Go to:
Online Doc
Meeting Request
John Jackson's picture

Session Notes from ALA Midwinter 2014

Tags: Events | 2014

Thanks to everyone who joined us. We had 37 in attendance. Also, see the write up about the event in American Libraries. Special thank to Catherine Odson for taking these notes!


How to get things done: a guide for librarians

ACRL New Members Discussion Group

Sunday, January 26, 2014, 10:30am–11:30am



  • Aaron Dobbs, Systems/Electronic Resources Librarian, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania

  • Heather McNabb, Branch Manager, Oaklyn Branch, Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library

  • Michelle Millet, Library Director, John Carroll University

  • Sha Towers, Director of Liaison Services, Baylor University


Moderator: Tyler Dzuba, Head, Physics-Optics-Astronomy Library, University of Rochester

Notetaker: Catherine Odson, Courseware Support Librarian, University of Pennsylvania


Opening Comments

Michelle: Been library director for year and a half. Before this, always taken “new” jobs. Do this. Scary, but you can make your own path because no one has done it before. You get to design it yourself.

What’s OK and what’s not OK depends on where you are. But I encourage you to dream as big as you can. If you’re some place you continually get blocked, you need a new job, as long as you’re not doing someone else’s job.

When you come up with a new idea, who is going to be involved? Who is going to be opposed? Who are your allies?

Effort vs. impact. Think of this matrix for all ideas.

(Note: Most in room have less than three years of experience.)

Aaron: First day at first job, have kids in the neighborhood ask him if he owned the library b/c he was only one in suit. Told kid that no, I work for you, you own the library.  And with that, the branch manager was not happy. Had to pull everyone else into it after stepping on their toes. Hard to dig out from there.

Be yourself. Don’t piss people off on purpose.

Find a project that no one else wants to do and do it well. Involve other people so its their solution, not just your solution. Your ideas come back around a few years later then.

Don’t make it all about you. Take yourself out of the equation.

Find someone you can use as a sounding board. Someone in the library, in the profession.

Ask the sideways questions, and ideas percolate up on the outside. Then it comes up through normal channels.

Sha: Important to be able to float up at a higher altitude. When you let go of ideas, or a great idea you mentioned first that someone else picked up, be OK with that. When we’re worried about how to make a good impression, pushing too much can leave a bad impression. Makes it clear that it’s about you. While those are important things for individuals, they’re not always well received in a culture.

Regardless of what library you work in, first step in any conversation is to do a lot of listening. Whether you’re brand new or in a brand new position. Understand the climate you’re in.

In new position with people he knew, couldn’t just tell them what they were going to do. Not just listen to people you think are important, but all people across the organization. Network with the people around you, then they start to trust you.

Might not be the right time or place for an idea, but you could get there in a few days or a few more years.

Michelle: All shiny new librarian thing. But one of the hardest things is to reel it in and hold it in. That was the hardest thing for me to do as a new librarian. You want to fix things, do things, and you can’t. Even if your bosses gave you blessing, you will burn out really fast. Don’t do all the things you want to do. Prioritize. Where can you have the impact?

When big bosses come with a project (the dead elk) — no one wants it but you have to do it. Don’t complain. Don’t bitch. Find people you can do it with. Suck it up. Do it.

Try really hard not to fall victim to the gossip mill. You find your people really fast. Also easy to find antithesis of those people. Things you say get out, and you lose trust. You are not going to get anything done in your organization if you aren’t trusted.

Aaron: how to deal with admins who create roadblocks. Everything that I did was things she wanted to do, but she wanted to do it. Sometimes its good to get a feel for where the boss is coming from. A lot of times, there’s a reason. As the supervisee, if you don’t know that they said you couldn’t do that b/c of time constraints and you say you’ll do it and don’t tell the boss, that leads to not good things. Any time you offer to do something, talk to the supervisor. Ask if timeframe, what’s promised is reasonable. Make it a discussion with them. If they say no, ask why. If there’s no why, drop it for a while.

At the same time, cover everything you need to cover.

Michelle: It takes an org culture 7-10 years to change. You may not even see that major shift while at a position, even if you help start it. You may not see the end of it.

If you have a boss that’s hard to read, someone has a better relationship or can help you feel things out. As directors if we’re holding up something, there’s a reason. “Can you help me see where the bottleneck is?”

“Help me understand” - magic words versus “Why do we?”

Heather: Sit down, advocate. Don’t give up. Ask director how they want you to handle it.

Sha: You don’t want to second-guess why this person is not open to it. Idea and initiative might be great, but could consume person’s energy, time and can’t do other things we need the person to do. Nothing to do with the project. All that stuff can only happen in conversation.


Q: What is the best way is to explore if something has been done before?

Michelle: Hard to figure out. Have to know who on campus to ask. Are you invested in it enough to want to do it? Sit down with direct supervisor, explain why you think it’s important, here’s how our peers are doing it. Always something you can use to leverage what you want to do. Go outside the library, too.


Q: What about trials, pilots?

Aaron: Everything new I do as a pilot with a defined length of time and assessment at the end of it. Pilot is usually 6 mos to a year. Key is it’s a pilot. Smoothes things over. Need a strong assessment mechanism and address concerns for what’s in the assessment process. Pilot, assess, address concerns.


Q: What happens if you’re new and your supervisor has a pilot project that no one else wants to do, and you see why, but your supervisor wants it. How do you navigate that? Get out of it?

Aaron: Jump in with honest assessment. Do it to the point where it needs to be assessed.

Michelle: Worst thing that happens is you just did something your boss wanted to you to do. Might waste some time, but builds a relationship. We’ve all done things we don’t think are good ideas. If you can prove in the end that it isn’t worth the effort to continue, it’s win-win.

Heather: Always find out the motivation. Can you offer alternatives that meet that motivation but is another avenue to try? Bring all the ideas you can.

Sha: Ask a lot of questions. “Can you tell me more about XYZ?” Tease it out as much as you can.

Aaron: Look for outcomes that are desired. Is there a shorter, easier way to get that?

Michelle: Start to learn people’s stalls, language. Observation, body language.


Q: Can you talk more about when it’s time to move on?

Aaron: Do you really know the culture of your organization? There’s institutional stuff that two years in, five years in, you think you’ve got it.

Heather: When you’re looking at a new job, I’m a huge fan of mystery shopping. I go check out a new library. Sit and watch what happens. It’s different in a public library, but I like to watch what’s going on. See what you don’t like, what you can change, so if I get the interview, I bring up those points right off the bat. If I see poor customer service, I’m honest that I want free reign to change it. They were OK with that. Have an open, honest conversation with them about the organization, what role I would play in that organization, whether the things I like to change, want to change fit with that organization. Honest conversations right when you get there about what you want to do and what you need to change. I knew going in they were open to change because of that honest conversation. Check the place out.

Michelle: A. If you are crying at work, that’s a sign. If it’s a continual pattern of that much frustration, that’s an honest sign. If you are not still learning, new challenges, about to stagnate, time for a new job. Don’t become one of those librarians.  If you don’t want to be that person

Sometimes you get a new boss and that changes the entire organization. Am I on board with this change or do I need to get out? Large amount of turnover when that happens.  

There are things you didn’t know what to look for in your first job that you didn’t know to look to. We’re selling just as much as you’re looking. When you take the job, there’s all these other people. That’s when you sit down with your boss. You hired me to do this, do I still have support to do this? If the support is there, everything else is just an obstacle.

Sha: Symptoms: This is taking a toll on me, are you bringing your work home with you, “Every time we get together, you talk about how sucky your job is.” That’s not how you want to spend your free time.


Q: When they welcome new members from other fields, should they do a mini-camp/day?

Michelle: That would be excellent. How to really survive in academia, culture.

Aaron: Coming into libraries is a change from anywhere. If you’re willing to ask a question, it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission. If you need to know something, go find out.

Michelle: People hired you. Go in with the confidence that they wanted you. If you step on some toes, that’s just learning.  Make sure someone knows, especially your boss, knows what you’re doing. If someone’s gone rogue, not good. You need to tell your boss what you're up to because your actions impact a lot of people


Q: Let’s talk about passive-aggressive. How do I toe the line between doormat and threatening?

Aaron: “Here’s what I’m working on, and I’m thinking of doing this. What do you think?” Make it feel like the solution is theirs.

Michelle: It stinks, but it gets the thing done. You have to make the person your ally.


Closing Remarks

Sha: Do a lot of listening, exploring, detective work to learn strengths of people around you. It’s doing the same thing in the other direction and building trust. Key to accomplishing anything. That’s the key to being able to excel as a group and accomplish things you want to do.

Aaron: “Everyone is working to improve the association in their own way. They’re not doing it to piss you off, they’re doing it to make things better.”

“An employees job is to make their boss look better and to get them promoted out of the way.”

Michelle: Your boss is a busy, overwhelmed person. It’s your job to explain to us what you’re doing, who is affected by it. I’ll give you support, but if you just assume because you think it’s important, I think it’s important, that’s where we’re going to butt heads.

Heather: These conversations can take place all the time. Find a support system and a support group that you can talk to about these things. If you have questions like these, find someone to talk to, not necessarily in your organization. That’s what we’re all here is to help each other. Go out there and find those people.

You should never feel alone, ever.