Podcast Episode: Advice for New Library Directors

The following is an informal of this episode of the Advancing America’s Libraries Podcast.

Julia: Today we're talking about "Advice for New Library Directors" with Michele Stricker. Michele is the Deputy State Librarian for the New Jersey State Library.

Pam: In addition to her many other responsibilities, Michele oversees Lifelong Learning for New Jersey Librarians which makes her eminently qualified to advise new library directors. Welcome, Michele!

The younger generation is stepping into leadership roles.

Pam: Michele, as you know, the profession has been aging. In fact, it used to be that people retired at 60 or 65. Five years ago we knew that one quarter of librarians were 65 or over, and we anticipated a huge group of retirements. It hasn't really happened for a variety of reasons, and librarians are working into their 70's and 80's. Has that been your experience in New Jersey?

Michele: We thought the big wave of retirements was going to come a decade ago, and we've been reading about this for a long time now. Here in New Jersey we have over 400 libraries. Everyone was wondering, "When is this going to hit us?" I think specifically it had to do with economic reasons. We had the big downturn, and people said, "I just have to work longer. I can't retire when I wanted to retire."

Now the other reason that I think we didn't see that earlier and, I think I can speak for a lot of librarians, it is a great job! It is a job that is interesting. It is a job you can do past what people think is a "normal" retirement age. It is a job that is fascinating, fun, keeps you and your brain engaged, and keeps you socially active with people in the community. I think it is a job people don't want to give up because they love it!

Julia: As these retirements began and the profession changes dramatically as younger generations of librarians and library directors come in, what do you think they are specifically bringing in terms of their skill sets? Are they different?

It's no longer all about the books. It's about the programming and being a community center.

Michele: They are different, and it's very exciting. I love millennials. I think they are going to save us all. Of course, they bring an entirely different mentality to the job. Librarians are pretty good at keeping up with the tech changes that are going on and what libraries should be doing in the community today. It's no longer all about the books. It's the programming and community center aspects that have come to the forefront. I find that the younger generation is much more interested in that. I'm not sure why. Maybe because of social media? They seem to bring a different kind of social skill set knowing that they want to try different things, they want to be out in their community, much more so than the library director who has been there for 30 years.

Julia: It sounds like what they lack in management experience they make up for in youthful enthusiasm, social skills sets, and a fresh perspective.

Michele: They do, but we really try to train them in management experience because that is, of course, a weak area.

In the beginning, focus on staff, trustees, and the community.

Julia: What would your three pieces of advice be for a new director?

Michele: I couldn't put it into one sentence, but I would say that the three pieces of advice would be focusing on your staff. There's a Part A and a Part B of that depending on whether you came up through the ranks or you are a brand new director. Then learning how to work with your trustees and your elected officials. And then focus on your community. The community piece is key to the success of your library.

Pam: So, let's unpack these, Michelle. Let's talk about the staff. You said there are two scenarios, one where someone has been there a while and one where they are brand new, right?

Michele: Exactly. These are two very different approaches that you are going to have to think about as you come into your role of director. If you are someone who came through the ranks, now, all of a sudden, you are the head of this organization, and your entire focus has to shift. You have to manage people who were on the same level as you were before. You are their boss.

If you are someone who came through the ranks, your entire focus has to shift.

Pam: Michele, I've heard from so many directors that this is their biggest challenge. Do you tell them that? How do you approach that conversation?

Michele: It's a conversation that can be reiterated in a memo. "Listen, there's going to be a different relationship between us now. It doesn't mean that we still aren't going to have staff luncheons, etc., but my focus has to change. I'm counting on you to understand that." Be forthright that there are some things to implement and a different approach to take. Then follow-up with a memo that the conversation had been a good one, and these are the points you want to emphasize going forward. Tell them a bit about your vision for the library then give it a few months so you get to know the people. You'll learn who's going to be on board with and be excited about possible changes that you might want to implement. You'll learn who's going to hang back and not participate, but not necessarily give you a hard time. There flat out may be people who will give you a hard time! But they can give you a hard time by not participating, too. By giving it a few months, you'll find out what particular interests staff have and what their fears are about change. 

Listen and learn before introducing big changes.

Julia: A phased approach to rolling out new ideas?

Michele: Yes, just don't come in and plow everything down. That's just not a good way to start.

Pam: So, it's staff, and then you've got trustees and elected officials?

Michele: Yes. Every state is different. For New Jersey, our municipal libraries comprise a vast number of libraries in the state. The mayor is required to be on the Board of Trustees and appoints all library trustees. The mayor's oath is first to the municipality then the library. The trustees take an oath to put the needs of the library first; however, it is the mayor appointing them. You have an idea of how the library can become somewhat politicized. The trustees are entirely responsible for hiring the library director. As a library director, the trustees are your boss and to whom you answer. You really need to know the tenor of the board. How long have the trustees been on the board? There are term limits, but they can be reappointed by the mayor every five years until infinity.

Julia: Hopefully there is some goodwill for the new library director if they have been appointed by the trustees--a show of confidence--so they are starting off on a positive note.

Michele: They are starting off very excited and the trustees are excited to have them; however, this is why we have a phone line to the State Library, and there are a couple of us here who answer library law questions. The trustees have different reasons for hiring different types of library directors because of their own vision for the library and the part they see the library playing in the community or collections or programming. You really need to get to know that. There is a political back and forth among the mayor, elected officials, the council, and the town in regard to the vision of the library. It can be overwhelming for a brand new director to navigate this landscape where the trustees are their bosses. The director's job is to answer to the trustees and to educate the trustees on library law among different issues.

Pam: Is there an advantage to this in that they can get to know the trustees one by one. What is the strategy here?

Michele: The strategy would be to hang back a little with the trustees, just like you do with the staff, to learn the lay of the land and the politics of the trustee board. You may have trustees who have been on the board for many years and new trustees who are coming in. Just like you as the new library director, they come in with a lot of fresh ideas. Younger trustees may want to change things that can be unsettling to long-time trustees who like things the way they are. You need to learn what your trustees are expecting from you, what their vision is for the library, and how you can bring a variety of visions together. You'll advise them on trends in libraries and bring a lot of information to their attention. If you see that they're not following the library rules, you'll advise them of library best practices–but always diplomatically! Your job is to educate them.

Just hang back for a little bit.

Julia: Sounds like a balancing act? If there are two things we know about humans is that they hate change and they hate being told what to do.

Michele: You can see that it is a difficult position in which the new library director finds themselves. Which is why I recommend, "Just hang back for a little bit."

Everything you do you have to do for the community.

Julia: Staff and trustees are about personalities at the individual level. What about focusing on the community which is more macro level?

Michele: I like to say, "The library is not yours, it's theirs. It belongs to the community." Everything you do you have to do for the community in response to the community's needs and what it is asking for.

Every community is different and has different needs. From book and material selections to programming to outreach into the community, everything must be done with the community's needs in mind. That means the library director and trustees need to get out of the library and find out who is in the community and who is not being served? You already know who's coming into the library, and they will let you know what they want and need. But you will miss so many people if you don't get out of your office. This community research will be the main section of the strategic plan. You have to find out who these people are by any means whether having focus groups, holding meetings in multiple locations, doing phone surveys, using social media or going into communities where you don't speak the same language. This is the most important thing to me. And this is why I like some of the younger librarians—they bring the services out to these communities not being served in the library. 

You will miss so many people if you don't get out of your office. You have to find out who these people are...This is the most important thing.

Pam: To me that is especially needed with such a diverse population as New Jersey.

Michele: The most diverse state!

Pam: The new library director has to get out and talk face-to-face...

Julia: Especially if they are new to that community!

Michele: In doing a lot of work with emergency management personnel, it's been fascinating. I had an emergency manager say to me, "You know you have to think about if you're going to be serving the community after a disaster." For example, Asian communities don't keep a lot of food on hand because they shop fresh every day. Who would have thought about that? You would have a community of people who would right away run out of food after a disaster. If you knew your community and their needs, you already would know. That's why I think it's the most important thing to do--get out in the community and discover the more hidden ones.

Julia: You don't know what you don't know!

The job of library director is fun, fascinating hard work but very rewarding.

Pam:  Michele, this has been really helpful. Before we say goodbye, anything else you would like to say to a brand new library director?

Michele: For a brand new library director, this is one of the most exciting and rewarding fields you can work in. I think the job of library director is fun, fascinating hard work but very rewarding. I couldn't picture myself doing anything else. I felt I was helping people and a part of the community. People would actually return books to the front door of my house! Right now is exciting for what libraries are doing. And sometimes it's also scary because now we have programming such as managing active shooter situations, handling mental health crises, administering Narcan, etc.

Take a chance if you have the opportunity to move up into the position of library director. Give it a shot, and I think you will find it rewarding. Just give yourself some breathing space when you first get the position and learn the ropes first. People in New Jersey and other states can always call the State Library for support. You are not alone when navigating some of the trickier aspects.

Pam: Thank you so much, Michele, for being with us. Always a pleasure!

Michele: Thank you, Pam and Julia. Nice to talk to you both again!

Ivy Takeaways

Pam: It was great that Michele could give us so much time because she is a very busy person. I'm hoping we can have her back some time.

Julia: I'd love to have her back to talk about emergency preparedness. There's a whole episode right there!

Pam: I like the idea that she recognized the difference between someone who is "new-new" and somebody who is "old-new". That always has been my experience. It is harder to go into a new role with people with whom you've worked for years.

Julia: I just like that she said, "Millennials are going to save us all." As a millennial who has apparently "destroyed our world", we're coming to save it! To your point, millennials are in a tricky situation when they come in as friends and now they are the boss. How do they navigate that?

Pam: There are also the age differences and generational issues. I like the fact that Michelle is also so dedicated to the community input. There's nothing like walking the sidewalks and getting to know people face-to-face. A lot of librarians are joining civic organizations and listening closely to what is happening in their communities.

Julia: Something we didn't talk about during the episode was that throughout the strategic planning process one of our recommended methodologies is do executive interviews with community leaders. Michelle talked about boots on the ground, focus groups, surveys, etc. but we didn't touch on forming personal connections with community leaders. As important as it is to establish relationships with your staff and trustees, it is also important to get out early to form those connections with the movers and shakers throughout the community.

Pam: I agree. And Michele's advice to new directors is advice to ALL directors. It's so easy to become so busy with our day-to-day work that we don't get out enough, but there's never a better time than when you're brand new.

Julia: There is also tension between the need to sit back, observe, listen and get the lay of the land and the expectations from trustees that the director will start delivering.

Pam: That is why communication is so important. Michele talked about one-on-one conversations but also following up with a memo. I don't think there's anything that can take the place of honest communication. "Here's where we are. Here's where I anticipate us being." If you don't deliver, you need to able to explain to trustees what is happening.

Julia: I agree. Explain your strategy, "Yes, I still plan to do these things, but here is the phased approach I'm going to take and why it is necessary."

Pam: There's nothing wrong with a lighter touch. Enjoy the time you have as a new library director and share that joy with your staff and trustees. A new director coming in should be cause for celebration.

Julia:  As Michele said, "Hang in there. You're not alone!"

Advancing America's Libraries Podcast episode on advice for new library directors with Michele Stricker