Leadership in Libraries: Observations from the Director’s Seat

Pat Losinski – CEO, Columbus Metropolitan Library & the Efficient Librarian

Right now is the most exciting and challenging time to be a library director.  With new formats of material, a vibrant in person and online communities, and the need for quiet space in the face of a busy world, public libraries are busier than ever.  It is also the most confusing and unsettling time to be a Director.  Between shifting political winds, a global pandemic, and uncertain financial conditions, the future of libraries is highly uncertain.  How library leaders navigate this dynamic environment will determine the future of libraries in the 21st Century.

As a current library director I am engaged in shaping the future of our profession.  To that end I have spent over hundreds of hours during the past seven years talking to other library directors to discover their views on the profession and the institution of libraries.  In this article I will share insights I learned and provide guidance on whether the path of the library director is the right one for you.

First a bit about me.  I have over 32 years of public library experience starting back when I was a teenager working as a page in the Toronto Public Library System.  I spent ten years with the system, during which time I earned my Masters of Information Studies.  With a recession offering limited opportunities for advancement in Toronto, I took a risk by moving to South Florida to work for the Palm Beach County Library System.  For the past twenty two years I have served in various roles including a Children’s Librarian, Webmaster, Branch Manager, and Branch Division Director.  In 2014 I was appointed Director of the Library System by our Board of County Commissioners and will be completing my seventh year in the position this summer.

To provide context, here are a few facts about the Palm Beach County Library System.  It has seventeen locations spread out over the largest county east of the Mississippi while serving a population of 1.5 million and growing.  Our branch service is augmented by a robust outreach operation that includes a bookmobile.  The anticipated operating budget for FY22 is over $73 million with a current staffing compliment of 448 merit positions.  We are one of the big six public libraries in Florida and this year we are celebrating our 52nd birthday.  The Library System is a department of County government and works with other departments and municipalities to deliver services and resources.

My path to becoming a Director started in 2011 when I was the Manager of our Wellington Branch.  I was participating in a leadership program that made me consider my career options.  At the time I didn’t know exactly what the Director did other than it being the person at the top of the organization chart.  To learn more I began interviewing local library Directors in Florida, starting with then current Director John Callahan.  Each person gave me a deeper understanding of the role and they all encouraged me to aspire for the position.  In 2014 John retired and I was named his successor after a lengthy interview process conducted by the Library Advisory Board.  After being appointed I continued to interview Directors from across the country to make contacts and continue my education into the position.  One of the Directors, Melanie Huggins of Richland Library, encouraged me to write an article about the interviews.  It became my first article for Public Libraries magazine called “May I Ask You a Question?  Interviews with Library Leaders.”  Published in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue it featured the collected wisdom of sixteen library leaders.

One of my first insights is that the size of the library impacts the Director’s duties.  In a small city library the Director is hands on with the public, even spending time on service desks or covering the book drop.  In larger systems the Director has little or no front line interaction.  Instead they are devoted fully to administrative tasks and community outreach.  Regardless of the size of the library, the job has a set of basic similarities.  In that article I broke down the role of the Library Director into six broad areas of concern. 

  • Finance – Without a steady flow of revenue and the careful management of resources a library cannot function.  Directors work with their finance officers to create annual operating budgets that must be approved by their governing board.  Staffing, collections and facilities are the three biggest areas of expenditures.  Revenues are usually steady as public libraries rely on taxation, either from property tax or municipal taxes, to keep the lights on.  Budgets are divided between operating expenses, such as salaries and material acquisition, along with capital expenses for new construction or renovations of facilities. 
  • Politics – As a component of government, Library Directors play a role in the local and state political process.  Library Governing Boards are composed of either directly elected officials, such as a Mayor or County Commissioners, or officials appointed by them.  Typically the Director goes to their Governing Board to ratify their budget or gain approval for policy changes or major purchases.  The Director needs to be responsive to the priorities of their Board Members, even when they may be in opposition to their own personal ideas.  Some Directors have advisory boards that provide input on library operations.
  • Vision – The Library Director must articulate the purpose and role that the library plays in the community.  Too often people think that the library is simply a “warehouse of books.” The Director must be able to clearly explain the vision for the library and justify the priorities to the Governing Board, community partners, and the general public.  The Director does this through internal channels for staff and through publications, press releases, and media appearances to inform the public.  Effective relations are key to success in sharing the vision.
  • Strategic Planning – A vision with a plan is just a dream. It is important for the Director to create and update the library’s strategic plan. This is a document that outlines what the library intends to do with its resources and how it will determine whether it was successful.  The plan is designed in conjunction with the budget since the monetary resources available to the library directly impact programs and collections.  Many libraries refresh their plan every three to five years, if not sooner.  A good strategic plan should be simple, clear, and measurable.
  • Outreach – The days of waiting behind service desks for the public to visit us are over. We have to meet our residents where they live, work, and play. The importance of reaching out to the community is to create partnerships and raise awareness for library services and resources.  The Library Director is the ideal individual to meet with community leaders of all types to garner support and find ways to create partnerships that facilitate deeper connections.
  • Staffing – The library can only go as far as the staff will take it.  The Director must be in regular contact with employees at all levels of the organization.  People will only follow a leader as far as they believe that the leader cares for them.  Therefore a good Director maintains open and clear communication, especially in challenging times.  They must also guide wise recruitment focusing on diverse experiences and backgrounds to create a strong team.
  • Character – As the highest ranking member of the organization the Library Director’s actions and statements are watched carefully.  To that end the Director must uphold the values and ethics of the profession at all times.  As is human nature, staff will tend to follow the example of the leader.  This means it is important that the Library Director displays proper behavior and sets clear expectations for everyone on their team.  Character issues can quickly sink a director’s tenure.

After several years of experience I decided to revisit the role of the library director in 2018.  This time I expanded my outreach to include fifty prominent library directors across the country with attention paid to a diversity of experience, geography, backgrounds, and system sizes.  The results of this survey was published in the May/June 2019 issue of Public Libraries magazine under the title, “Go for It: Advice from Library Leaders.”  One of the first takeaways for me from this round of interviews was all the different ways that public libraries are organized.  These range from being City or County Departments, to Independent or Quasi Independent Districts, to Non-Profit entities.  They are funded through different means, such as property tax districts, general revenue funds, sales tax, or even charitable donations.  Throughout the rest of this article I will quote comments from some of those directors interviewed for that article. 

My findings lead to a simplified model to explain the role of the library director with three broad functions.

  • Organizational Health – The Director must keep their finger on the pulse of the internal workings of the library.  They must ensure that the library’s policies and procedures are supporting the mission and vision.  Morale of the staff should be monitored and actions taken to address concerns and provide opportunities for professional growth.  The Director should encourage open communication to keep information flowing up and down the organization.  Wise recruitment of dedicated staff is a priority.
  • Chief Diplomat – The Director serves as the face of the library.  They must carry the library’s message into the community by reaching out to local leaders for support.  It is also in the Director’s interest to establish good relations with elected officials to ensure political support.  Creating partnerships with other organizations that have similar goals and objectives is vital as few libraries have the resources to succeed all on their own.  Also the Director must be willing to speak to the media as needed to promote great news and mitigate troublesome issues when they arise.
  • Custodian of the Vision – The Library Director must keep the purpose of the public library front and center in the minds of staff and the community.  This starts with crafting a strategic plan and budget that supports the vision and mission then make updates to keep it fresh and relevant.  The Director must also serve as promoter in chief to constantly share the good work being done by the library to everyone who will listen.

My years serving as a Library Director has led to a deeper understanding of a primary challenge of the job.  It is the constant struggle to find the right balance between strategy and adaptability.  These factors are like the wings of an airplane.  Everything will come crashing down if they become unbalanced.  An organization without a solid plan is flying blind and will run into constant crisis through inefficiency and mismanagement.  On the other hand, an organization that does not adapt to changing circumstances risks becoming rigid.  There will be times when the focus is on strategy and others where the focus is on adaptability.  The trick is to balance them both out over the long term.

On the strategy side a written long range plan is the starting point.  Most public libraries are required to have one by city, county, or state ordinance.  While this can seem like an exercise in appeasing the authorities, a well thought out strategic plan provides clarity for decision making and helps justify the budget.  Since resources are always limited the plan forces an organization to set priorities.  A good strategic plan has measurable outcomes that clearly match the organization’s purpose. Community input on the process can help uncover needs that might not be apparent at first.

Since conditions change regularly, in order to achieve the goals in a strategic plan a Director must guide their library to adapt.  The driving determinate of adaptability is embedded in the organization’s culture.  One definition of culture comes from Tim Kight, founder of Focus 3.  He defines it as a common set of beliefs that lead to an accepted set of behaviors that create an experience for those inside and outside the organization.  Culture measures how motivated people are to achieve their goals.  Weak cultures fragment under stress while strong cultures come together in the face of challenges.

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

What can the Director do to create a strong culture in their organization?  One of the lessons for me from the past couple of years is that communication is key.  No matter the size of the system it is tempting for those in charge to horde information, sometimes as a way to retain power, but just as often out of oversight due to busy schedules.  However, a lack of communication creates openings for misinformation to flow.  While there are certainly some things that need to be kept private, such as personnel issues, my experience is that most other information can and should be shared broadly.  To that end in my system I started a number of initiatives to improve communication.  This includes a weekly electronic newsletter sent to all staff.  I also do regular branch visits to each location to see the front lines first hand along with Zoom Town Halls to reach all staff with the latest news.

The question I faced as branch manager is the one I’ll return to now.  Should seeking a library director position be part of your career path?  From a strictly salary perspective the position is tempting.  The Library Director is usually the highest paid staff member and may also enjoy executive level perks such as vehicle allowances or increased retirement funding.  However, the extra money may not be worth it if overall job satisfaction is diminished.  As one of my colleagues put it, “The librarian part is second to the director part.  It is a whole different job.” 

Library directors must be comfortable dealing with the two biggest pieces of the job: politics and budget.  Budgets are political documents as they outline the intent of the organization to use its resources.  Politics affects budgets since public institutions are influenced by partisan choices and voter will during referendums.  Most librarians spend their career never gaining experience in either politics or finances until they reach the Director’s chair. 

One of the directors interviewed stated, “Be aware that the job is political and you won’t have as much direct satisfaction as a front line person.”  This means that success must be measured over a longer horizon than day to day transactions.  A director might spend countless hours in meetings advocating for their needs to elected officials and community leaders without any clear knowledge that it will bear fruit.  For example I have taken the six hour drive up to my state capital every year to advocate for library funding and to be honest I have no idea if any of those visits ultimately had an impact on the final decision.  However, to not make the trip would be a failure to do my job.

Photo by John Guccione on Pexels.com

Another director shared that, “The hunt for money is always a challenge.”  Libraries need funding to pay staff salaries, purchase collections, and run the AC.  Budgets are big complicated documents that are subject to local, state, and federal rules.  A lack of stable funding can turn the library director into a full time fundraiser.  Most librarians as they move up through the organization play a peripheral role in the budget preparation process.  When I was considering applying for the position I filled that knowledge gap by taking online courses on government finances.  While it was not direct experience, it did help to clarify terms and procedures that I otherwise would not have known.

One other factor to consider when contemplating becoming a library director is the psychological weight of the job.  This past year’s pandemic forced directors to make public health choices that literally could have meant life or death.  The safety and security of our staff and public is one of the responsibilities that directors accept when they take on the role.  This can be a heavy lift and lead to a lot of sleepless nights.  A basic fact of any organization is that turnover is high when staff do not believe leaders are keeping them safe.

For those who do not want to be a director there are plenty of opportunities to still be a leader.  Every organization no matter the size needs people to lead at all level.  As bestselling author John Maxwell states in his book, Developing the Leader Within You, “Leadership is influence.”  What he means is that leaders get things done by the nature of their relationship with others.  He goes on to explain, “All good leadership is based on relationships.  People won’t go along with you if they can’t get along with you.”  In fact Maxwell believes that leadership must exist at all levels of the organization.  In fact some of the best leaders may have no direct supervisory or management role.  Their commitment and desire to make a difference is the key to their influence.  As he states in The 360° Leader, “You do not have to be the top dog to make a difference.  Leadership is not meant to be an all or nothing proposition.”

Let me share two people in my library system that demonstrate this principle.  Nemoure Ahmed was one of our longest serving branch managers when she took on the role of a Branch Division Area Coordinator.  She is one of the most admired people in my system due to the kindness with all her staff and the members.  She listens deeply to people and offers sound advice based on her deep experience.  Adam Davis moved through several management roles until settling into Director of System Services.  His work ethic, passion to serve, and sense of humor make him a valuable team member.  His work is focused on ways to reach under-served communities.  Also, his commitment to the fundamentals of librarianship inspire those who he serves.

At the most basic level no matter your position there is always one person you can lead: Yourself!  Everyone who wants to lead others must first be responsible for building their own career.  This includes developing the discipline to work alone when needed and the humbleness to ask for help when required.  Someone who leads themselves develops a growth mindset.  They accept that there is always something new to learn and are willing to endure mistakes to master new skills.  Another understanding of successful leadership is to find passion in whatever position you are in.  What sustains us through challenging times is a clear vision of where we are going matched with a desire to get there.  While every position has boring components, your role is to find the pieces of the job that excite you. 

A good example of someone with passion in my library system is Maribel De Jesus, our Multicultural Outreach Librarian.  She takes the lead on organizing all of our heritage month events and serves as a primary contact for the library with our multicultural partners.  Although she has no management or supervisory duties, her low key leadership with outreach and awareness for our diverse communities is important for the library’s mission.

Another trait about those who lead from anywhere in the organization is that they have the ability to connect with anyone across ranks and divisions.  Cultural expert Shola Richards notes in his book, Go Together, that a game changing leadership ability is to “master the moment by being fully present with others.”  When people know you care about them they will be more engaged. To be fully present, I believe that one must learn how to be kind.  Kindness is a powerful intention that provides positive benefits to everyone involved.  There is an old belief that leaders must be distant and cold in order to make the tough choices.  In truth, when leaders demonstrate kindness to their colleagues those challenging decisions are more easily accepted.   As one of the directors in my survey noted, “I have to slow down and be patient to get more people involved in the process.”

Here are two more examples of mid-level leaders in Palm Beach County.  David Scott is our longest serving branch manager.  He leads his team by example through his willingness to work any service desk and enjoys presenting activities to the public.  David is an example of someone who loves being a manager because he is close enough to the front lines to see the results of the work but also able to step back to be part of system wide committees and see the larger view.  Ron Glass is our Bookmobile/Outreach manager.  He has a passion for outreach, especially to those who are unable to visit our branches.  Ron will drive our bookmobile out to sites with his small team to personally serve the residents.  The bookmobile will travel to 6-8 stops every day which means lots of set up and take down.  However, Ron enjoys the direct personal contact with the members which keeps him engaged in the work.

Perhaps the most important advice I got from my interviews came from Pat Losinski, CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. Pat is a highly respected library director for his work locally, nationally, and internationally. Early on he told me that to be successful, “The Library Director should focus on the things that only the Director can do.” The Director must identify the specific duties they alone are empowered to do versus the duties which can be delegated to others. Every year I reflect on this advice and do my best to apply it in order to refine my role to provide the greatest benefit to the library system. When I apply it, my work has greater impact and quality.

For those who are inclined to take the path towards being a director, I’ll close with quotes from several respondents.

“This is an exciting job, no two days are the same. You must like change and have agility to go with the flow of any given day.”

“There is oftentimes a self-monitoring or timidness to putting yourself out there and saying that it is something you want to do. If you have any inclination, you should state it with confidence … There are very few failures, but there are some great people who never launch because they didn’t put themselves out there. By coming to terms with that you can accept and embrace the position. … Move forward and don’t wait for the epiphany. Remain humble by respectfully asking people for help to move forward.”

“Just do it. If you are thinking about it, then go ahead and don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know.”