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The accidental library manager – Instalment 1

What is accidental library management?


While researching The Accidental Library Manager, I surveyed 244 managers about their experiences and career paths. Their answers matched up with a wealth of anecdotal evidence from lists and conferences: librarians tend to enter the field without any intention of ever moving into management; most feel that library school failed to prepare them to enter a management position; and management skills are largely learned on the job.

Survey respondents emphasized the accidental nature of their first management positions with comments like:

  • The current manager left and they asked me to step in…
  • All the people who were senior to me left…
  • I became a manager by default…
  • I fell into my first director position…
  • It really happened by accident…

This gap in both education and expectations leaves new managers unprepared – and unsettled! – while misconceptions about management dissuade librarians from preparing themselves for the very likely possibility that they will at some point manage.

Why the gap?

Many people enter librarianship with a fairly clear picture of their future role and responsibilities. They envision becoming a children’s librarian, spending their days doing storytimes, creating a delightful collection, talking up books and other resources. They envision becoming a reference librarian, delving into research questions, creating pathfinders and wikis and other resources for their clients. They don’t necessarily envision supervising others, balancing budgets, dealing with a board, or scrounging for funding; many are vehemently opposed to the very notion, or fail to see themselves as “management material”.

In library school, their coursework on library management tends to be overly theoretical and seldom prepares people for the reality of managing people, budgets, and institutions. Some graduate without ever having taken a management class; others enter library management without having attended library school. Surveyed managers shared that:

  • All of my management experience was gained on the job.
  • I don’t think the school could have prepared me for management because I didn’t view myself as ever wanting to go into management.
  • Not one class in library school prepared me for library management.
  • Teaching theory exclusively…was a disservice to the students.

This lack of preparation and of vision creates problems when librarians eventually find themselves needing to enter management in order to advance their careers. Others have management responsibilities given to them by their administration, end up in a solo librarian position where they act as de facto manager, gradually take on responsibilities until they find they are actually in management, temporarily fill a managerial role, or are given staff to supervise as departmental lines are redrawn and job descriptions redefined.

What does this mean?

When new or potential managers cling to their initial images or their vision of never moving into management, this prevents them from taking advantage of opportunity and from performing effectively when they do enter a management position. They find it difficult to adjust their mindset to their new role, and lack the confidence to start out on the right foot. The first few months in any management position can be critical, and new managers often feel inadequate in dealing with their new responsibilities, remain in denial about their role, or fail to draw on their existing skills and strengths.

What should we know?

Anyone entering the library field today should be prepared to move into management. As one library school professor emphasizes, you will be a manager. And, if you don’t want to be a manager, you may wish to reconsider earning that Master of Library Science.

Many of today’s managers are nearing retirement age, creating the imminent need for a pool of replacements. In most institutions, staff have no possibility of promotion or pay raises unless they accept management responsibilities. Librarians who have been in the field a while find that they are expected to supervise, budget, and otherwise take on management responsibilities as a matter of course.

Regardless of their initial intentions, those who have moved (or will move) accidentally into management need to find an enthusiasm for their work, and need to develop the ability both to draw on existing skills and to acquire new ones. Success in any management position depends in large part on outlook and determination, as well as the willingness to see one’s abilities in new ways. Managers are made, not born; everyone moving into management needs to gain skills and experience.

Those who have not yet moved into management can find success when they open their mind to the possibility and start to prepare themselves from the beginning. Still in school? Seek out additional coursework on various aspects of library management. Working as a librarian? Find continuing education opportunities, read up on both management and issues affecting the profession, and offer to take on short term projects or other responsibilities to build your confidence and your portfolio.

Drawing on our strengths

Accidental managers do best when they draw on their transferable skills and related experiences. When we draw on our strengths in creative ways, we gain the confidence to transition effectively into management positions and to take concrete steps to gain the skills we lack. Over the next instalments of this column, I’ll share strategies for finding success in any library management position, accidental or otherwise.

In the next instalment, I talk more about managing the move into management: how to draw on your skills, how to smooth the transition, and how to start as you mean to continue.

This series is based on Rachel Singer Gordon's book The Accidental Library Manager (Information Today, Inc., Medford, NJ, 2005;