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The accidental library manager – Instalment 11

The practical vs the theoretical

Many accidental library managers, especially those just coming out of library school, are challenged to balance their theories and ideals of librarianship with the realities of their responsibility for a living institution. While schools do their best to introduce real-world issues, classroom discussion remains worlds removed from the often messy – and sometimes suboptimal –- compromises forced on us by real-world factors.

Management classes in library school (if any) also tend to emphasize theories of management over the actual practice of management. Accidental library managers will notice within about five minutes on the job that real-world management doesn't usually lend itself to tidy theories. Take what applies, and adapt the rest to your individual situation.

The real world vs the perfect world

Theory vs practice most often trips us up when we embrace absolutes. In a perfect world, for example, we may think that Internet filtering is never a good idea; that it puts us in the role of censor; that imperfect filters block legitimate information. In the real world, libraries find themselves required to filter: by Board mandate; because certain patrons choose to delight in deliberately displaying inappropriate material to others; because children accidentally run across adult sites when running a search; because staff members threaten to file suit when exposed to certain material on the job. In a perfect world, you may lay out a neat and tidy org chart in which everyone has their part to play. In the real world, you may find yourself up on the roof with your assistant director, bailing water away from an imminently structure-threatening leak.

In a perfect world, we may never wish to restrict public library access: the library exists for its public; everyone has an equal right to its services. In the real world, we find that we occasionally need to "ban" users who threaten staff or other patrons, that we need to be responsible with tax dollars in limiting some services to residents or cardholders, and that we may need to kick off Runescape users who have been playing for four hours straight so that another patron can type his résumé. In a perfect world, you may never wish to force your staff to live on the salary you earned as an entry-level librarian; in the real world, you may look at your budget and realize that you could only raise salaries at the expense of updating collections, replacing outdated technology, or heating the building this winter.

Accidental library managers who previously spent time on the front lines, especially in reference, have already begun to learn these lessons; you can carry this knowledge over to your management position. In a perfect world, for instance, we may embrace the idea of empowering our users to find and evaluate information, giving them the tools they need to do so themselves. In the real world, we often find that this is not what our users want: they want an answer, they want it now, and they don't particularly care how you get there. In a perfect world, we enlighten our users and teach them to dig deeply, sorting through to find the best and most appropriate information for their needs. In the real world, we find that satisficing is a very real phenomenon and that, no matter what we do, users are going to grab the first page of search results –- preferably from Google! – and run with them. Becoming a manager requires an increased comfort level with these sorts of compromises.

Making the tough decisions

Learning to be an effective library manager involves learning to balance competing interests; theory vs practice being just one example. Library management requires us to walk the tightrope between the principles of librarianship, the needs of our staff and of our patrons, the requirements of our funding bodies, and the nature of our community. We need to balance the theoretical with the practical, the ideal with the realistic, and the expected with the doable, and we need to be willing to make the tough decisions.

We also need to face the consequences of making these types of decisions: you're never going to make everyone happy. Your staff may see any given decision as "caving in" to outside pressure; your own boss may pressure you to be "more realistic". Listen to all viewpoints; take time to ensure that you've made the right decision for your community of users and the good of the library, and then take responsibility for that decision. Managers can't please everyone, all of the time – which can be frustrating for librarians-turned-managers, who by training and temperament want to meet their constituencies' expectations.

Making tough decisions vs "We've always done it that way…"

Realize, too, that while library managers need to balance theory and practice, you also need to avoid falling into the trap of instinctively squashing new ideas because they sound too pie-in-the-sky. It's tempting to err towards the safe and the predictable, but this also hampers innovation and frustrates staff. Yes, you need to understand what's workable in your library's situation – but you also need to foster innovation and empower your staff to take risks. Over time, you will get a better sense of where to draw that line.

Balance your need to ensure that projects are realistic and feasible with the need to encourage staff to think outside the box and run with their ideas. One way to do so is by giving staff ownership of their ideas: let them run with a project, give them leadership, and let them come up with ways to fund, staff or otherwise carry out their plans. They may surprise you by coming up with solutions that you hadn't even considered, and their ownership of their ideas will in itself force a little caution on them.

As in all else, learning where to find this balance and how to empower staff while maintaining focus on workable solutions that match your library's mission takes time. Take the time that you need to find and maintain that balance.

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