by Doug Crane – Director of Palm Beach County (FL) Library System, firstname.lastname@example.org
WHAT DO LIBRARY DIRECTORS DO? The answer to this question may seem self-evident, but it is actually a lot more complicated than it first appears. When I became the director of the Palm Beach County (FL) Library System five years ago, I interviewed experienced directors to learn as much as possible so I could grow into the position. I used the wisdom I gained to write “May I Ask You a Question: Interviews with Library Leaders,” which was published in the November/December 2015 issue of Public Libraries. That article summarizes many key areas that interviewees advised library directors to focus on, such as politics, budgets, and staffing.
After gaining several years of experience, I still wanted to learn more from my colleagues across the country. So in spring 2018, I put a call out to the Urban Library Council director listserv asking for volunteers. This request resulted in an overwhelming response from directors who agreed to participate in the project. This article summarizes the results of the interviews.
The position of public library director is unique in the profession. To begin with the classic line from the movie Highlander, “there can only be one” in any organization. Being at the top, their daily decisions can have huge ramifications across their library systems. Directors must wear many hats and carry heavy responsibilities to provide their communities with traditional and cutting-edge services and resources. To fully understand the role, it is important to hear from individuals who currently serve in that capacity.
For simplicity, I use the term “director” or “library director” throughout the article, even when directors’ actual title differ slightly.
Scope of Interviews
The majority of interviews took place between April and December 2018, with a few occurring in 2017. They were conducted either in person or via telephone. Fifty library directors volunteered to participate in this project, they are listed in table 1.
Types of Organizational Structures
Library directors from this cohort work within five governing structures. The quasi-independent category comprises a group of libraries with governing boards that are not the local city council or county commission, but are affiliated with them. For example, the director may report to a board of trustees appointed by the mayor, which has the power of the purse strings, and the library staff are considered city employees. See table 2 for a breakdown of library directors per organization type.
Total Years in Their Current Positions
In total, these directors have served in their current roles for 313 years. Five were in their first year of their current position, while ten had served a decade or more. The average for the group was 6 years.
Total Years as a Library Director
These individuals have a combined 501 years of service as library directors. two were in their first year, while three had more than 30 years of experience. The average for the group was 9.6 years of service.
First Jobs in Libraries
I asked the cohort for their first professional library position. I was surprised to learn that several started as directors, typically in small towns. A few jumped from entirely different careers into running a library system. See table 3 for a look at library director job backgrounds.
Average Number of Branches
These directors run systems as small as a single location to as large as 87 branches. The average system size was 21 locations, with the most common range being 6-10 locations.
Average Size of Budget in Millions
The smallest operating budget was $4 million and the largest was $165 million. The average budget size was $41 million, and the most common range was $11-20 million.
Average Staff Size
Staffing sizes ranged from 55 positions up to 1,700 positions. The average staff size was 443 positions, and the most common range was 200-300 positions.
The Q & A
What would you like to have known or what skill set would you like to have had, before becoming a library director?
Overwhelmingly, the top two responses to this question were politics and budgets. This result is fitting because the two are deeply intertwined: budgets must be approved by governing bodies, which are political in nature. Many directors were surprised at the political nature of the role and had to learn to interact with elected officials.
“I had to learn the politics and navigating political waters. I needed to be flexible and responsive while remaining a strong advocate for libraries. To do so, I learned politician’s agendas and how to align them with the library.”
“The library director job wasn’t anything like I thought it was going to be. I had no idea how incredibly political the job is and how much time and energy would be spent on strategic relationships and stakeholders. Most of my work is outside of the building.”
“Understanding board member relationships (between themselves and others) and how to manage them would have been helpful early on. Now I am always looking for ways to connect elected officials to the library.”
“The main thing is the political process. In my case there is no doubt that if I had made the point to my past director, I would have gotten more experience. I was very aware of our director’s behavior in how she handled things internally, but was not aware of the outward focus.”
One director was coached on this aspect before she started.
“The past director gave great advice. It was to reach out to every elected official and leader in the area to set up time to meet with them. My board members helped to give that introduction.”
Directors must be comfortable with budgets. Unfortunately, many rose through their organizations with limited interaction with the budget process, which created a steep learning curve.
“Budget development was challenging, and I had to learn how to make requests. I needed a tough skin to deal with politicians and unions.”
“There was a steep learning curve on budgets and fiscal management. I was surprised at the stress of carrying the burden of running the organization.”
“Library system had budget issues that I was not aware of so I had to go out and raise money and apply for grants.”
“If you don’t have a good CFO, it is a challenge.”
One director faced challenges that were both political and budgetary in her first weeks in office.
“I was thrown into an election and fundraising drive as our special tax was ending, an affluent city was threatening to leave, and we were facing pressure from an unpopular nonresident fee.”
For another director, lack of budget awareness turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“Because my knowledge of budgets and finance was weak, I was not bound by numbers and was free to talk audaciously about what the library needed.”
Here are some additional responses:
“I didn’t anticipate how much time the director needs to spend on personnel issues: 70-80% of my time is taken up by that work.”
“I had to slow down and be patient to get more people involved in the process.”
“There are many things I would have liked to have known before becoming a director, but I believe self-discovery and learning from failure can be more beneficial than having gained the knowledge some other way. There is no substitute for experience and continuous learning.”
“I would have liked more experience with unions and contract negotiations. Also, training on media and PR skills would have been good.”
“I would have liked more experience with unions and contract negotiations. Also, training on media and PR skills would have been good.”
What are the challenges facing your library system right now or that you are preparing for in the near future?
Given that many directors wished to have more fiscal experience, it is not surprising that many described challenging budget constraints. Many US library systems have either not recovered fully from the Great Recession or exist in tax-adverse regions that limit the ability to raise millage rates. The respondents identified a number of budgetary hurdles.
“The hunt for money is always a challenge so I have spent time getting staff to speak up with innovative ideas.”
“The budget is the biggest challenge being dependent on the general fund.”
“My budget is a big challenge as it is much lower compared to peers.”
“All comes down to finance. The library underfunded by the city so we struggle to balance our budget.”
Challenging financial situations in some parts of the country are coupled with increased cost of living, as one director noted.
“Cost of living in my area is very high. It makes it challenging to create an equitable pay scale to allow staff to live here. We need to maintain a professional workforce but have trouble recruiting.”
A big budget concern is finding capital funding for new libraries or renovating existing facilities.
“A big project we are moving towards is a bond issue for a new central library. It has been in the works for over a decade, and movement towards the bond has highlighted the fact that we need to promote what libraries do.”
“We are working getting capital improvement dollars to renovate eight of the ten facilities. We got a little money from the last bond issue, but we still need to figure out how we keep up the investment on the buildings.”
Libraries across the country are funded in different ways. This ranges from being part of municipal or county general funds to having their own taxing districts. While a special taxing district often gives a library more independence, it is no panacea.
“Funding is always something on the radar. Every ten years our residents vote to keep the taxing district, so we live or die on that ballot.”
“Funding is a key challenge. We need to win a ballot initiative to increase levy, so we have to sell the library to voters.”
Beyond budgets, many library directors identified staffing as a challenge, especially around development of skills and talents.
“Succession and staff development are huge as we need to expose people to difficult decision-making opportunities to build them up.”
“We are finding that our younger workforce is very different in how they work and how they approach work from our experienced workforce. The newer workforce is less focused on the organization and more focused on personal goals.”
“We are dealing with people retiring, and recruiting is a challenge. So we are partnering with our local schools and the colleges and looking at our job descriptions.”
“The biggest thing is the relative lack of management experience. For ten years we could not give cost of living increase so the only way to get an increase was to promote. People applied for jobs they didn’t want only to get money. However, they didn’t want the job of management and weren’t prepared, so now we have to give them management training.”
Sometimes the recruitment challenge centers around specific jobs.
“We are desperate for an ILS administrator. Recruitment is a challenge. Most of our staff are local and have been in their jobs for years. We need local talent to grow. We need to be vibrant.”
Another challenge that directors identified is the need for better promotion and PR.
“We are doing an aggressive marketing campaign to compete for attention in the community.”
“The biggest challenge is communicating to the public the depth and scope of services that the library offers beyond the traditional ones.”
“We continue to challenge the idea that libraries are necessary (not just nice). Our job is letting everyone know what we have to offer and provide enough information to make sure that new politicians and leaders understand what we offer in the quality of life.”
Other directors expressed additional thoughts on challenges.
“When I arrived there was a disconnection from the county by the library. I was surprised that they didn’t have good organizational awareness of the county. They were compartmentalized. I had to educate them on what it means to be a county employee.
“I would like to raise more private money, but we are in competition with other nonprofits.”
“Getting people to shift their customer service viewpoint is a challenge. I tell them that ‘we are not paying you to be right; we are paying you to be kind.'”
“The community is undergoing change from manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. This creates gaps in competency skills that community members need to succeed.”
What trends, either in the library world or outside of it, are you working with now?
To hold strong visions and develop useful strategies, library directors look at many different trends. One common trend concerns literacy and education and how the library fulfills this role in the community.
“People are using the library more and more for classes and events.”
“We are looking at alternative ways of learning and developing stronger relations with the school district.”
“Similar to other library systems in terms of our focus areas, especially early literacy. We are taking a programming approach to literacy and workforce development.”
“I see libraries as learning spaces. We need to look at increasing adaptive and technical skills.”
Many library directors connected the education theme with STEM and maker concepts.
“Technology shows that libraries aren’t just about books. We have 3D printing and digital media centers at all of our libraries.”
“For us, we have embraced the maker movement. We have many maker spaces which are very popular. We are always changing in terms of technology and equipment. STEM/STEAM is put on top of it with lots of programs and done through partnerships with local research parks or college professors.”
“We have brought equipment to offer mobile maker spaces and are designing programming around it to take the equipment out to the branches to expose people to it. We are looking at the library’s role in STEM and STEAM to prepare future generations.”
“The maker trend is not going away, especially as a do-it-yourself creative space.”
Another trend on many directors’ radar is the fine-free movement.
“One trend is exploring the elimination of fines on children’s materials or overall.”
“We are identifying barriers to use so we are watching the trend to remove fines and fees.”
Many directors brought up the connection between fine-free and convenience.
“Biggest trend is around convenience, as we need to make it easy and quick to get our resources. Fine-free is a good step forward.”
“Our focus has been solely on removing as much friction from using us for free versus paying for it. Everything we have done is the trend of staying in step with the competition on ease of use such as our school library program with automatic library card sign-up, no fines, and to make it easier for as many people as possible.
Equity and social diversity is another theme that gained traction with directors.
“Equity is big for us. We are working with the mayor’s office on committees on equity at the city level as we feel libraries should be the leaders in equity.”
“We will be hosting the Human Library as part of our celebration of Diversity Awareness Month. For the first time here we observed LGBT Book Month and had programs at several of our libraries throughout our county.”
“One [trend] that we will see happening more and more is that the library will take on social welfare work in a larger and larger way.”
Library directors are a diverse community with many interests, as the following trend-watching suggests.
“The one that has legs is working hard with our incarcerated and soon-to-be-released population. We have good connections with the local authorities and want to ensure this population knows what we offer. We also helped create an alternative sentencing program for youth with a group house that has a literature-based initiative to read a book or think through the lessons.”
“An important area of focus was the ongoing economic and racial discrepancies between the rich and poor parts of the city. We are looking to make sure library service is delivered to the areas of need. We are trying to change the dynamic by making an effort to get outside our library’s walls.”
“We are implementing the whole idea of the gig economy and how the library plays a critical role in that. People are going around looking at different tasks and need to be marketable in order to get the next gig. Libraries are there to help people get their next gig by providing cost-effective education.”
“I’m monitoring fundraising since it is a big part of what we do. I am always trying to understand how other entities are going about it. Higher education is a generation ahead of us on this one. The question is how doe we engage the alumni of libraries?”
What advice would you give to aspiring library directors?
When I interviewed library directors five years ago, I sought good advice on succeeding in the position. This time I wanted advice for up-and-comers. The collected wisdom includes a number of themes. At the top of the list was growing as a communicator and listener.
“Do a lot of listening. Meet with community leaders and have a conversation with the community. Listen to staff needs to see what they aspire to and what needs to be fixed.”
“The most important thing is to like people and to be an open and good communicator. That goes so far both within the library system and for external work. You have to be authentic and know what you are talking about.”
“Best advice for an aspiring director would be to concentrate on your ability to communicate. Writing an oratory skills are important to make yourself a likable and compelling figure. You have to be able to deliver bad news and be trusted. People who have good communication skills tend to suffer less during bad times and success better in good times. It is demoralizing when people can’t write or speak well. Those that can do that inspire trust.”
Many respondents thought that a good first piece of advice for aspiring directors was to learn about local leaders and the community they serve.
“Know your city council’s goals and strategies, then align all of your services towards those goals. Whatever the city is doing the library should be doing.”
“I can’t stress enough the importance of building relationships with key stakeholders. It makes the job so much easier, and you can accomplish far more to achieve goals when you work across the board with peers.”
“Work in as many diverse neighborhoods as possible. Don’t forget your passion for the work and talk about it all the time to the community. Think about the big-picture impact that libraries have and promote that vision. However you must understand how the local government functions to move your agenda forward.”
One popular piece of advice was to find a mentor and connect with experienced colleagues.
“Talk to other directors from different libraries to ask about their experience. Find out what skills they have, then do a lot of self-awareness work and look for feedback from colleagues.”
“Finding a mentor or two would be helpful. For me it was good having a supportive director who gave me opportunities to grow. Finding support from people in similar positions to a library director was helpful.”
“Watch and learn from directors in your previous positions. You can learn a lot of what to do and more importantly what not to do.”
Aspiring directors are advised to not let fear or worry stop them from pursuing the job.
“Go for it! Carve out a way to do it by making a match between you and the organization in order to be the right person.”
“Go for it, but you must have the passion!”
“Just do it. If you are thinking about it, then go ahead and don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know.”
One cautionary refrain that emerged was that a library director does very little in the way of traditional librarianship.
“The librarian part is second to the director part. It is a whole different job.”
“They need to be comfortable not being librarians. Let go of some of those practices and thoughts that made you a good librarian and learn how to be a good community leader.”
“A library director isn’t about books, it is about people and having a clear understanding of communities and their needs.”
“If you approach it the right way, it is a fantastic job. Be aware that the job is political and you won’t have as much direct satisfaction as a frontline person. However, you will gain a more broad-based satisfaction from having improved lives in the community.”
Here is a sample of other notable advice given for this question.
“This is an exciting job, no two days are the same. You must like change and have agility to go with the flow of any given day. Having the agility to assess a situation and make quick decisions that may alter the direction you were going in means that you can’t get caught up in things. Be willing to make adjustments and train the staff to be agile.”
“New directors need to come in and take risks. Don’t be afraid to make changes and do new things. You will always get pushback, but you have to be behold and do things that would make sense to you if you were a customer. Align your goals and action items around that.”
“Kindness and coming from a place of love are critical. A director should be courageous enough to fail and willing to accept that failure and grow from that. It is important to understand what a servant leader is and model behaviors for our employees as they deal with the public. Have fun with the job and people need to have fun to do their best work. Recognize the power of relationships and remember that everyone is important.”
“Don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions. Explore and push the boundaries about what a public library cane. You don’t have to follow the old rules and you can invent new ones.”
“There is oftentimes a self-monitoring or timidness to putting yourself out there and saying that it is something you want to do. If you have any inclination, you should state it with confidence by talking to as many directors as possible and get as much advice as you can. There are very few failures, but there are some great people who never launch because they didn’t put themselves out there. By coming to terms with that, you can accept and embrace the position. Put out a game plan to move forward and don’t wait for the epiphany. Remain humble by respectfully asking people for help to move forward.”
On a personal level, this round of interviews gave me deeper insight into the work of library directors. Despite different backgrounds, experiences, library structures, and geographic and cultural elements, similarities exist in how directors approach the job. The library community in this country has a strong collaboration ethic, and those who aspire for the position of director appear to share this belief.
Based on these interviews, I found three main factors that successful directors focus on. The first factor is awareness of organizational health. Directors need to ensure that their people, policies, and internal structures work together. The second factor is external advocacy. Library directors act as chief diplomats to share the libraries’ message with community leaders on local, state, and national levels. The third factor is vision. Directors craft and articulate the story of the library both to their internal and external audiences. This vision becomes the glue that holds all three factors together.
Finally, for those readers interested in becoming a public library director, I echo the advice shared earlier in the article, “Go For It!”
“Library Directors Group Enables Collaboration and Learning” by Peter Struzziero, ” Public Libraries Online, http://bit.ly/2WGvm0Q.
“Resources for Library Directors, Administrators, and Managers,” Public Library Association, http://bit.ly/2YtTrZ1.
“Efficient Librarianship: A New Path for the Profession” by Douglas Crane, Public Libraries (Nov/Dec 2017).