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.

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