Monday, November 26, 2012

On the cultivation of virtue.

I promise that, in the end, this post will be about human resources and libraries.


In conservative social scientist Charles Murray's recent book, ComingApart: the State of White America, 1960-2010, he makes the familiar argument that self-governing free citizens cannot maintain a workable society in the absence of strong personal virtues. (I am only about halfway through, so I can't say if he takes the argument in any new directions.) The four virtues he lifts up as being of paramount civic importance are industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity.

Indulge me in setting aside the also-familiar counter-arguments about marriage and religiosity; the observation I want to make here is how, historically, social power in America deliberately did its best to keep whole classes of people from benefiting from all four of these virtues. The industriousness of ethnic minorities and women was attacked as “taking away” jobs from white men. Sexual minorities could not live honestly, have fruitful marriages or participate in the shared life of religious communities. These examples are the obvious ones that cannot be refuted. Of course, there are others that are more or less arguable in terms of scope and impact, along with the question of when (or if) the was of “historically” gave way to the is of the present.

The point of my observation is that citizenship does not just require virtue in order to succeed: virtue requires citizenship in order to develop. There is little incentive to work for a theoretically universal common good that deliberately or even accidentally excludes you in practice.


In my first marriage, I married into poverty. To say it was an eye-opener would be an understatement. I watched people that I loved making rational choices that were also bad choices. I watched their friends and acquaintances cycle through their own boom-and-bust economies on a micro scale. I learned the complete category error of the perennial question asked by people who aren't poor themselves, “Is poverty the result of moral failure or structural oppression?” In my experience, both direct and through extensive reading, what I've seen is that poverty shapes people. It's like psychological bonsai. Even with more resources, even in different environments, the history of constraint leaves its marks.


In human resources today, one of the more common topics of discussion is how to increase employee engagement. The basic idea is that a workforce that is both emotionally invested and competent will provide a competitive advantage over a workforce that is merely competent.

These discussions almost always make me want to laugh and cry at the same time, because highly-trained, committed professionals return again and again to a methodology of “what WE might do to make THEM feel invested in US.” It's HR as a brand-loyalty marketing program, really.

There are no shortcuts. There are no clever techniques. The way to increase employee engagement is to engage with one's employees. The way to increase emotional investment is to provide a return on that investment. People won't act like they have a stake in an organization's performance if they, in fact, don't. People who haven't had a stake before will continue to act like they don't, for quite some time.


In libraries today, especially academic libraries, one of the more common topics of discussion is how librarians can better respond to changing technological and economic realities. (Or, less charitably: how librarians can actually start responding, period.) One particularly desperate presenting issue is the impossible pricing models for serials, especially as they are bundled into online databases.

Recently, Jenica Rogerswalked SUNY-Potsdam away from the American Chemical Society. Responses were widely and overwhelmingly positive, though the Library Loon observed that somefolks were gravely discomfited. The BeerBrarian argued that eventhe applause contained disappointing elements, since Ms. Rogers' actions can reasonably be described as just doing her job as a library director. In larger libraries, some of those responsibilities fall on librarians further down the org chart.

A while back, I talked about whyI didn't want to be a library director anymore. The reasons boiled down to feeling powerless. I foresaw that it wouldn't be long before I had to make a similar decision to Ms. Rogers, and I assumed I would then get fired, as simple as that. I never would have predicted that faculty and university administrators could have been brought on board. Ms. Rogers is an outstanding library director, but I am thinking that the faculty and administration at SUNY Potsdam must be something special too.

I believe Library Loon when the bird says (in the post linked to above) that angry faculty get librarians fired. I think the causality there is off, though. I would say that "mediocre senior library administrators get librarians fired." Angry faculty is going to happen, especially in cases where publisher greed isn't as blindingly obvious, and it's just a question of too many pieces of the pie being a little bit too large. Communication and education can mitigate that anger. But effective communication by collection development and liaison librarians can't happen without the full support of the management layers above them. The librarians need time, personal encouragement and institutional cover to lay that groundwork.

I have had trouble over the years being tactful about librarian fears of irrelevancy and the embrace of information literacy as the primary response to a shifting information environment. Fundamentally, the prioritizing of teaching concepts over tools represented to me a surrender of any attempt to own (figuratively or even literally) thetools of library research. The profession collectively threw up its hands and said, "It's too hard!"

Well, librarianshiphas always been hard. That's what keeps it from being a pointless endeavor. If it were simple, we wouldn't need librarians as a specialized class of professional--and we clearly do. Or "information professionals," if you prefer. I'm not too picky about labels.

But librarians also have frequently needed to contend with mediocre administrators as well as a challenging environment. (The Library Loon talks about this a lot.) Librarians made rational choices about what they could achieve with the resources at hand. I realize now that I can't be too harsh on fearful librarians, though. They're correct to be scared--just of their bosses leaving them to hang out to dry, not the wider world in general.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Thoughts on staff development and succession planning

Fort Vancouver Regional Library System recently conducted a search for a Staff Development Manager. I find it hard to get an exact read on the expectations for a position from just a job description; having written my own fair share of them, I know they are a genre that frequently and necessarily combines applicant marketing with management wishlists and HR CYA boilerplate. I do think, though, that FVRL genuinely is looking to go beyond having a Trainer-in-Chief. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) One supplemental question in the application packet particularly piqued my interest as someone with a foot in both the library and HR worlds: "What is the relationship between staff development and succession planning?"

(Actually, "piqued my interest" is an understatement. I love this question. I adore this question. I will likely return to the height and breadth and depth of my affection for it in another post.)

Succession planning is an area where what smart organizations want more than anything else is options. Good staff development can help give organizations more options. For example:

  • You can have people ready to move into vacant positions and promote from within.
  • You can have in-house temporary coverage for essential functions of vacant positions during a search, making it more feasible to take the necessary time to find and train the right people as successors.
  • You can develop a good reputation among workers in the field, helping you to attract the highest quality candidates for vacant positions.
  • You can provide more challenges and satisfactions for staff who desire them, thereby increasing retention and reducing the frequency of vacant positions.

I have seen too much succession "planning" driven by urgency. That urgency can be negative, as in fear, or positive, as in opportunism. Whatever form the urgency takes, the end result is usually a narrowing of options and a feeling that circumstances are forcing a particular decision instead of informing a robust decision-making process. The organization finds itself reacting instead of acting, and the ability to see the staff as more than a jumble of job descriptions and individual skillsets can be lost. Good staff development programs, as identifiers of need as well as vehicles of improvement, can help shape that jumble into a coherent narrative of strengths and weaknesses and expectations. When succession happens--when organizations cannot avoid the question, "What happens next?"--it helps to have the narrative act more like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story than a cliffhanger.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Do librarians need a boss?

It's interesting, the difference between opining on a blog as an established librarian and as a comparatively new human resources professional. For the most part, I knew who my potential libraryland audience was, and which segments of it I was potentially going to alienate. HR? Really no clue. Which is unsettling, because I would be very happy to end up with a career in HR. If I ever alienate any HR colleagues, I would rather it be for situations where I've known the consequences of my words, and they've clearly understood them.

So this post is a bit of an experiment, in that I am talking about supervision in relatively flat organizations with relatively individualistic organizational cultures. I happen to have a lot of experience in those kinds of organizations, and I have thrived in them--but it doesn't mean I don't also fit in well in organizations with hierarchical structures and firmly defined roles. (In RPG alignment terms, I am so lawful it's not even funny.)

In a recent post at Inside Higher Ed, "Intellectual Freedom and the Library as Workplace," Barbara Fister decries "the way that relationships within the library are so often handled along a factory floor model rather than on the basis of shared governance." I am certainly not a fan of autocratic decision-making made detached from day-to-day operational experience in any organization, including academic libraries. I am unconvinced, though, that her proposed model of autonomous practitioner-professionals is a sufficient corrective for "corporate management culture."

The reason I am unconvinced is inherent in Fister's own argument: "It could work in any organization that held high standards, respected its workers, and developed a culture of shared responsibility and shared vision." Indeed, yes, it could. But in my administrative experience with libraries, churches and non-profit organizations, I have learned that these goals are stubbornly difficult to achieve as organizations scale up in size and scope of activities.

The main barrier is that "culture of shared responsibility." What I have found is that giving people decision-making power without also requiring them to participate in executing those decisions is a recipe for disaster. When people have discrete, well-defined areas of responsibility, there usually isn't a conflict. But there are all kinds of tasks that fall "between the cracks" because they cross those areas of responsibility. An obvious example in academic libraries is the integrated library system. Depending on the library, there may be reference librarians and collection development librarians and systems librarians and catalogers who want to use it in different and sometimes mutually exclusive ways.

"Shared vision" is also a tricky one. I am not sure if people don't assent to sharing a vision because they don't want to have to share responsibility, or if they decline to share responsibility because they do not share others' vision; most likely, people are just hard-headed, and committed and passionate people tend to be even more hard-headed than most. In any case, though, like the joke about the two Baptists stuck on a desert island who end up with three churches, organizations that make an explicit priority out of community often find themselves in the most bitter conflicts over what community means.

Without shared responsibility and shared vision, establishing and enforcing high standards is impossible. Without high standards, respecting workers is impossible or simply irrelevant. (Respecting their dignity, yes; respecting their competence, no.)

So what kind of things make it more likely to work? From my experience, I can think of four, off the top of my head:

-1- The organization is existentially important to each individual worker.

-2- No individual worker is existentially important to the organization.

-3- When the democratic process breaks down, somebody somewhere has the authority to step in and prevent paralysis.

-4- Performance management is about hiring people who demonstrate that they are unlikely to require a lot of organizational resources for managing their performance and firing people who have proven that they do take up a lot of organizational resources, rather than continuing to sink time and energy into giving people third and fourth chances, even if they can perform adequately when they have enough hand-holding.

I know that last one is, well, a bit harsh. But it may be the most important one. The power to act autonomously must be accompanied by an actual ability and willingness to act autonomously.

Monday, January 30, 2012

All the responsibility, almost none of the authority.

[ed. note 12/28/12 -- I've changed the title of this post because, as things do, my feelings have changed. Not dramatically: I still don't want to be a library director at a four-year liberal arts college or comprehensive university, or at the kind of public library large enough to have multiple departments. But I have learned in my year as an "HR guy" that I will always be the person who curates the information, expands the experiences, and strengthens the relationships that bind "my" communities together. My heart pushes me in that direction, and my skill set makes it work. So, yes, I see libraries I definitely would want to be the director of, where I identify so closely with the neighborhood or the service population or the specific mission that the frustrations I outline in this post just don't matter. They just make me more determined.] 

When I was job-hunting, I mentioned in a closed forum that I had a blog post called "Why I don't want to be a library director anymore" that I was sitting on until after I wasn't under consideration for any job where, y'know, it might hurt my chances. (There were some jobs that were half-way between director and branch manager that I did try for, which I still think would have been fun and not problematic.) And now I am in HR and loving the work and feeling secure enough to say, well, any future employer who writes me off because of this post would probably not be happy with me as an employee anyway, and vice versa. So.

I still feel guilty, though. I love libraries, and I am by nature driven to be a steward for the things I love. To declare a lack of interest in taking ultimate responsibility for a library, then, feels like a kind of a betrayal. Maybe it is; I don't know. I hope not.

The nutshell explanation is that being a library director is about having all of the responsibility and almost none of the necessary authority.

In a sense, it always was this way. But it seems to me that the gap between responsibility and authority gets wider every year. Collection management is a good case in point. With print, one could decide what to acquire and where to house it and how long to keep it and what preservation efforts to make for it. With electronic resources, libraries are more often paying for access instead of ownership, the resources frequently live on unidentified servers in the cloud, availability may not be guaranteed through subscription plans, and preserving the content may be illegal even when technologically feasible. Further, if a patron could read one printed page, they could read almost all printed pages. Now, there are Kindles and iPads and laptops and smartphones and all kinds of device-related complications to making content accessible.

I am not saying that print is therefore better than digital. I am saying that, from a management perspective, print is more manageable. If a patron couldn't get what they wanted when they wanted it, the director could own the choices that led up to that situation. Now? Not nearly as much. But the responsibility to do so has not diminished.

The example of collection management points to another, ultimately more frustrating gap between responsibility and authority: revenue vs. expenses. Library directors typically have no direct power to increase revenue. Even in public libraries funded by independent tax districts, the ability to increase revenue is limited to periodic all-or-nothing ballot measures that set a particular tax levy. (And then there is fundraising and grant-writing, which are generally the least reliable exactly when the need is greatest.) It isn't like libraries can set differential price points for different services, exploit market segmentation, or anything like that. Our professional values and political (small-p or Capital-P) realities make it impossible. Again, I am not saying this situation is worse than alternatives; I am simply saying it makes libraries less manageable. It is a tool that is missing from our toolbox.

Expenses, too, are generally hard for library directors to influence. We aren't generally dealing in bulk purchases or vendor competition, at least not on a scale that allows for effective negotiation. (I haven't seen any used databases for sale recently, either.) And we are fairly constrained in the collections and services we are expected to provide. If doing X and Y costs Z and is paid for with W and Z>W, and we can't decrease Z or increase W or drop either X or Y...well, there is not much to be done.

The one thing that can be done is to decrease the quality of X and/or Y, so that they cost less.

Which leads me to the one factor I can't get around, for why I don't want to do it anymore: I am not convinced it matters significantly if library directors at almost all libraries allow collections and services to drop from "excellent" or "very good" down to "okay" or even "minimally acceptable." (It may not be true for special libraries, but from what I see of academic, public and school libraries, I am sticking with this one.) I know that it matters a lot to librarians. I know that it matters in the realm of virtue, and it will always matter very much to specific individuals with very specific needs or desires. I am not convinced, though, that it matters to most funding agencies or most users. We live in an era of "good enough," of satisficing. Maybe we always lived in that era, and it was simply easier to achieve excellence with the resources people were willing to give us in order to achieve their satisfaction. I don't know.

I do know that I am not willing to die on a hill that is unclaimed by anyone but me and my colleagues.

Would I still be a librarian? Sure. In circulation or scholarly communication, especially. I would do the best job I could with what resources I had available. But the ultimate responsibility for securing those resources, I will leave to others who are temperamentally more suited to it -- or who just haven't burnt out yet.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Would you look at that? It's a new year already.

The original title for this post was going to be, "The system worked." Then I was going to go with, "I'm still not sure what hit me." Suffice to say: December was one wild and crazy ride. I am not complaining about where it left me when I got off, though. Everything that happened made sense and was handled quickly, competently and compassionately. Some people who will remain nameless have officially impressed me. (I would say, "You know who you are," but the likelihood that any of them are reading this post? Small.)

Some other people impressed me too, and I get to name them, because I will be working with them! Starting this week, I will be joining Free Geek as their Human Resources Administrator. I will be a member of the management collective. I have mixed feelings about leaving libraries, at least for the time being, but not about my new position. The HR aspects of being a library administrator were among my favorites--and, heck, for the first seven and a half years of my career, I functioned as the HR department for my library. Systems and forms and documentation and wrasslin' with external bureaucratic forces that mere mortals should never have disturbed? OMG So. Very. Sweet. And Free Geek's mission is right up my alley.

My family had some concern about the, shall we say, poor image of HR folks in our society. I completely understand. Livelihood, health, dignity, long-term security--is there anything HR can't threaten for an organization's employees? I tried to explain that HR work appeals to me for precisely that reason. Wherever there is a function that can provoke hostility and anxiety, I want to be there to mitigate them at the least and to help re-engineer things to eliminate them at best. (At the top of my library wish list during this past job search? Circulation and scholarly communication.) If "thankless" is an adjective commonly used to describe a particular job, chances are I'd jump at the opportunity to do it.

I will probably still write about library stuff here on this blog. In some ways, it will be easier now that I'm not responsible for any actual libraries. I don't have as much of a personal stake in how my comments are perceived by other librarians. Which feels kind of freeing, and also kind of daunting: appropriate feelings for the start of a new year, it seems to me.