Superheroes Need Not Apply
Being the director of a library is not the most difficult job in an organization. This may be an unpopular sentiment for other administrators to hear. But as I go into my seventh year as a director, I fully endorse this statement.
This is not to say that being an administrator is a walk in the park. There are days when I ask myself why the hell do I keep trying to push water uphill—albeit, these are few and far between. Most days I feel as if I am the luckiest man in the world because of the opportunity to lead such a dynamic organization populated with the best professionals in the field.
The Billings Public Library in Billings, MT, serves a population of approximately 170,000 people in a service area the size of Connecticut. To be sure, there are many challenges. But my day usually consists of creating or strengthening community partnerships, sharing the library’s narrative with those who may not fully understand what a 21st century library does, reviewing and strategizing how best to use the budget, balancing internal and external politics, and answering the onslaught of emails received daily.
As you can see, most days, I have the luxury of being behind the scenes. This is not so for most of my staff.
For most Billings library staff, the demands of the job require the fluidity of changing from one hat to another in a moment’s notice. Of course, there are the pillars of duties that staff perform on a regular basis: helping with research inquiries, providing a plethora of services and programming for patrons, conducting technology trainings, advancing literacy initiatives, and so many other day-to-day tasks.
But there are also other actions taken by my staff to help the public that I have yet seen taught in library schools. Sometimes staff members act as therapists, or substance abuse counselors. Or social workers. Or confidantes. Or interventionists. Or psychiatrists. Or tax consultants. Or coaches. Or childcare providers.
These are strenuous requests. Staff address these issues because they are professionals. But the mental and emotional taxation on them some days is palpable. I see it their eyes. Or in their body language. I see it in the fake smiles they wear when on the floor. I hear it some days in the silence of the breakroom even when six or seven or eight people are sharing the space. I see it when they leave for the day as an open expression of both gratitude to be done with their shift but also as anxiety because they wonder if they made a difference for our community or for the person they helped. I see it when they feel bold enough to come to my office and share their emotions. Sometimes in the form of anger. Sometimes in the form of fear. Sometimes in the form of tears.
This revolving stress is repeated daily for a majority of Billings library staff members. And I think this daily mental and emotional fatigue needs to be addressed by administration. I do what I can to help staff with patron issues. Many a day I have sat with a patron telling me that I will be the next Vice President of the Western States of America after the super volcano explodes in Yellowstone National Park. Countless times I have addressed a patron whose anger is best described as Old Testament wrath-level. More times than I care to admit I have had to run interference between a staff member and a patron because the patron believes there is a relationship—romantic or otherwise—with said staff member. The library staff members know that I am more than willing to intervene in a situation that they feel they can no longer handle. I am not perfect. I make plenty of mistakes. But I have promised my staff that I will act as their shield, that I do not demand that they be a superhero and satisfy all the demands put forth from the public.
Part of my leadership philosophy is to ensure that library staff members are given a safe and comfortable environment to grow, work, and play. But the silly expectation that I’ve heard countless times at conferences while in discussion with other administrators of staff needing to be/are superheroes needs to stop. This expectation is unfair. It is unattainable and burdensome. How can I realistically expect my staff to successfully execute professional actions that they have never been trained to conduct? Staff cannot be everything to everyone. And lest we forget to mention, how can administration expect this superhero status when in all likelihood we have not provided needed resources?
Instead of this expectation, I openly state to all staff that I willfully and eagerly share and support and help address all failures and frustrations that happen in the library. (When success happens, they get the spotlight.) This is my way of being a leader for them. I am unable to prevent patrons demanding the aforementioned from coming to the library—which, coincidentally, is not the answer either. But I am able to be there for library staff members. I am able to advocate for them. I am able to protect them, to some degree. And I am able to share that I do not expect superhero status of them. They know that I expect them to own their job. To do the best they can in every action they perform. And, for the most part, they exceed my expectations daily. They are dedicated and passionate about being members of our organization. They dream and aspire to help elevate our organization in all of our endeavors. They help change people’s lives for the better. They inspire and educate and challenge our citizens to be aware of what is happening in our community. They laugh and cry with families. Simply put: they are heroes that need not be super.
Public libraries will continue to be a place where every man, woman, and child from every disparate walk of life and self-recognized social construct, may seek education opportunities, entertainment, a sense of community, and various other assorted needs. Public libraries will continue to be on the frontlines of dealing with social issues. And public libraries will continue to be staffed by amazing professionals that constantly and consistently go beyond their required job descriptions. Let’s celebrate each of these points. But let us not forget that staff members are not equipped, trained, or given the full resources needed to successfully accomplish the expectation of being a superhero.