questions about library leadership

I’m a member of a SUNY Council of Library Directors task force on leadership, and my fellow task forcers and I had a conference call on Friday to talk about our next steps. The problem statement we all agree on is that we need to nurture library leadership and management talent from within the SUNY system, but that we have wildly varying local approaches and resources for that. So, can we create something centralized? We’re batting around ideas, and having a good time doing it. And then we started talking about doing a survey in conjunction with social sciences faculty at one of our campuses, and so we started posing questions we want answers to. Like,

What leadership skills do library directors think librarians need to build?

or, the flipside,

What leadership skills do librarians want to build?

and on in that vein.

And then I posed my question, which I think we all agreed didn’t belong in this survey, but which I still think is fascinating and needs an answer. My question is this: Knowing that too many SUNY library director searches were closed, postponed, extended, failed, or ended with an internal hire when it was clear there was an initial desire for an external hire, why is this happening? I think there are several possible issues at play:

These are guesses: SUNY wants to attract top talent, but there isn’t enough talent interested in management roles to fill our (many) searches. SUNY wants to attract top talent, but doesn’t pay enough to seal the deal when it does. SUNY’s reputation in some way damages our ability to attract the talent we want. The locations of many SUNYs (rural, charming, RURAL) prevent candidates from applying, so what we want in regards to talent is irrelevant.

There’s a demographic issue I also want to explore, namely: In 2012, is there a dearth of first-career librarians in the 40-55 age group, ie, the folks who would be ripe for top management positions? If not, is there a trend in that group’s attitudes toward management that would explain low and/or unsatisfying leadership candidates and pools of applicants?

And then there’s the thing I wonder about most often:  Are library search committees demanding a unicorn when a horse would serve admirably, and thus ignoring the really fine horses in the pool?

I wonder. I wonder if we want perfection, if we want the impossible, if we want innovation and deep experience and a sense of humor and a perfect institutional fit but not so perfect that you don’t shake things up a bit and outgoing but not too aggressive and empathetic but with broad personnel management chops and a history with budget management and also information literacy and reference and cataloging and, I dunno, moon landings.

I wonder.

But then, maybe I’m way off base. Maybe we’re asking for fine horses and getting goats. I haven’t run one of these, nor seen the pool, nor interviewed applicants. But I wonder.

And it occurs to me that if anyone’s gonna do the research, maybe it needs to be the person doing the wondering.


  1. What a fascinating set of questions. I think there are a few issues:

    1. We don’t do (much) succession planning in libraries. Talent should be identified and nurtured. That doesn’t mean you have to always hire that person if the job above him/her opens up, but it means that you do have a fall back — as well as a person who might be ready to take on responsibility somewhere else.

    2. In public services in particular, there tend to be a lot of front line folks and not as many managers, and it’s hard to get the experience you need to move up, and most management positions in libraries require some supervisory experience. It’s a catch-22: how can you require experience you’re not providing to your own people at the lower level?

    3. We want unicorns. People moving to new jobs are usually trying to move up, and often search committees are looking for folks who have already done the job or something very similar to it. At some point, you have to take a risk and let someone move up when they don’t have all the experience you wish they had.

    4. Things are tough in this economy when you’re trying to hire folks who already have jobs. These are people who may own a house and who may be married/partnered with a working spouse/partner. So they fear they won’t be able to sell their house, and spouse won’t be able to find a new job. We’ve seen this in a few cases at my institution.

    I think there are lots of potential leaders out there who are being overlooked. I know a lot of great folks who are craving management experience and opportunities. Library leaders need to do a better job of identifying potential at all levels and getting folks the experience they need to move up.


  2. Great set of questions. Another question I would add is why so many institutions seem to prefer external leadership hires.

    You are a great example of an internal hire. While certainly every institution would not have someone like you already on staff, those that do often overlook the talent that is right there, or discourage that talent from even applying. Why can’t libraries and universities do more of what successful businesses do and train their own?


  3. I think I’m an example of that opposite side, as I am in the age range of what would usually be considered management material, but I have been actively avoiding it. Dealing with the personnel issues that are inevitable in management work is NOT something I want to do. Plus I love the cataloging that is my actual work and I would hate to give it up for management.


  4. Really cool. I find all of this (and the conversations going on in other social media about this post) totally fascinating. There’s something here, clearly — the good reasons why people don’t want a management role, the institutional and individual responsibility for mentoring talent, and some bigger questions about why people are drawn to our profession. Thanks for your thoughts!


  5. I think it’s a unicorn problem. I’ve had 9 campus interviews in the past two years. No offers, no information could be elicited regarding what I could improve on the next time around. 4 of the 9 searches have been failed searches.


  6. As a former director who found myself involuntarily back in the job market last year, I can say from recent experience that the problems you mention are not unique to SUNY. The rural problem (I call it the “Green Acres” problem) is especially acute. I don’t know an easy answer to that. Small-town life in the middle of nowhere can be a very hard sell, regardless of the salaries and benefits offered. It’s just not for everyone.

    As it happens, I applied for a directorship at a SUNY institution late last year. Three months later I received an invitation for an interview. By that time I had found a job (just in time, too—those bills don’t pay themselves). After informing the search chair (not a librarian, if that matters) that I had found work elsewhere, he wrote, “It’s a fact that we lose good candidates because of all the rules we have in SUNY. They slow down the process considerably so other, more nimble employers can snatch up the promising applicants.” I appreciated his candor, something I found in short supply throughout my search. And he makes a good point that hasn’t been mentioned yet. Too often the search process itself is excruciatingly slow for everyone involved, sometimes but not always for reasons beyond our control. It does not send a good signal.


  7. Jenica,

    I really enjoy your thoughtful posts about everything.

    I’m a many-career previous to being a librarian between 40 to 55. I think that there actually is a dearth of first careerers who are interested or have the skills for management positions.

    Many of the librarians I have worked who are first careerers have few leadership/management skills in the workplace due to the bureaucratic nature of libraries (public libraries in particular). But I also know I probably will be passed over for leadership jobs because I’m a “newer” librarian.

    To be frank, running a library is not rocket science if you have management and leadership skills from a previous career. All of my previously developed skills plus my library school education work well together in the job I do. And I am training my assistant librarian (college library staff of 2) to run the joint because it is important for librarians to have business skills. Half of what I do is sales and the other half is wading through the fragile personalities of an academic atomosphere. So really hiring a first careerer vs. a multiple careerer should be out of the equation.

    I believe it is my responsibility as a library manager to train & provided professional development to my (huge:) professional staff. I have not found this attitude from the first careers I have worked with, yet. They were more interested in the “indoctrination” process of shelving books and cleaning up vomit than listening to new ideas or fostering professional growth. This may be why there are few first careeres who are qualified to be leaders.

    Unfortunately my institution does not value professional development so I have to do much of this educating on my own. I cobble together professional development resources from my past (politics, project management, budgeting, research) with the wonderful amount of free open information that long term librarians who care about the profession provide – such as this blog.

    Again, keep up the good blogging and I will keep reading.



  8. I don’t think many people go to library school because they want to get into management. This is fine if your library schools are full of 20 year olds. However they’re not they’re full of people of all ages and lots of us are old (I myself am 44). This is great if like Cranky you have management related skills from other jobs not so great if you don’t (like me) and are already old (ie only 20 odd years for a career vs 45 years). It just doesn’t leave very much time for job experience to accumulate and lead towards management or for stability in management once us old people get there… of course maybe I’ll be working until I’m 80 and the point is mute…


  9. I’m a bit behind on some of my blog reading, so I just stumbled across this.

    I am a relatively recent library grad. I am 30. I have been working in libraries since my firs job at 15, with a short break as an English instructor abroad. I have several years of managerial experience as a staff person.

    Apparently, none of that qualifies me for any management position in a library, at least at the professional level, as my previous library experience is not as a professional librarian.

    To me, that says there is something wrong with the library world.


  10. I saw this off the interwebs at some point in the past year:

    “In the creative side of high tech, this is why so many managers loathe HR; they know that the best people for the job will have to learn/create some large part of it, because nothing quite like it exists out there now; HR insists that they can’t hire at that level unless the person can prove they’ve already been doing the job for N years. “Sorry, Dr. Oppenheimer, but we distinctly advertised for a nuclear bomb builder with managerial experience, and you’ve never built a nuclear bomb or run anything with more than 10 employees.” “Sorry, Dr. Fermi ….”


  11. I have quite a bit of the experience in this job ad, but I am sure I will be passed over because I am not under 30 years old (more like 50ish). The job is only 4 mornings per week, yet they want someone with experience in all the major categories of library work (Cataloging/Acquisitions); Collection Development; Reference & Instruction; Circulation and they want you to write articles too! No indication what the pay might be. Thing is, the hours are perfect. I cannot believe they want someone to do all this in only 16 hours per week.


    The Position: (You gotta be kidding me!!!)

    The Librarian performs professional duties related to providing library collections and services for the University community. This is a part time position. The schedule will be 4 mornings a week, 8:30 am to approximately 12:30 pm.


    •Perform library Collection Development and Collection Management tasks including but not limited to:
    ◦Select library materials for acquisition – physical and electronic monographic and serial materials, databases, websites, etc.
    ◦Monitor library materials expenditures
    ◦Develop approval plans
    ◦Implement electronic reserves services
    ◦Monitor product and service interfaces and making adjustments as warranted
    •Guide Library patrons in the use of library resources and research by:
    ◦Provide one-on-one reference service in person, via phone, email, “ask” service, texting, chat, and/or other developing technologies or modes of communication
    ◦Teach library classes
    ◦Create guides to library research
    ◦Develop content for library web pages
    •Perform cataloging and metadata services for library materials both physical and electronic
    •Train cataloging support staff and review their work
    •Ensure the integrity of the OPAC
    •Participate in study, analysis and review of developments in the cataloging and metadata fields and contribute to departmental decisions regarding their implementation
    •Plan utilization of library space, facilities and projects
    •Stay current with developments in the library profession, research trends and methods and modes of scholarly communication
    •Exhibit initiative in promoting the integration of new approaches and technologies into the University’s library services
    •Engage in research and professional activities such as publication, lectures, participation in library organizations and meetings, etc.
    •Perform other related duties as assigned
    •Interface with students, faculty, staff and visitors
    •Interact with Library staff members, staff in other University departments, vendors and library systems support services
    •Advise beginners as well as advanced graduate students and academics on matters related to scholarship and research, which requires independent motivation, judgment and professionalism


    Experience and Educational Background:
    •Master’s Degree in Library Science and related experience
    •Hebrew language skills preferred

    Skills and Competencies:
    •Excellent grasp of library principles, processes, software, technology and resources
    •Ability to learn new techniques and adapt to new paradigms
    •Expertise in at least one academic discipline
    •Excellent listening and communications skills
    •Customer service demeanor and patience when dealing with patrons
    •Accuracy, thoroughness, precision, ability to focus on detail without losing sight of the big picture
    •Should project a positive attitude about the Library and the University when interacting with Library patrons
    •Self-discipline and judgment are essential as work will often be performed in the absence of a supervisor


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