The Manager Who Straightens the Stacks

“The manager of today isn't out in the stacks helping the staff straighten materials. Time is money! We recognize now that paying managers $30 an hour to be straightening the shelves is ridiculous, so today's managers spend their time in internal and external committees to help build the future of our libraries.” I must admit that when I recently heard this speech at a library forum, I had two immediate thoughts. The first, and strongest felt, was, "Garbage." (The second was that I don't get paid $30 an hour, but that's beside the point.)

It is true that more and more, library managers are involved in projects that take them out of their home buildings. Internal meetings, library associations, legislative days, citywide meetings, and the like keep us involved in the bigger picture of the library world. Without these organizations and outside meetings, managers often become unaware of the happenings and political atmosphere outside their buildings. But sometimes managers take these outside events to an extreme. Suddenly, the whole forest of the larger world, represented by these committee meetings, is clearly in focus, but we've lost sight of the trees of what our staff and customers need. Here's some advice for taking the middle ground, so that you can stay more aware of the events, without losing too much valuable time with your staff and the customers you serve.

How Much Time Do You Spend Checking Email?

Signing up for listservs is an easy and painless way to stay up-to-date on current news and issues concerning the library world. However, before you sign up for every listserv that interests you, think about whether you will really use the information that the listserv covers. You started your career as a children's librarian, and this aspect of library work is still near and dear to your heart. But you're a library director now. Do you really need an idea for the perfect craft for that Arbor Day storytime, or advice on dealing with children who are climbing up your chair as you read to them?

I had two immediate thoughts. The first, and strongest felt, was, "Garbage."

Keep your listservs limited to two or three that you will really use. If you already belong to an overabundance of them, try to track which ones you read and which ones hold more messages that you delete than use. Try to keep it down to those that will really impact your current job. If your heart still belongs to the teenagers you served when you were a YA librarian, keep one listserv devoted to them, but only if you are still reading the postings.

Also, don't make the assumption that everyone in your library system wants to read the information from the listservs you belong to. An occasional message from a colleague on an issue of importance is valuable and wanted. However, if you are sending out ten messages a day, you might be pushing people's limit for helpful tips to get their jobs done. (And since most of them were on the road to the County Commissioner's meeting on library budget disasters, they just came back and deleted the messages without reading them anyway!) Consider having your library make a bulletin board, either electronic or the old-fashioned corkboard kind, where employees can post interesting information and news of the outside library world. Keep your own emails limited to information directly affecting your system.

When Was the Last Time You Looked at Your Job Description?

Take a good look at the activities on your job description. If you spend fifty percent of your time on only one percent of the activities listed, you need to reconsider how you spend your time. (Or you need to get your supervisor to rewrite your job description.) If I look at my own job description, there is only one statement concerning participation in city, departmental, and library teams and organizations. (One half of a percent of the job statements on my job description.) There are twenty-three other statements that involve training, mentoring, and developing staff, as well as multiple others that speak of interaction with customers to develop the kind of library that the customer wants and needs. I try to limit my participation on teams to those that I feel will make the most impact on my staff and customers, but even I spend about twenty-five percent of my time each week on those teams.

Unfortunately, there are many systems out there that don't allow managers the luxury of limiting their team participation. There are also many managers who do not feel that they can exercise their right to say no to an offer to serve on another committee. Many managers spend fifty percent of their time in meetings and another twenty-five percent at their desks working on their committee assignments. Some even get so bogged down with the number of committees they're on that they often don't have any time to spend outside the committee meetings to work on the issues.

I'm about to make a very unpopular statement in the world of some library managers. If you are never on the public floor of your library interacting with customers and the staff serving them, you can't possibly be giving knowledgeable, intelligent feedback in those meetings you attend. As you sit in an operations meeting, consider whether you truly have enough knowledge of what is happening in your building on a daily basis to be able to give the kind of input needed. If not, you must spend more time in your building to gain that knowledge.

If You Don't Know Their Names, How Can You Help Your Staff?

Spending too much time away at meetings means you no longer know all the staff members who are working for you. There is absolutely no excuse to not know the name of every staff member working in your building. Larger systems don't always allow staff to know every member from every branch, but you should at least know everyone in your direct path. This kind of statement scares many large system managers and administrators. It is a rather lofty goal and, many will say, unrealistic on one level. And I'll be honest and say that it doesn't happen very often in large systems. In fact, I have only had one director in my library career that I thought knew the names and locations of almost every staff member in every branch. (Gleniece Robinson from the Fort Worth Public Library, for those who will ask.) That sent a message to staff members at every level that she thought they were important to the system and to the library world.

It means having to say to the staff member you have passed coming in for the night shift… "I'm sorry. I don't know your name and I want to."

This task will require some people to swallow their pride. It means having to say to the staff member you have passed coming in for the night shift while you were leaving, "I'm sorry. I don't know your name and I want to." On first reaction, that staff member might find it insulting that you don't know his name even though you have said hello to him for a year now as you pass on your way out. On second thought, however, he will appreciate your honesty and willingness to change your ways. Now as you pass you will be able to say, "Have a nice night, Joe." When you see a message honoring Joe for handling a nighttime emergency, you will know who he is and be able to mention it to him. Here's another thought: maybe it would be nice if you didn't stick to just weekdays, and worked that night shift with Joe every once in a while.

So Now You're Working Eighty Hours

Some of you are screaming at me now, saying that I don't understand — you have to be at these meetings or you will lose your job. The meetings are required. You would have to work eighty hours a week in order to be able to attend the meetings and work with Joe one night a week! Or you're already working eighty hours just to be able to attend all the meetings. Believe me, I understand and I sympathize, but I'm trying to help, so here's the biggest tip of all: talk to your boss when you are feeling overwhelmed with meetings.

No director, at least no decent director, will ever have a problem with you coming to her or him with a problem as long as you offer to assist in solving the problem. The problem just might be that you, and every other manager in the system, are simply on too many teams. Consider assigning a person (not a team!) to gather information on how many teams people are on and if those teams are still functioning as they should. You can track a lot of information from such a survey. Not only will it show you who in the system is overloaded with teams, it will show you who isn't involved in them at all. This will also give a clear picture of when the system might need to consider hiring one person to do a job that eight are now doing.

Money is a good, strong argument against too many meetings, and this always works with directors and city officials. My father instilled in me one strong value: time is money. (He's an attorney; please forgive him.) I recently found myself sitting in a committee meeting that I thought was going nowhere. I looked around the table at eight people, almost all in management-level jobs. After the meeting, I calculated that we spend about $240 an hour on those meetings. When you put in travel time to and from the meeting, that adds up to almost $1,000 per meeting. Add in time at the desk to complete the committee assignments, and you have a cost of $23,000 per year. Nice starting salary for one person. Not too many people can argue with data like that.

Now, Back to Straightening the Stacks

But what about being out in the stacks straightening the shelves? Get out there. You're getting paid too much to be out straightening the shelves, that's true. But you're not getting paid too much to be out talking to your part-time information library assistant, Nancy, as you straighten. You get about $200-worth of morale building for your $23 an hour as you're able to tell her what a fabulous job she did on her Lord of the Rings program. Lee, your technician, will also think it's great at how amazed you are that she can tear a piece of paper and make it look like a person for your summer display. That's very little money to spend on knowing where the talents of your staff lie. Mrs. Wilson, your customer, will also think it's pretty great that you're getting a staff member to develop a genealogy class based on a suggestion she made to you last week as you were fluffing the fiction.

Money is a good, strong argument against too many meetings, and this always works with directors and city officials.

Please don't take my suggestions to the extreme and quit every team, committee, and organization that you belong to, or spend all your time doing the work of a page. (They can do the job much faster and more accurately than you, so that would be a waste.) Many organizations can be good tools to sharpen your ax and keep your education up-to-date. Make a special effort to be sure that some of those committees and teams are with external organizations, such as the Virginia Library Association or the American Library Association. They offer essential information that can keep you informed of current events and trends facing the library world. Stay involved outside some of the time; just make sure that you are still in your location, directly dealing with staff and customers as often as you can, at times other than 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Those interactions are always worth the money. VL


Neva L. Whiteis Princess Anne Area Library Manager for Virginia Beach Public Library. She can be reached at