PL Online’s Alex Lent Talks to Chuck Flaherty, retired director of Brookline (Mass.) Public Library
How/when did you become a library director? Can you walk us through your career?
I was a history major and got my MLS from Simmons [College]. I was hired as Adult Services librarian at the Framingham (Mass.) Public Library in October 1974, in charge of adult programming. When the assistant director left in the summer of 1976, I was promoted—I was in the right place at the right time. That fall, I wrote a grant application, and in December we received funding under the Public Works Employment Act to build a new main library. Two months later, the director then had a heart attack. I was twenty-six years old, acting director, and didn’t know which end of a hammer to point at the wall. Six months later, the director returned, but I remained heavily involved in the planning for the new facility. When she retired in 1981, I became director and served there until I left to become director in Brookline in 1993. I retired from Brookline two years ago and have had two interim-director assignments since then.
Did you ever consider leaving libraries?
At first I thought I might try something else, but after a few years, I was hooked.
What is the hardest part of being a library director?
Sometimes I felt very alone, especially when faced with a difficult decision. That’s when having an assistant director that you really trust is so important. I was blessed with a couple of great ones and was also lucky as my wife was a library director as well.
What is the best part of being a library director?
I always felt that what we were doing mattered, that it was important to the people we served, that we were contributing to people’s lives.
What was the first hard lesson you learned as a new library director?
That you can’t always say “yes” and that everyone isn’t always going to agree with you.
If you could go back in time and talk to yourself when you were just starting out as a director, what would you say?
Be more patient, and know that it is OK to fail once in a while, so long as you learn from it.
How was your second year as a library director different than your first? Your third different from your second? Is every year different?
Proposition 2.5, a tax limitation initiative, kicked in my first year as director, and I immediately had to lay off sixteen staff members and close a branch library… It had to get better after that.
Did you have a mentor (official or unofficial) when you were first starting out? What did you learn from them?
My BA is from Northeastern, which ran a cooperative education program. As a history major, I was fortunate to have a position at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Massachusetts Historical Society for three years. I admired the librarian, John Cushing. He did not hold an MLS, but he steered me away from a masters in history and to the [library and information sciences] program at Simmons. He cared deeply about what he did, and I wanted a job I would care about as much as he did his.
How do you juggle all the people—staff, patrons, trustees, friends, town government? Is there a certain priority you place on one versus another?
Patrons always have to come first, no matter what your number one priority is.
How do you prioritize all the tasks you have to do (e.g. staff supervision and support, budget, building)?
I always had a list going, but I am also something of a procrastinator. If a task was unpleasant, it sometimes got bumped to the next day.
How do you keep staff morale up?
Communication. I wrote memos, which later became e-mails, but I also talked to as many people as possible. I was never one to hide in my office. Keeping people in the loop is important. I was not as good at this as I wish I was, but I tried.
Do you have a particular management philosophy you identify with?
Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Many mornings I’d come in early and help with the unpacking of our network delivery, sometimes as many as a thousand items. It was work no one really wanted to do but vital to our operation. I think it important that staff know you value the effort it takes to make the wheels turn.
What’s the best way to prepare to be a library director?
I believe the most important skills and interpersonal qualities needed are learned from your family when you are young. Once you start working, do your best and always try to learn more. Try to view every challenge as an opportunity.
What suggestions do you have for continuing education?
Keep your eyes and ears open, and learn from your peers. Be honest with yourself about your weaknesses, learn from your mistakes, and find ways to improve. Get involved outside your library. It doesn’t have to be ALA, it can be something else. For me it was the Minuteman Library Network, our local consortia.
Are there any books or conferences that you think are absolutely essential?
Going to a national conference once a year is great if you can do it, but which one will vary from year to year.
Any additional words of advice for new or aspiring library directors?
Hire good people—it is the most important thing you will do. When deciding who to hire, look for people who gain satisfaction from going out of their way to be helpful. It doesn’t matter what level the job is, that one quality is what I have always felt was most important.
Save something for the big ones. If you fight too hard on every issue that isn’t going your way, people may not hear you when something is really important. If the board really wants to spend a few hundred dollars to have a float in the parade, but you’d rather use the money to buy books, sometimes you should just let it go. Save banging on the table for when it’s really important.