Thursday, April 21, 2011


Ask the Administrator: The Library as Ladder?

A new correspondent writes:

I am the library director at a small liberal arts institution. I have
worked closely with the administration and also served on many
standing and ad hoc faculty committees. Looking 10 years or so into
the future, I feel very drawn to, well, jobs like yours. Community
colleges particularly interest me because I started out in public
libraries and still feel drawn to that broader public mission.

I have my library master's and a subject master's, but no doctorate. I
can't afford to go into debt to complete another degree. Is there any
hope for me?

Thanks for any help or advice you can give!

I’ll open by admitting that libraries are a field of their own, and it is not mine. Folks with backgrounds in the library world are invited to shed light as appropriate.

As I understand it, the question is about using the background as library director to leap into another administrative position with broader authority.

I’ve only seen it done once. In that case, the college had recently experienced convulsive turnover, and the director of the library was recognized and respected as an even-tempered grownup. He more or less inherited a deanship, due primarily to his personality and ability to work well with the existing faculty. At that point, they were so starved for peace that nobody got upset about subject matter.

At last report, he did quite well, which makes some level of sense. Librarians are to academia what catchers are to baseball. Catchers have to be able to talk to both position players (which they are themselves) and pitchers. As a result, catchers tend to make successful managers. Librarians are staffers who have to work well with faculty, and who have to have a pretty serious academic background. As such, they’re well-positioned, at least in theory, to manage across gaps.

If you want to leap from the library and associated services to the faculty/academic side, I doubt that a doctorate would be the critical variable. Instead, I suspect that your reputation for level-headedness and competence would be the driver. (I’m assuming that you have that.) Put differently, I suspect that it would be most likely to happen, if at all, where you already work.

The key would be in putting yourself in a position in which people will see you as a campus leader, independent of title. Ways to do that could include leading an accreditation self-study, taking a conspicuous and active role in a whole-campus initiative, and being the voice of reason during campus disputes. In other words, if you want to be seen as a leader, start leading.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those from the library world -- what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I seem to remember hearing of at least one in the last few years but I don't remember the specifics - other than it was one of those cases where they were not a dean of the library and moved to what ever dean position covered the library and it amongst other things...

But how much of this low number is due to library deans and directors I know still loving libraries and wishing they had more time to do all the library stuff they did before being director I don't know... (and at least one Asst Dean of libraries who didn't throw in his hat for dean when it came open)

But this is all just what I've heard amongst smaller private college libraries - I don't pretend it's indicative of the larger library world
Your background in librarianship is, in itself, no hindrance to upper-level administrative service. You do, however, have at least two problems standing in your way. One is that, as a library administrator, you probably have little to no experience handling the challenges that faculty and department chairs face all the time. Were you to assume an academic deanship, the people you’d be responsible for managing would have little reason to suppose that you’d consistently make good decisions based on experience, because you (presumably) don’t have any yet. Remember how you felt when your kids were learning how to drive? That’s how faculty would feel about your leadership.
Your other problem is your competition. Credible candidates for the job you’re seeking will have years of classroom experience, and may even be applying as successful department chairs. Any such candidate, and especially anyone also having a doctorate in an academic area, will have a remarkable advantage over you.
There is a way around these conditions that can land you, at least as an interim appointee, in a president’s-cabinet-level administrative post. Tell the campus president that, while you’re happy as the library’s director, you’re also interested in expanding your value to the school, and would like to get your feet wet in campus administration. Suggest that the next time an administrator goes out on maternity leave, or takes a month or so for vacation, you’d like to fill in. First off, you’d get an instant reality check from the campus president on your abilities. If the president follows through with a short-term appointment, you’d be in the perfect spot for assessing your administrative ability. If things foul up; hey, temporary posting. Nobody expected miracles. If you should handle some difficult situation well, the campus has a new rock star. “Well,” in this context, means well in the eyes of the people you’d be supervising, as well as everyone else, and yes, the president will check.
That is damn solid advice.
@Billy Shears: I'm curious what you mean by the challenges that faculty and department chairs face, about which a library director wouldn't know anything. Perhaps I'm wrong about these challenges, but I suspect library directors face very similar challenges: managing teaching staff and non-faculty staff, managing budget, and having to work between a variety of constituents on campus to ensure all needs are met. Not to mention managing research grants and projects among their staff, and having to make hard decisions about strategic direction and goals for the library as it fits within the institution as a whole.

I'm curious if there are other pieces that I'm unfamiliar with?
Wow. So many people have absolutely no idea what librarians actually do. And Billy Shears (as well as DD, I'm afraid) is quite clearly among that number.
Hi, Laura.
Faculty stand in a different relationship to students than librarians do. Librarians, generally speaking, see students at their best: The students seeking their help, clueless or not, are motivated towards success, and are taking an active step towards their own empowerment. Naturally enough, faculty teach these students, but they are mixed in a classroom filled with satisfactory to marginal performers, smart but careless students, and students with cognitive or behavioral deficits that affect not only their own success, but, sometimes, the learning experiences of their classmates. It bears mentioning that each of the students in the latter category has at least one parent or guardian, some of whom, by the time their children reach college, have become downright skilled ombudsmen in their frequent beefs with their children’s teachers. When faculty get together as colleagues to commiserate about the challenges of their jobs, this is one of the familiar topics. These beefs can escalate to the department chair’s office, and from the department chair to the academic dean. This happens often enough to make the resolving of them an important part of an administrator’s job. The point here is that a dean with years of faculty and chair experience will have seen such situations before, and know intuitively how to save the teacher’s judgment with the least chance of the complainer’s running off to the academic vice president. A dean without this experience will be tempted to resolve the matter by asking the faculty member to re-think that D. This won’t need to happen more than two or three times for faculty to get the idea that someone in academic administration can’t be relied on to make consistently reasonable decisions, and there goes the dean’s credibility. It’s not that a library administrator isn’t capable of handling this well, but, which one would you bet on, faced with a choice between a candidate for dean with years of classroom and chair experience, and a candidate with little to none of it?
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