner. She invited me to call again if I had any other questions. I get the feeling this office will be a much better fit for me. I hope the doctor is as helpful as his office staff. I hope he appreciates the letter I've drafted commending him for hiring such warm, friendly, and helpful staff.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Anniversaries Galore: 10, 5, and 1 year

In the past month, I’ve had a birthday, a ten-year anniversary of my college graduation, a one-year anniversary of being in my latest position, and next month will be the five-year anniversary of getting my MLS.

In the ten years since graduating college, I’ve held 10 jobs, which included:

Manager of Dunkin’ Donuts
Research Assistant at Emory University
Staff at Coldstone Creamery
Manager of a corporate technology sales team at CompUSA<
Overnight supervisor of the University of Kentucky’s Access Services
Second shift Reference and Instruction staff at the University of Kentucky
Graduate Admissions Officer at SUNY StonyBrook’s Graduate School
Reference & Instruction Librarian at UTC
Assistant Head of Access & Delivery Services at the NCSU Libraries
Head of Access Services at UTC

Those last five positions were post-MLS. In the five years since I earned my MLS, I’ve worked in Kentucky, New York, Tennessee, North Carolina, and am now back in Tennessee. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to travel and present on library issues across the country, including North Carolina, Washington D.C., Kentucky, Georgia, Missouri, California, and soon Louisiana – and the professional friendships I’ve made and the librarians I’ve met have influenced me greatly. I surprised myself by leaving a reference and instruction job I loved – LOVED – to try my hand at some of the efficiency, management, and process issues in access services. (That was a move I had sworn I would never make, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.) My shift in librarianship from reference to access hasn’t lowered my interest in reference and instruction so much as it has really increased my interest in library administration and management issues.

Looking back at all of this, I see strengths and weaknesses. I appreciate the skill development. I know the CV that shows that 18 months tends to be my make or break point for any position may make folks look twice, though I’ve been both (1) lucky enough and (2) able to explain it well enough that it has not held me back in my career. I’ve found management to be a hard row to hoe sometimes, trying to figure out motivation, performance management, communication, and other issues that are part and parcel of that side of the job. I’ve helped staff move on to bigger and better things; I’ve also been through the grievance process after terminations. I constantly rediscover how difficult it is to manage and coach people who all have their own motivations, quirks, foibles, personal lives, tragedies, skill sets, initiative levels, and ideas about what makes good customer service. Occasionally I dream about having a job where I am responsible for only my own work, and not that of a disparate group of individuals. Mostly, I enjoy the challenge of trying to move everybody’s energy in the same direction. It helps that I have a great staff who feel a real ownership of the library and connection to our users; without my staff, this job would be no fun at all and I would not last long.

This year in particular, I’ve been dealing with some health issues that have forced me to be better about prioritizing my time. I am working on making a shift to focus largely on my home library (we’re dynamic and flexible and undergoing a huge amount of change between our ILS migration, new building, and reiterative organizational changes) and on my doctoral studies (which are leading to more publications but require time for reading and research writing). I plan to throttle back on my usually-hectic travel and presentation schedule. The throttling is gradual (I’ll be at ALA, Brick & Click, and Access Services through the end of the year), and I hate the idea of seeing far-flung colleagues less. On the other hand, I’m realizing some more realistic limitations on my energies, and I want to make sure my library gets the best of me. I also want to make space for more teaching opportunities, and I can’t do that the way my professional life is currently structured. This fall I’ll be teaching my first undergraduate course: a freshman seminar titled “Poetry and Myth-making.” I have also been invited to teach upper-level undergraduate courses in both the Political Science, English, and Women’s Studies departments. Though I’m not in reference and instruction anymore, teaching is one of the core reasons I joined the library profession, and I have the good fortune of a Dean who supports my wanting to keep a toe in the classroom – as long as I can do it without impacting my library work and without overextending myself.

Not quite five years out of the MLS, I head my own department full of great people – not something I would have predicted when I got the MLS, figuring it would take me 10-15 years to get to this point. I work at a library where all of us largely agree on our mission and vision, at a University experiencing interesting growth in terms of both enrollment and philosophy. I have wonderful mentors from coming up through librarianship who are happy to offer advice or a cheeseburger (or sometimes both). I have a great extended network of librarians in all areas who don’t mind my picking their brains for ideas, solutions, and general feedback.

All in all, I can look back on the five years since my MLS and be satisfied – if exhausted – by what I have accomplished. Not all of it was fun, and the road has been peppered by personal triumphs and minor tragedies, but on balance, I’m proud of what I have made and the career I've built. I can also say that one of the best decisions since graduating college ten years ago was to change direction and make librarianship my career.