the things we can’t discuss

Being an administrator can be deeply alienating. You’re responsible for people, for money, for a community, for services, for the success of all of those… and you’re the only one. You’re still a part of your professional cohort, but you’re not, really. I’m a librarian, but I’m not, really. I’m a part of the team, but I’m not, really. I have a group of colleagues, but I don’t, really.

Part of that originates in the truth that there are so many things I can’t talk about. Even more things that I can’t write about. For example, in the last ten days I’ve been doing the following oblique vague things:

  • worked with [redacted] on a letter about [redacted] requesting [redacted], and bit my nails in nervousness over directly contacting someone who is [redacted]
  • considered and worked through my emotional reactions to having the [redacted] project reassigned to [redacted] after [redacted], and managed and responded to the reactions of the team over [redacted]
  • met with the [redacted] department and was blindsided by the [redacted] discussed in the meeting, then worked with [redacted, redacted, and redacted] to respond to and counter what we learned
  • edited a white paper by [redacted] about [redacted] and bit my nails in nervousness over how my radical changes would be received by someone who is [redacted]
  • wrote a letter in support of [redacted] for [redacted] and then was inspired to think about succession planning in light of our budget and staffing situation

Those were all time-consuming and important and emotionally laden and real and meaningful. I also can’t tell you any more about any of them. I’d love to. Each has an essay buried in it, about my experiences as a library leader, as an administrator, as a member of a campus community, as someone struggling with harsh fiscal realities that compete with her ideals… but there’s so much I can’t say. So much I can’t discuss in public, outside my office, away from my desk, with anyone who isn’t privy to the original situation. Those communication restrictions aren’t because of anything other than my own sense of confidentiality, professional propriety, and appropriate relationship management. As Cone of Silence is just the right thing to do. And so I can’t talk about them, and I can’t write about them, and how on earth could anyone understand my experience or my mental state or the nuance of my work, when I can’t tell you a damn thing about any of them?

It makes it hard. It makes it lonely.

I’m not sure what my point is, really, or how to close this. I’m not whining. I don’t mind this life, or this job, or these tasks. I chose them, I strive to be good at them, and I am glad of what I do. I value my work and my job and my life. The need for confidentiality and circumspection is just a part of the gig, and I respect and value that. I’m just having a moment in which I have so much to say, and my ability to say it is so muffled I’m not at all sure where to go next.



  1. As always – thanks for sharing what you can! Lack of transparency and our inability (as inherently social beings) to frankly discuss and share things that impact our profession and might help others learn and make better decisions (and perhaps more importantly, to have people perceive/react to those discussions calmly and logically) is, in my mind, a major issue facing all of us in higher ed and librarianship.

    But please keep sharing as much as possible and don’t let the CIA/NSA-style secrecy environment we now find ourselves in generally dissuade you from fighting against it whenever possible!


  2. This is the thing nobody tells you about moving into the captain’s chair, or if they do tell you it isn’t as real as when you do move to administration. It’s the difference between being friendly and being friends.

    Thank you, once again, Jenica.


  3. This was the thing I found most difficult about moving into management. I thought it would be hard to supervise my friends because of the new power dynamic, but we actually worked through that pretty quickly. What I didn’t expect was how much I would have to hold my tongue for legal and/or ethical reasons, and how much that affected my ability to relate to and engage with my friends and co-workers around work-related issues. When people see reticence, they become reticent themselves. And then suddenly you’re trying to make decisions with a lot less information about what’s really going on in your organization. It’s very hard, and very lonely. I’ve been working to develop my peer group outside of my own organization – there’s still a lot I can’t talk about, but at least my peers understand WHY I can’t talk about it and we can share frustrations about our inability to talk.


  4. Yes this; all this. The number of times I heard “and they are doing nothing about this” when I took weeks of attention and time away from my wife and kids to deal with said “this” is very very depressing and as an administrator, there it is often the case where you cannot defend yourself against rumours and such. I really like transparency, but having been on the other end of such demands for said transparency, it can be very difficult. The inevitable foibles of co-workers becomes pornography for the mob. And frequently, the loudest mobsters are the ones who should be more focussed on foibles of their own.


    • Well said Ryan! I guess there will always be an inherent tension between managers and those they manage, as well as between transparency, privacy/security and the inevitable clash of egos, even in the philosophically open access world of libraries. As Genesis perhaps suggest above, however, when leaders don’t strive to share as much as possible, especially about organizational decisions and assessment of those decisions (which, in my experience as part of the managed, doesn’t happen nearly enough), efficiency, good decision making, and morale are often the victims.

      I’m not advocating for absolute transparency, but there is always room for improvement in the way any organization or profession communicates internally. For that to improve, leaders and managers need to set the tone. Jenica seems to be a great role model for leaders being as transparent as humanly possible in the unenviable and often thankless position of having to make tough decisions as to what to share and with whom.

      In my own stint as a library ‘manager’ I erred on the side of sharing/confiding too much (along with other misjudgements and foibles), and I paid a price for that. But still, I’d probably do the sharing as much as possible part pretty much the same…


      • I still believe in transparency as a goal and an ideal, but now I know much better just how hard (and sometimes impossible, if you want to stay on the right side of the law) it can be. I’ve shared the same frustrations as Ryan, knowing that my decisions or actions were being criticized, and being unable to defend myself. I think that’s why it’s so important to build trust with your team – ideally you get to a point where your employees know you will tell them as much as you can, and they will give you the benefit of the doubt when you can’t. But there will always be some unfair criticism and you just have to live with that.


  5. Balancing maximum transparency and necessary confidentiality while developing an atmosphere of trust is very difficult and requires continual fine tuning. In my 25 years as a library director I told my staff that I would, to the best of my ability, share information and answer any question about anything that was going on, except when it dealt with individual personnel matters. I managed to stick to that pretty well, and it became easier over the years, particularly as the people I worked with came to believe that I would actually live up to what I said. People quite naturally and understandably are suspicious about bosses. They assume that the big decisions are made behind closed doors and that their own interests are probably not a factor in that decision-making. It can take a long time to overcome that and to prove oneself as a leader worth trusting.

    It requires a great deal of tact and attention to timing. Everything that you say, when you’re the leader, carries tremendous weight. People are continually parsing everything you say, trying to figure out what’s behind it. It is extremely easy to hurt people’s feelings, to be misunderstood, or to create inaccurate expectations, for good or ill. And you may not realize that something very inaccurate is out in the grapevine until much damage has been done.

    The natural tendency is then to hold back, to self-censor, and to be very careful with what one shares. But in my experience this is almost always a bad idea. In the absence of true information, the rumor mill will generate its own and it will usually feed into what people are most anxious about. The only antidote is to share often and consistently and to acknowledge one’s own uncertainties and one’s own lack of clarity when things are ambiguous. At the same time you must never lose sight of the potential negative impact and potential misunderstandings of everything that you say. I never opened my mouth without considering how what I was going to say might be misconstrued.

    And I had an ironclad rule never to discuss what was going on in the library on my blog. Way too easy for somebody on the staff to read more into something than I intended and to come to erroneous conclusions.

    It can be a very lonely place to be in and, as Jessica says, you can’t really appreciate it until you’ve been there. My salvation was the network of directors, some of whom became good friends, that I could let down with and get insights and support from.


  6. Yep. Another director told me when I started my job that no one else on campus would understand my job, exactly. It is a lonely job. Often.


  7. The confidentiality can be a challenge, especially in a small library. I was promoted in my previous job and continued to do some of my old responsibilities which made me feel very much a part of the team and a librarian. In my new position I just arrived and I have a different administrative role so my relationship with the library faculty is different and I struggle every day with what you describe at the beginning of your post. It is a kind of identity crisis for me. I AM a librarian (but not really).


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