Being a Library Director: What’s it all about?

My philosophy is the more you are outside the library, the better it is for the library.

Being a library director isn’t always what it may seem to others. For me it has been one of the most rewarding positions, but it moves way beyond work in the library. If you have any interest in this type of role, and I hope you are, I’ll share my experiences from my current position in a California community college.

The Environment

Santa Barbara City College is a community college located in the central coast region of California. We have the equivalent to just under 8k full time students (which comes to slightly over 20k students). Roughly 10% of our students enroll in online classes. The library has experienced a significant transformation in the last four years and has become one of the key places on campus where students congregate. We have increased library visits by 80% and roughly a quarter of the students are in the library on a daily basis. Online services have increased along with the physical changes in the library. In the library, we talk, we share, we learn, we grow.

Luria Library was recently commended by the regional accrediting visiting team:

The team commends the Luria Library and Cartwright Learning Resources Center for its extensive use of innovative communication technology, wikis, blogs, webpages, instant messaging by library faculty to reach out and provide services to students and enhancing student engagement through partnership with faculty and the development of directed learning activities that extend classroom instruction to the tutorial environment.

All this work is accomplished by one of the best employee groups I’ve worked with in my career. We have five classified library staff who keep the library operating and four full time librarians who staff the reference desk, provide class instruction, and develop the collection. The library director is one of those four librarians. Four of the nine staff have been working here for over 25-years.

Library Director Role

In my experience, the most important aspect to good leadership is keeping an open door and having the ability to listen. To really listen. So much of a manager’s time is consumed with people issues – whether they be employees, students, or a colleague from across campus.

This philosophy of leadership does require one to let go of outcomes and time. It means not always knowing how the day will unfold and being OK with that ambiguity. As it turns out, it pays back very well and people appreciate the approach. Naturally, there are days when I am “not in the mood” or when deadlines are approaching and something needs to be produced, but most of the time this approach works well.

The downside to this approach is that when deadlines are approaching I will be working at home or coming in early to finish the work. This is a price I’m willing to pay to be available to people and make the Luria Library a key player in student success.

The other aspects of being a library director that you need to embrace are meetings and paperwork (reports, proposals, budgets, etc.). It’s the paperwork that is least satisfying for me but meetings I can, and do, enjoy.

Meetings are a good illustration of how my philosophy of being outside the library plays out on my campus.

I am the Chair of the Committee on Online Instruction, I serve as a student services representative on the faculty Academic Senate, I am the Academic Senate liaison to four other campus committees (Planning & Resources; Facilities, Parking, and Safety; Financial Aid; and, Academic Policies), and I participate on the two campus technology committees.

Because of my active role on campus, I am currently serving on four faculty tenure review committees (in addition to three library faculty) and am filling in this year as the Chair of the American Ethnic Studies department. These outside functions would not happen if I was not active outside the library already. These activities take time, but it is a great honor and it also means I get to sit inside other people’s classes and see them at their best.

Marketing is Everything

In each of the situations outside the library, I have the opportunity to represent the library. I am a walking billboard for the library in how I present myself, conduct my business, support others on campus, and contribute to in governance activities of the college.

As a result, people know who I am and what the library can do for them and their students. Faculty are more likely to ask us into their classes and more likely to send students to the library because the personal connection has been made, even if the faculty member never stepped foot inside the library.

What more can be done?

Because we are a small staff, I work at the reference desk for one hour a day and monitor (with others) the instant message and text message services on an ongoing basis. I respond to all questions submitted through our Get Satisfaction account.  I teach a dozen library instruction sessions during the semester. These activities allow me to keep in touch with the students and the work they are doing in classes.

Periodically I spend time reviewing collection development resources (Library Journal, Booklist, etc.) and make recommendations for materials to add. Usually my requests don’t get denied. (smile)

When I took the position of Library Director, I was the Technology Librarian at SBCC. Because I saw a need for transformation in the library, I proposed that my technology position not be replaced and that we look for someone who can function as an Outreach Librarian. The administration agreed and we hired an excellent new librarian to outreach to the community. Of course, that means that the technology needs and initiatives fall back on me since I have the interest and the skill set. Therefore, I continue to maintain current and active in the tech community and bring forward new ideas for the library to explore and implement. Even if you don’t have to take a critical role with technology in your library, all library directors should be well versed in technology and be aware of what is happening in the field. This cannot be ignored in the 21st century. Period.

As a library director, you have to be willing to serve on boards outside your immediate campus. In doing so, you can stay current with the wider library community as well as help guide new programs and initiatives coming through other organizations. In some cases, this is money out of my pocket because in these fiscal times the college is not able to support all the travel required for board work. Despite this limitation, it is a rewarding experience and puts the Luria Library on the map outside our limited campus community.

Check out my calendar for October – these are only those items officially scheduled; it doesn’t count the drop-in visits. There is much more to say and share (like the classes I teach), but I think this gives you a flavor of diversity in the job.

What do you need to be a successful library director?

  • willingness to play
  • willingness to make mistakes (and admit to them)
  • willingness to listen
  • enjoy people
  • enjoy meetings
  • ability to communicate, both written and verbal
  • willingness to go outside the library (and be an evangelist for the library)

Are you still interested in being a library director? What questions or concerns do you have? Are you a library director? What’s been your experience?

  • fredila

    I'm exhausted.

    Good job.

    Fred

  • fredila

    I'm exhausted.

    Good job.

    Fred

  • Well done Kenley. I think this is a good synopsis of what it takes to be a library director, and it sounds quite similar to my experience of nearly ten years of directing at Philadelphia University. I always enjoyed being available to everyone in our community, and I didn't even mind the complainers because I looked forward to the opportunity to fix what was broken or turn the complainers into supporters. But I agree entirely that as the director you are the physical representation of the library. It is also important to be a technologist as you suggest because it is vital for the library director to position the library as a technology leader – particularly in the ed tech area. It was at PhilaU that my ideas about blended librarianship first emerged because we had to blend in those skills with our library work – no one else on campus was leading in this area. I would add one other important thing to your fine description. Vision. I think if you want to be a library director – even before you start applying for positions – you should have in your mind a vision of what you think a college library should be and what it should bring to that academic community. It doesn't have to be exact because you will need to tailor it to that institution. But you should, I think, have a sense of what you think libraries need to do to support the community and help them achieve success. It may be about technology, it may be about strong collections, it may be about building relationships. It doesn't matter what it is – but it has to be your vision that you'll be able to concisely articulate to the community. Because when you are the library director, I think the rest of the community and the staff are looking to you to be the guiding light – to bring the vision and move the library in that direction.

    One last thing. I agree it is critical to be outside the library and active on campus (committees, going to events, just walking across campus, etc). But it is equally important to be off-campus visiting other libraries and meeting other directors and librarians. You can't do that all the time for good reasons you mention (like deadlines and paperwork), but for getting new ideas and inspiration and being able to come back with an outsider's view of your library – getting out to other libraries is very important – libraries of any size – not just the ones similar to your own. I hope more would -be directors will read this.

  • Thank you for the additional analysis and ideas. The inclusion of vision was an oversight, but clearly important for this position.

    As you know, visiting other locations when the staff is small can be a challenge. Sometimes I just need to rely on the professional literature to keep me abreast to what other libraries are doing.

  • Julie

    I have been a media specialist for 13 years in a public school.  I recently interviewed for a public library director position and am going to a second interview in two weeks.  Can you comment on how you see these two positions in comparison to one another, despite the obvious, like summers off! Thank you!

  • Hi Julie – I may not be the best person to respond because I haven’t worked in a public library before and it’s been 10-years since I worked in a school environment. Good luck with your interview and decision. 

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