by Kim Leeder
It’s official: we’ve entered the holiday season. Thanksgiving (and Black Friday) are safely behind us and the party invitations are beginning to roll in. It’s the time of year when we work perhaps a little less hard, reconnect with friends and family, indulge in good food and drink, and wait for the new year to arrive. Believe it or not, 2012 is just around the corner with its champagne and midnight countdowns. We are invited to reflect on what the past year has brought us: the good, the bad, and occasionally, the ugly. We share our stories of the year.
This post is my story of 2011. I hope you’ll consider sharing yours in the comments below.
In 2011 I left my beloved reference librarian position at a large, established university library in favor of a directorship at a brand-new community college library. I should have known what to expect when the outgoing library director asked, “Have you ever worked in a startup before?” I had some sense of what starting a new library might mean, and I was aware that the place I was interviewing had only existed – both as library and as institution – for two brief years. I had worked in several different libraries in the past, including two university libraries, a public library branch and even a small college library, but all had been established long before I arrived. I knew a “startup” would be something else entirely, though I didn’t know exactly what. I expected it to be an adventure, and one I was ready to tackle.
Being aware of the facts of the situation and understanding what it would mean to live and breathe them on a daily basis, however, were two wildly different things. After the previous director referred to my new library as a “startup,” I did some literature and web searching to learn more about startup libraries, their issues and challenges. To my surprise, I found… nothing. I tried variations of search terms related to building a new academic library, but still… nothing. I did find a few things that were peripherally helpful, but didn’t apply specifically to academic libraries. For instance, ALA’s Fact Sheet, “Setting Up a Library: A Resource Guide,” has a section on academic libraries but the actual content doesn’t offer guidance to those creating a new library. Public libraries have the Public Library Start-Up Guide, and the Special Libraries Association offers a resource list with some items of interest. Sure, all libraries have qualities in common, but the details vary widely. Where was my startup guide?
It looked like I was on my own. I knew I would, at least in the beginning, be able to draw on the one-person library community, as I would at first be the only librarian in a place with one other full-time staff member. But my situation was unique, as my discussions with the college administration made clear, because my charge was to grow the library collection, services, staff, and space. I wasn’t coming on board at a typical one-person library; I was there to create and build a whole new organization. The opportunity I had accepted was something rare and special, and it came without training wheels.
I live in the Treasure Valley of southwestern Idaho, a region inhabited by roughly half a million people who, until recently, never had a community college of their own. In 2007 voters approved a measure to create the new College of Western Idaho (CWI) and the first courses were offered in 2009. By the time I arrived in 2011, enrollment had leaped to approximately 5,500 FTE, outgrowing all predictions and stretching the existing staff, faculty, and services to the maximum. It is clear that there was a great need for a community college in my area, and it is equally clear that the faculty and staff of this new institution have a serious but thrilling responsibility to take CWI from startup to full-fledged college. A major focus is gaining accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, a lengthy, intensive process that has only just begun.
The library of which I am now director can best be described as a “one-room schoolhouse.” With only 4,000 print books and 17 computers, it fills what is essentially a large classroom in our main academic building. Upon my arrival it possessed a single-page website that emphasized databases offered by our accreditation partner, the College of Southern Idaho, and our state consortium. While that list of resources is considerable, its online presentation concealed the depth of resources offered. Furthermore, databases required either a login from the partner institution or a generic password students had to request by phone or email. To top it off, I am the first individual with an MLS to be employed here. The prior director, who clearly worked hard to build what infrastructure we have, retired shortly before I arrived, leaving few notes or records to get me started.
At present my library is neither impressive nor sufficient to support the needs of the college. This fact is vividly apparent to me, the students, the faculty, the college administration, and our accreditors. Turning the situation around by drawing on all my creativity and resourcefulness to build a library that CWI and I can be proud of is my great challenge. In my first four months on the job I have been stretched as a person and a professional, in ways I never anticipated. I have found joy in this work, and have trudged through a variety of challenges. And yet the adventure has just begun.
I have often said that I love being a librarian because it is the first job I’ve ever had where I never get bored. Prior to my switch to CWI, I worked for four years as a reference and instruction librarian at a mid-sized university library. This was my first professional position and I enjoyed learning the ins and outs of my job, building relationships across campus, and becoming an expert in my liaison areas. By the end of year four, however, the days sometimes slid by a little more slowly. I started to wonder whether there was more to being a librarian than continuing along the same (albeit pleasant) path. Without realizing it at first, I was ready for more. I was itching for new responsibilities.
I got my wish. Without any previous administrative experience I was suddenly the expert and decisionmaker on everything library. In my first few weeks at CWI Library I was variously asked for advice on copyright and course packets, requested to write a five-year strategic plan, offered the opportunity to hire students, temps, and a new librarian, invited to teach Communications students about research, and faced with making sense out of a stack of invoices. I had to figure out how to unravel a dysfunctional ILS, come up with a plan to address our time-consuming password problem, and advise college leadership on what a community college library for 5,000 students should look like. From coasting through a job that had become predictable and comfortable, I had launched into a world where my brain was whirring so energetically that it almost seemed possible that smoke might begin emanating from my ears. When friends asked how I liked my new job, I emphasized the joy of being in a role where I was again learning new things every day, if not every hour.
Along the same lines, perhaps the best thing about directing a small library – and a new library on top of that – is the fact that you have to be an all-around everything librarian and manager. You have to be ready and willing to embrace every aspect of the job, from cataloging to collection development to reference to budgeting and planning. There’s no room for specialization, and no time for it. While this is certainly not a situation that would appeal to everyone, for me it was as natural and as joyful as coming home. Not only do I have variety in my work, I have V-A-R-I-E-T-Y in all caps and with a few exclamation points thrown in at the end. (!!!). The days fly by like speeding jets and I have to remind myself to take breaks and to leave at a reasonable hour in the evening.
While any small library offers the pleasures of variety and generalization, what they don’t all offer is the joy of building something brand new. There is not much that is more motivational than knowing you’re part of creating something of value, something glowing and important that will serve the educational needs of future generations. The word “legacy” comes up with some frequency among the staff and faculty at CWI, as we are all cognizant of the responsibility and privilege inherent in building a new college. I have never worked with a more passionate, energetic, or dedicated group of people.
Last but certainly not least is the joy of self-determination; switching roles from that of a cog in the machine to that of presiding mechanic. Administration comes with a ream of heavy responsibilities, as others had warned me, but no one had ever told me how much fun it is to run a library. If my generation is known for its administrative-aversiveness, as I believe it is, then listen up all my fellow X’ers: Don’t knock it ’til you try it! I’ve always daydreamed about someday starting my own business, but was never sure what business it should be. “If only one could start a new library the way people start a business,” I used to think. I figured that no one gets that chance in libraries, since any organization needing a library had one already. Happily, I was wrong.
Making the switch to a small, startup library isn’t all rainbows and kittens, of course. While the work has its notable pleasures, I am also working harder than I ever have in my life. The pluses I described above each have their delta partners, though (rainbows again) I believe that they are all are manageable challenges and, ultimately, climbable obstacles. Still, it took about three months before I could sleep through a night without waking in the wee hours to make “to do” lists, and I continue to frequently lose sleep while mentally wrestling with some problem I need to solve at work.
Admittedly, my greatest challenge as a new director is my lack of expertise. I have only been a librarian since 2006, and my knowledge is primarily public service-related. It is no small thing to suddenly be responsible for an entire library, and particularly one that needs to be grown in every direction. How does a new librarian learn enough quickly to take charge of budgeting, hiring, managing, whole-library collection development, selecting a new ILS, negotiating database and journal contracts, and etc. etc.? The buck stops, as they say, with me, and there is no one to whom I can or should defer.
It is, sometimes, entirely overwhelming. Longtime small-library directors out there, I salute you. (And if you happen to have a support group, I would love an invitation).
Learning how to prioritize those substantial and growing “to do” lists has been another great challenge, made greater when it requires balancing tasks against each other that seem equally critical. What is more urgently needed: building the collection or facility planning? Getting a usable ILS or figuring out how to install EZProxy so students can actually log into resources from off-campus? Budget planning or hiring a new librarian? There’s so much to do that taking one step forward on each project every week seems like a great accomplishment.
To make things more complicated, space is an ongoing problem both in our library and in the college at large. My library’s two full-time staff, two part-time staff, and three work-study students all share office/staff/kitchen space that would more reasonably house two people. We work in very close quarters and are constantly (and unintentionally) interrupting and distracting each other from the tasks at hand. It can be challenging to get things done, though we are fortunate to have a wonderfully collegial team that makes the situation more bearable.
One thing I didn’t anticipate in making the leap to a small library was the isolating effect of moving to a place with a very small staff. I had become accustomed to having a large, varied team of colleagues in my university library jobs, and losing the creative energy of that dynamic and the support it provided on a daily basis has been difficult. I am lucky to have developed a wonderful network of colleagues both locally and nationally, but I do miss the daily interaction and banter that I once enjoyed.
I can’t conclude this section of the post without mentioning work/life balance. I’ll admit it, I’ve bragged a bit in the past, in previous jobs, about how well I have managed to maintain equilibrium between my personal and professional lives. Call it kharma or just desserts, but my balance has tipped dramatically since my job title switched from “librarian” to “director.” I once became impatient with people who didn’t answer their email within a day, but now I struggle to keep up with my own inbox. I skip lunch, work late, hit the gym, and get home shortly before bedtime. I am wagging my own metaphorical finger at myself, vowing regularly to “work on it.” I will get better at this.
Conclusion: Lessons Learned (and Learning)
At a dinner party recently, I ran into an acquaintance, a faculty member who chairs her academic department. She politely asked how I liked my new job, and I gave my usual answer about how much I love it, though I am working harder than ever before. Knowing she also had administrative duties, I added, “and I hope at some point I’ll be able to sleep through the night again.” To my surprise she entirely empathized, saying that it took her a long time before she got over the same late-night worrying and list-making that I had described.
“It’s not just me then?” I asked, relieved.
“Not at all,” she responded quickly. “It took me a long time before I could accept that I simply can’t get everything done.”
My first thought was, Oh yes I can, but I pushed it aside long enough to recognize the wisdom in her words. She didn’t mean she wouldn’t try, but sometimes things would slip through the cracks or get finished after the deadline. And that was okay. In fact, it was entirely human.
I’m a get-it-done personality type: when I see things that need to be accomplished my natural response is to put my head down and push through without stopping until I’m finished. That approach just won’t work here, as I have never before faced a challenge as substantial, complex, and long-term as building a library. This will require an approach more akin to that of a distance runner and less that of a sprinter, and after running three marathons I’d like to think I’m psychologically prepared for the shift in perspective. I will need good pacing, regular breaks, and ongoing training. But perhaps most important of all, I will need to be patient and persistent to arrive at this finish line in one piece and smiling.
As 2012 arrives, I’ll still be running.
Many thanks to Ellie Collier, Karen Downing, and Emily Ford for their valuable feedback that helped shape this post.