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The accidental library manager – Instalment 5

Managing relationships


Above all else, one simple word strikes fear into most accidental library managers’ hearts: politics. We tend to view politics as (at best!) a waste of our time, sucking our energy and our spirits dry in the fruitless pursuit of prestige, and further removing us from the front-line work of actually running our libraries.

Like so much else in management, though, when we reframe our view of politics, we find ourselves better able to engage effectively in the business of advocating for our institutions. A better word for politics? Relationships. Successful politics really boils down to the ability to manage the web of relationships in which every library manager finds him or herself. Successful politics requires the ability to build and nurture relationships and to speak to various stakeholders in their own language.

Building and nurturing relationships

In a library, your stakeholders can include: your staff, your administration, the administration of your larger institution, your library board, your local government, your patrons or customers, your community as a whole, local business leaders… The key to success here lies in determining which stakeholders are key to a given project, as well as nurturing ongoing relationships with each group (not just when you need their support!).

The previous instalment on management in the Library 2.0 era talked about the importance of listening to staff, which extends to the importance of communication on all levels. Communication builds relationships, so take any opportunity to build and strengthen connections in all directions. In a public library, this may mean going out into the community to become active in local organizations, give presentations to the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, and volunteer for village and community committees. In a corporate library, this may involve creating a blog or newsletter that focuses on issues of importance to your colleagues; offering training; getting yourself on teams and volunteering for projects.

When fostering your relationships with various groups, come from a place where your interest is genuine rather than forced. Librarianship is an inherently collaborative endeavour, and we open more doors when we extend that sharing and cooperative spirit beyond our four walls.

Speaking to stakeholders in their own language

After moving from a front-line position into a management position, it can be difficult to learn to adjust your language and assumptions when dealing with different groups. Just as when conducting a reference interview, you here need to overcome your preconceptions of what each stakeholder is looking for to instead get to the heart of what they need – then talk to them in terms of their own priorities.

Realize here that others’ priorities may not match yours, and that’s OK. What matters is your ability to get to the desired end result in a way that serves everyone’s needs. When you are able to determine what matters most to a particular individual or group, you can reframe your proposals and discussions in terms of those priorities.

For example:

Let’s say that you, as the head of young adult services at your institution, want to institute teen gaming nights at your public library. Your personal impetus for this: teens have been asking about these; neighbouring libraries have been hosting similar programmes; you think it will raise teens’ enthusiasm level about the library; you think it would be a fun programme.

You need to convince your library director and board of the desirability of this type of programme. Your director is sceptical that gaming is relevant to the library’s mission, and the board is worried about noise levels and about being seen as wasting taxpayers’ money on “frivolous” purchases of gaming systems. How do you proceed?

First, put yourself in your director’s shoes. While you may feel it’s perfectly obvious how gaming relates to the mission of the library, which in your case is to “meet the informational, cultural, and entertainment needs of the community”, how do you demonstrate its relevance to someone who has never gamed?

You might begin by gathering statistics and research: Which neighbouring libraries have held gaming programmes? What direct results have they seen (e.g.: YA circulation is up X per cent on gaming nights, membership in the Teen Advisory Group has risen by Y per cent since the programme’s initiation)? Can you cite examples in the professional literature that bear out your sense of gaming’s relevance? Can you relate the current concern over gaming to older concerns about libraries’ investment in materials like feature films? Show that gaming brings similar benefits, and explain that current concerns will die down just as those about videos have. Cite statistics showing that game sales exceed those of recorded music and that gaming is among the most popular online activities for this age group.

When making your case to the board (or to your director to bring to the board), back yourself up with facts that demonstrate a return on their investment. Research costs beforehand so you know exactly how much initial investment in equipment is necessary. Address potential concerns before they arise and stress the programme’s benefits by including bullet points such as:

  • When neighbouring Library Q held their Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) competition last month, they received no patron complaints. The director of Library Q received two letters from parents who appreciated the library providing a safe space for teens to interact with their peers.
  • Recent literature on gaming shows a direct link between playing video games and improved problem solving and collaboration skills.
  • For a minimal initial investment of $X, we will be able to hold monthly programmes.
  • Local libraries holding similar events have seen their door count rise by Y on gaming nights, and circulation of their teen collection has gone up by Z per cent.
  • Public libraries in some areas have seen teen attendance rise X per cent in general after instituting gaming programmes to pull them in. Surveys show that Y per cent of gaming programme attendees return to take advantage of additional programmes and services.

When presenting any proposal, you stand a better chance of success when you anticipate potential objections and address them openly upfront. Be able to show stakeholders a tangible return on their investment (of time, money, resources, or attention); don’t just assert that a given programme or service is something the library “should” be doing. While moving into management gives you more official “power” to implement programmes and services, you depend on the support of others at every level.

When building these relationships and learning to reframe your arguments in terms of others’ priorities, be sure to pay attention to your relationships with library staff as well – which is the subject of instalment six.

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