It’s taking me a lot longer than usual to write this reflection piece since I’ve been busy with unpacking and settling into a new place.
As usual, this piece is meant to be reflective of my experience. No criticism is meant of my former work place as every organization has its quirks and ways it could improve. If anything, I was grateful for the opportunities I had in helping the library (and to a small extent the city) move forward and improve its services. So, please keep in mind that this piece should be read in a reflective, and positive tone. Now, onwards…
Getting the Job
I’ve told this story to numerous people and it hasn’t changed.
I wasn’t going to apply for this job.
Why you ask? Well, I didn’t think I was anywhere near qualified. A friend and professional colleague of mine thought differently. I will be forever grateful to her for convincing me to apply and writing an email recommendation. Even without naming me explicitly, it was obvious who she was referring to, so her email definitely helped to put me on the radar. I also can’t imagine a lot of library people applied for the job (mostly considering the response I saw when my job was posted to replace me).
It was a nerve wracking process. While I did my best in the interviews to “sell” myself and spent hours prepping, I was also honest about the fact that I knew I was lacking in some areas, particularly the staff management side of things. I had some supervisory experience, but none as the kind of department head they were looking for. Nevertheless, I impressed the panel enough to get hired.
Later on, I asked my managers why they hired me, especially over other candidates. They told me that a major part of it is my knowledge and experience in both technology and technical services (many people know one or the other, but rarely both well), but also that I answered a lot of the management questions better than the other candidates despite having less experience. They were confident that I could handle the management side of things with some guidance. I suppose they should be happy that they proved themselves right!
Some Organizational Context
The library is a fairly small one, especially for an urban setting, comprising of one main branch and a small community centre branch (which is relatively new). Nevertheless, it boasts itself (and rightly so!) as the oldest public library in BC, being over 150 years old. When I started, this proved to be both a good and not so good thing. The library is a cornerstone of the community, but sometimes things were entrenched in legacy ways. (Though this is true of every library I’ve worked in, so the fact that it’s older than most probably doesn’t make any true difference here.)
My position involved managing two teams: public technology, and technical services.
Public technology mostly consisted of staff who help users to use technology, provide related services (digital resources, technology loaned, etc.), and access and use of physical collections on the same floor (magazines, newspapers, microfilm, and historical material). Additionally, I was the primary liaison on the public service side with city IT, who managed the hardware and infrastructure.
Technical services (for those who don’t know) is the department that receives and does everything to get items into the system and ready for loaning. While many small libraries have outsourced this work to vendors, my library was still doing almost everything in house. Generally, the exceptions were when something was part of a group/consortial purchase (such as multilingual material).
Additionally, I was the equivalent of a systems librarian which included ILS administration, SQL reports, general technology troubleshooting (when there was no IT on site), and working on the public services desks.
Becoming an ILS Administrator
Wait… I already wrote about this part. Check out my Learning to be a Systems Administrator post on my thoughts on the ILS administration part. In there, all I’ll say is that while I wasn’t sure whether it was originally going to be part of the job, I’m glad it was, since it gave me the opportunity to understand much more about the workings of the library and how we could best make use of the ILS in various areas.
Becoming a Team Manager
I have to admit that there was some fumbling about at first, especially as I was getting to know some of the staff, it took me a little while to figure out what kind of management style would work best with the different teams and the different individuals. I was lucky to have great peers and supervisors that helped guide me through the process and the issues I encountered. My staff were also fairly patient with me.
I think the big take aways from my experience are these:
- Communicate as often as reasonably possible, as widely as possible, clearly, with a higher frequency and smaller pieces of information.
- Talk first, then email if instructions need to be laid out in writing (or have it on paper).
- Plan as much as possible. Have your plan in writing, and anticipate all the questions under the sun, and have a reasonable answer to questions you hadn’t anticipated.
- Staff prefer concrete plans, so time announcements about vague things as well as you can. You don’t want to do it too early nor too late.
- For big things, try having two meetings. The first to present the plan and a second a short time later so they have time to think about it.
- Check in often both formally and informally, individually and in groups,
- Choose your words wisely.
These all seem so obvious when I write them down, but in practice, it took a while to realize how best to put it all into practice. At first, I also thought I was communicating enough, but then I was told to communicate more. In order to get into the right mindset, I was told to think that there’s no such thing as overcommunicating. (Of course there is such a thing, but juggling staff communication with all my other duties meant that was unlikely to ever happen.)
Improving my Communication Style
Being straightforward and honest actually got me a long way with staff, so they were actually to my advantage. I didn’t hide things from them, didn’t avoid talking about some of the harder things, made my instructions and expectations as clear as possible, encouraged them to ask questions, and trusted them to follow through.
In the past, I’ve been told that I’m too straightforward and rub some people the wrong way. The longer I was a supervisor, the more I realized my problem wasn’t being straightforward, but being too blunt at times and needing to consider my words more carefully. I needed to stop responding too quickly, or blurting out what came to mind; I needed to think about which words to use to best convey my meaning and wouldn’t be misunderstood.
I need to continue to improve and grow, but I think I got a good start.
Becoming a Department Head
Aside from supervising staff, being a department head meant being part of the team that made the “big” decisions. There were a lot of staff changes (and OMG hiring took up even more time than I ever thought it would), and projects that needed to be done. Sometimes we had to decide what projects to shelve, how, and until when. Sometimes we had to decide who would take on which city wide initiatives.
It was a great experience to be part of the high level decision making team. I’ve always thought I was a decent big picture thinker, and getting first hand experience seeing how we could improve services to fit our strategic direction was invaluable.
I also got a glimpse of how the library fit within the city as a whole. I got to see how some of the other departments supported us, especially IT, but even purchasing. I was part of the panel that evaluated the submissions in response to our website RFP, and it was definitely an eye opening experience. The evaluation was a lengthy process, but the purchasing manager did a great job facilitating our work. I’m satisfied with how it turned out, and I hear they’re moving ahead with our top choice, which is nice.
Normally, being a middle manager doesn’t allow you to be a part of the top level team, but the library being as small as it is, means all the managers are involved. On the flip side, being of the small amount of staff, the middle managers also do a lot of operational work, and work on the public services desks. For my first foray into management, I couldn’t have asked for a better mix of on the ground and high level responsibilities.
My time at New Westminster was as great as it was because of the people. My managers guided me, my peers became my friends, staff were hardworking and patient, and city staff were supportive.
It was some of the soft skills and people skills that I was lacking when I started, and while I know I will never stop needing to learn and improve, I could not have asked for a better group of people to help me grow into an effective manager.
Personally, the biggest impact my experience had on me was the people skills. It’s easy to get the technical parts, but the soft skills are hard, because every individual and situation is different. Nevertheless, I got a lot done during a relatively short time, so I want to just get it down lest I forget in the future (and I’m sure I’m already forgetting some things).
- Spine Label Printer (networked)
- Brief On Order Record Loading from Vendor
- Batch Editing of Full Records from Vendor
- Import Profiles in Horizon
- Bookwhere and OCLC for Cataloguing
- Workflow Review and Revision including using “In Cataloguing” status, backlog reorganization, priority list (items put on hold after arrival), reordering processing steps, and shifting of duties.
- Cataloguing Guidelines document
- Authorities Reports and Cleanup
- Practicum Student (4 weeks): planning, supervision, etc.
- Moved Processing of Periodicals to Technical Services
- DVD Players for In-Library Loaning
- Summary of Technology Ideas, Needs, and Wants for Renovations
- BiblioCommons MARC Map Review
- Custom Reports in Horizon (wherever possible)
- Acquisitions and Ordering Review: minor changes to make more consistent, vendors used more consistently
- DVD Collection: separated subcollections internally; change from thin to regular cases; moved from split TV to full season sets; creation of TV Express collection
- Circulation Rules Review and Changes: consolidated and simplified many rules, increased many limits
I wish I could have done more with the technology team, but so much was tied into the renovations and opening a new lab that we put off a lot of ideas, everything from new technology to whole new series of workshops. It will now be up to my successor to roll out all the great technology related services.
I became a middle manager and part of a management team early in my professional career (only 4.5 years in actually). I am still amazed and thankful I got the opportunity, since I worked with a lot of great people and now I know that I can manage two very different teams, manage big projects and service changes, and be an ILS administrator. I don’t know what I’ll be doing next, but I know that I’ll be taking my experience and everything I learned with me.