A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Applying Previous Library and Non-Library Experience to Best Advantage

by Mary Grace Flaherty on April 15, 2016

About the Author

MARY GRACE FLAHERTY is Assistant Professor, School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact Mary Grace at mgflaher@email.unc.edu. Mary is currently reading The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman.

Originally published in Mar/Apr 2016, PUBLIC  LIBRARIES,  VOLUME 55, NUMBER 2.

Anyone who has worked in or patronized a small public library knows that in order for the organization to thrive, the manager must employ a wide variety of skills on a daily basis. “From chief cook to bottle washer” is a commonly heard phrase when public library managers are asked to describe their duties. While there are skills that can be taught and learned ahead of time to maximize success in the public library manager role, many of the management skills necessary for success are acquired on the job. The job doesn’t necessarily have to be in the public library setting, however. There are commonalities across library and organizational settings that allow for managerial skills to be acquired and transferred so that the public library manager can excel, no matter how he or she might have gained that experience.

The effective manager must be highly skilled at interacting with and dealing with people on many levels, including patrons, staff members, boards (or similar oversight committees), local and state legislators, community members who are potential patrons, community leaders, other organization leaders and members, and vendors. Logistics—from staffing, to programs, to budgets and advocacy—also play a role in managerial tasks and day-to-day library functioning. In many small libraries, another major duty that demands regular, if not constant, attention is likely to be management of the physical facility.

It’s All about Dealing with People

Patrons and Customer Service

Any job or volunteer activity that requires interaction with the public can be a training ground for all types of employment, including public library management. Learning how to provide high quality customer service (sometimes by attempting to reproduce personal encounters of great service) starts with understanding how to interact with and respond to your user community. In every setting, the first step is to identify their needs. How you go about that obviously differs across settings; for example, in the special corporate setting where you may serve a small number of researchers, you can interview them individually to ascertain their interests. In the academic setting, faculty members are likely to seek you out to make their interests known. In the public library setting, there may be some vocal patrons who make their interests known, but the effective manager must be sure to also reach out to the community of potential users as well. This can be done informally as well as formally.

Informal Patron Needs Assessments

There are a number of venues where you can meet with people and gather information about their information needs, through casual conversation with little effort:

  • Attend local organizational meetings (for example, Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, Kiwanis, and so on).
    • Often these groups will welcome a presentation about the library.
    • Consider joining, as membership can have its advantages.
  • Attend town council (or the community’s equivalent) and school board meetings.
    • Take the opportunity to increase the number of library advocates in the community.
    • Tell them about the latest formats, programs, and so on.
  • Take a walk on your lunch break and greet people on the sidewalk.
    • Ask what the library could be doing for them if they’re non-users.
    • Attend local events (for example, Memorial Day parade, school sports events, and so on).
    • Chat with folks on the sidelines and see if they have library cards.
  • Patronize local businesses.
    • See if they need help learning how to use business software, for example.

These approaches not only can be used for assessing needs but have the added benefit of increasing the visibility of the library in the community. There is extensive literature available on how to conduct more formal research to assess your user community’s needs.[1] Formal needs assessment generally falls into three categories: surveys, focus groups, and interviews.[2] Keep in mind that you can delegate and rely on knowledgeable staff, community members, and graduate student interns (if available) to assist with more formal research efforts.

Counselor or Coach? Working with Staff

Working with staff can be the most rewarding as well as the most challenging part of running a library. It doesn’t take long to discover that different individuals require differing levels of support, feedback, guidance, reassurance, and training to bring out their best attributes. If you’ve ever been a coach, a parent, an aunt or uncle, a sibling or team member, you’ve already been acquiring tools for dealing effectively with staff. Skills I learned in settings as diverse as the concession stand at a state park (as server), gymnastics camps (as coach), rehabilitation centers (as recreational therapist), jewelry manufacturing (as hand crafter), and corporate and academic libraries (as librarian) have readily been applied to the public library setting. What were the common threads of those experiences that were used to effectively engage staff?

  • Mutual respect—to be respected, show respect.
  • Positive outlook and attitude—your staff (and those around you) will follow your example.
  • Flexibility—there is likely to be more than one path from problem to solution.
  • Gratitude and recognition—praise in public; provide constructive criticism in private.
  • Compassion—show true interest in staff members’ well-being and concerns.
  • Patience—it may take time to win over the majority and it may take time before you see the results of your efforts.

Playing Well with Others

The same attributes for working with staff can be applied to working with boards, members of consortia, and colleagues from other institutions. In Hernon’s and McClure’s classic study, stunning findings indicated that patrons rated reference encounters as successful even if they may have not received an answer to their questions, basing their opinions on the affability of the encounters they had with reference librarians.[3] Of course, we should strive to supply accurate and authoritative information to our patrons, but Hernon’s and McClure’s findings demonstrate that patrons place a high value on pleasantness of encounters with library staff when they are seeking out information. It is likely the same effect occurs in encounters with colleagues across organizational levels. In order to be an effective leader, the following attributes can go a long way to inspire cooperation among colleagues at all levels:

  • Preparedness
    • Time is a valuable commodity; prepare so that you maximize meeting times.
    • Familiarize yourself with the agenda ahead of time.
  • Organization
    • Be ready with information, data, and so on, so that decisions can be made easily and readily.
  • Willingness to go the extra step
    • Paying it forward exacts large dividends in the long run.

Logistics and the Day-to-Day


Have you ever helped with a wedding, relocated or moved to another state, gone on a big trip or family vacation, or carpooled for kids’ activities? It’s likely that you’ve had extensive planning experience, but as it’s a regular part of daily living, you may not have characterized it as such. For any type of successful planning, key components include knowing when to involve others, willingness to delegate, and taking charge with authority when it’s warranted. Keep in mind the following whether you’re crafting a long range plan or working on the details for your summer reading program:

  • Gather the necessary data.
  • Be willing to take calculated risks.
  • Involve staff in the process.
  • Don’t be afraid to delegate.
  • Celebrate successes.


Do you regularly balance your bank account? Pay your bills on time? Management of library budgets is similar to personal budgeting processes, just with more categories and on a larger scale. If crunching numbers is not your strong suit, then work to surround yourself with staff and board members who can offer support in this area. Software programs, such as QuickBooks, can help to streamline budgeting and make it a more straightforward task. Using previous years’ data and comparator libraries can aid in setting targets, evaluating your status, and setting benchmarks. Key aspects of successful budgeting include:

  • continuous review of expenditures;
  • continuous planning;
  • ongoing assessment of spending activities;
  • ongoing assessment of revenue generation;
  • involvement of key staff (including board members);
  • transparency;
  • annual audits; and
  • annual reports to your constituents.


Were you ever a band booster or Boy or Girl Scout? Did you sell cookies, or do fundraising for a group you (or your child, neighbor, niece, or nephew) were involved in? There are countless books and references dedicated to fundraising in the nonprofit sector (see, for instance, the highly readable Yours for the Asking: An Indispensable Guide to Fundraising and Management by Reynold Levy, 2009), so we won’t duplicate those efforts here.

The small library director is increasingly being asked to do more with less these days. Some ways to stretch funds may seem obvious, such as grant applications to local foundations for program and materials support, but don’t overlook less obvious mechanisms. For example, service organizations such as the Rotary and Kiwanis are often looking for worthy causes to sponsor, such as children’s materials. Keep an active “wish list” so that when they offer support, you can provide tangible opportunities. If you don’t have an active Friends group, start or revive one—they can be a huge support, not only for fundraising, but for advocacy within your community. Think out of the box. Is there a local company that produces solar panels and can use the library as a model installation? Opportunities such as these will not only raise the library’s visibility but can also reduce electricity bills and thereby reduce expenditures at the same time. Remember, if you don’t ask, they won’t know to give.


Have your ever pitched an idea to a friend? Interacted with a health care provider on behalf of a loved one? Have you ever stood up to a “bully” for yourself or someone else? Acts of advocacy are happening somewhat invisibly all the time and can be formal or informal efforts to ensure support of a cause. Please see the case study sidebar for an example of advocacy in the public library setting that had the ultimate result of dramatically reducing fees paid by the library to the cooperative public library system of which the library was a voluntary member.


Programming in public libraries can be an undertaking that involves whole departments, budget lines, and dedicated staff. While that may be the ideal, for small libraries it may not be a realistic model. Have you ever been a member of a book or gardening club, shared recipes, hosted a dinner party or read a book to a child? It’s likely that there are many resources within your community that you can “exploit” for program opportunities at your library.

Consider some of the following options for relatively low-cost, low-effort program provision in your library community:

  • staff members with an interest in a hobby—for example, card making, quilting, soap making, and so on;
  • local extension agents for demonstrations on a wide variety of activities;
  • community members with interests—for example, car enthusiasts, collections to display, ethnic cooking demonstrations, and so on;
  • film night—bring your own popcorn, library provides the screening;
  • local theater groups—”dress rehearsal” at the library; and
  • big equipment day—invite local contractors, the fire department and ambulance to park “big rigs” in the library parking lot and allow children to explore and interact.

The possibilities can be limitless, depending on your imagination, community resources, and facility accommodations.

The Facility

Did or do you participate in any kind of sports or fitness activities? Have you worked in a circus? Is your sister a plumber? Do you own a home? Facilities management in the small public library can cover an array of activities, planned and unplanned. You may find yourself shoveling entryways when your contractor can’t make it, plunging a toilet when your custodian is out sick, or clearing roof vents when there’s a leak during unprecedented amounts of snowfall. When it comes to troubleshooting facilities issues, it’s likely that you’ll have to deal with unexpected circumstances more often than you’d like. In order to meet these challenges with grace and poise, remember:

  • Learn about the physical facility ahead of time.
    • Know where shutoff valves, emergency switches, and so on are located.
  • Take charge; don’t shy away from what may be a noxious chore.
    • Lead by example; you’ll earn your staff’s respect and gratitude.
    • Do remember to keep safety as the first priority.
  • Be as prepared as you can be.
    • Make sure you have an updated, regularly reviewed disaster plan.
    • Complete regular facility audits—internally and externally checking for issues.
    • Have fire drills and mock emergency situations so that staff can “practice.”
    • Make friends with emergency responders—know the fire and police chiefs, and town engineer (or equivalents).
  • Don’t ask your staff to do anything you’re not willing to do.
    • Very often when they see you stepping up to the plate they’ll do the same.
    • Different staff members will have different gifts—learn what those are and use them to the best effects.

Individual Characteristics that Foster Success

Besides experience, there are basic qualities to keep in mind when striving to be an effective manager or leader. The primary characteristics that I’ve found to be common among truly effective, even visionary supervisors include:

  • curiosity,
  • flexibility,
  • adaptability,
  • humility,
  • compassion,
  • strong work ethic,
  • passion for what they’re doing, and
  • when all else fails, a well-developed sense of humor.


As it’s difficult to anticipate all the skills an individual might need to run a library and to teach those skills through formal coursework or training, we can augment our skills through other job and life experiences. Whether the setting is retail or realty, waiting tables or renting boats, previous employment experience can be put to good use in the public library setting.

Case Study

Advocacy in a Public Library System: Making Your Case with Data and Endurance

After I had been in my position as the director of a small, rural public library for about two years, I attended the state’s annual conference. In this state, libraries were members of larger systems that offered support through ILL and resource sharing; but individual libraries were autonomous entities with their own governance, oversight, and budgets. In a casual conversation, I asked the woman next to me what their system charged her library for providing the service of their online automation system (the ILS).

I was stunned to discover that we were paying more than eight times the amount her library paid (in real dollars, not as a rate) even though we were a much smaller library. I decided to investigate, and see if this was a fluke, or if we were being overcharged within our system.

First I found six more comparable libraries in other library systems (based on population chartered to serve) and phoned the directors and asked what they paid for their ILS. I found that we were paying between four and ten times more than those six libraries. When I looked at the same data on a per capita basis, our residents were paying close to $3 per capita, and residents from five of the other six libraries were all paying less than $0.50 per capita, with the sixth library’s per capita rate at $0.80.

To ensure that our particular vendor agreement was not the reason for the high expenses, I then sought out libraries that were similar in population and whose systems used the same vendor. My findings were the same; we were still paying four to ten times more than comparable libraries for the same service. These findings led to the obvious question: Why were our fees so high compared to other systems? There seemed to be three possible explanations: (1) we received more services for our fees, (2) our system was comparatively underfunded, or (3) our system charged member libraries more for services.

In order to examine the first possibility, I administered a twenty-question survey to twelve library directors in other similar systems to assess the services they received. Services were similar across systems, including interlibrary loan and computer support. Workshops and Internet were also provided, though our system charged for these, while the other systems didn’t. To assess funding level discrepancies, I examined square miles served by the systems, median average household income, and federal and state income received by the systems. Our system fell in the middle range for all of these indicators, implying lower funding rates or higher service area were not the reason for our higher fees. The primary difference I found between the other systems and ours was that our system had the highest number of personnel and highest personnel costs. After presenting these multiple iterations of research and negotiating with the library system board, our fees were dramatically reduced.

In one year, they went from $23,600 to $13,000; and in the following four years while I was director, they increased only slightly, and they never returned to the 2004 level. My previous experience working in medical and health research settings provided a mindset of using data to understand and explain phenomenon. In this case, the data showed member libraries were being overcharged. The lesson of this experience was: don’t take for granted that your library’s best interests are being looked after by others, don’t be afraid to ask questions, investigate, and follow through on your findings.


[1] Shannon Crawford Barniskis, “Embedded, Participatory Research: Creating a Grounded Theory with Teenagers,” Evidence Based Library & Information Practice 8, no. 1 (2013): 47–58; Katherine Becker, “24 Hours in the Children’s Section: An Observational Study at the Public Library,” Early Childhood Education Journal 40, no. 2 (2012): 107–14; Alan Bryman, Social Research Methods, 4th ed.( New York: Oxford Univ. Pr., 2012); Ian Chant, “Impact Survey Aims to Help Libraries Increase, Explain Their Worth,” Library Journal 138, no. 20 (2013): 1. John W. Creswell, Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches, 4th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Pub., 2014).

[2] Richard A. Krueger, Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research, 4th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Pub., 2009). Steinar Kvale and Svend Brinkmann, InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Pub., 2009). Floyd J. Fowler, Survey Research Methods, 5th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Pub., 2013).

[3] Peter Hernon and Charles R. McClure, “Unobtrusive Reference Testing: The 55 Percent Rule,” Library Journal 111, no. 7 (1986): 37–41.

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