The Highly Successful 21st Century Library Director


I recently had a conversation with my good friend urban library director back east. We have known each other quite a while, and I have enjoyed her accomplishments and admired her success. I asked her what she thought was the major factor to being a successful library director. Is there one major trait or characteristic she has that she considers the essential factor to success? Her reply was inspiring.

There are two things I think are fundamental to my success and anyone leading a library (or any service organization like this).

1) This organization and job are my number one priority. I consider it my job to know more, do more and care more than anyone else in the organization. I am the Library Director 24/7 – because the Library exists 24/7. The facility is always here and whether I work on a particular day or not – we are still open and serving the public.

I am invested 150%. If I’m not at work – I’m thinking about work. I am always solving problems, considering angles for approaching challenges, developing strategies and planning ahead. I am never off-clock because the library never stops existing. I never shirk from that responsibility and the buck ALWAYS stops on my desk. Anyone who either feels they are “not always on the clock” or doesn’t accept that, and that at the end of the day EVERYTHING is their responsibility, is not going to be very successful.

As a “Library Director” you are ALWAYS the Library Director. I never show up at an event and have someone in the community say “Oh, it’s (her name).” They always say “Oh, it’s the Library Director.” You are no longer a private person. You will ALWAYS represent the Library. And, if you do not like that or don’t want that – then this isn’t the job for you. I know that anywhere I go in town or anything I do can (even if it does not – it CAN) reflect on the Library. My DUTY is to make sure that I always present the Library and myself in the best possible light so as not to besmirch the Library’s reputation, or jeopardize our funding, etc.

2) The needs and mission of the organization ALWAYS come first. It isn’t about me and it isn’t about the staff. I am responsible to see that this organization functions at the highest possible level of efficiency, responsibility, accountability and integrity. My job is to always meet that expectation and see to it that everyone else gets as close as possible.

It isn’t about the staff. I’m not here – the library isn’t here – to give them a job. They are here to serve the public and the taxpayer. I see staff as a resource to be managed – not a group of people to take care of. I do acknowledge it is useful to have a second in command that is more touchy-feely on a daily basis, as long as they never interfere with getting the job done – whether that is staff accountability or layoffs.

Her reply didn’t surprise me, because I know how she operates and she has shared many stories and issues in her career, but it was inspiring to read it so well articulated. Because her reply reinforces (as I suspected it would) the leadership ideas that I put forth almost a year ago. My December 2012 post, Top Ten Traits of Great Library Leaders, listed these 10 traits in ascending order.

10. Great Leaders Do Not Do It Alone

9. Great Leaders Express Gratitude

8. Great Leaders Understand Motivation

7. Great Leaders Delegate and Empower

6. Great Leaders Are Learners

5. Great Leaders Are Problem Solvers

4. Great Leaders Are Decision Makers

3. Great Leaders Take Responsibility

2. Great Leaders Are Visionary

1. Great Leaders Have High Character

Library leaders should be striving to be “great” leaders. It’s what the profession needs to flourish in the ambiguous future and regain the library’s relevance in the community. It is what’s needed for survival, and it is a privilege to know my urban library director friend who epitomizes these traits.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Highly Successful 21st Century Library Director

  1. No family, no down time – where is the life balance?

    • “The Highly Successful 21st Century Library Director” is not a 9 to 5 job. If your priority is to have life balance, then don’t become the CEO of an organization, or expect to achieve excellence. Is this a question you would ask of the President of the USA, or CEO of General Motors? Would you prefer to have a cardiologist who cares more about his/her life balance than about your health when you’re having a heart attack?

  2. Lucy

    Point one is true. Public library staff, esp. library directors, need to be passionate about their libraries. As a taxpayer funded service, the role of libraries is to serve the public. If we don’t provide for the local community needs, we are not functioning correctly and will lose funding.

    Point two is a foolish remark for a library director to come out with. The needs of library staff need to be taken into consideration to keep a regular, reliable workforce. Otherwise, staff turnover rate would be high with no chances of connection between library regulars and staff, staff would be disinterested in serving library patrons and there would be an increase in staff taking sick leave.

    • Thanks for your observations. However, it is evident that you and I did not read the second point in the same context.
      “2) The needs and mission of the organization ALWAYS come first. It isn’t about me and it isn’t about the staff. I am responsible to see that this organization functions at the highest possible level of efficiency, responsibility, accountability and integrity. My job is to always meet that expectation and see to it that everyone else gets as close as possible.”

      I understand this to mean that when there is a conflict between the organization’s needs, i.e. someone needs to work on Saturday, and the individual’s needs that the library’s needs take priority. If the individual’s needs always took priority, the organization would be in total chaos.
      The highly successful leader knows how to look out for the needs of the staff, ensure that there is a positive and uplifting work environment, that team work builds a successful library, etc. The point of this post was to define what makes a highly successful library director. I think you’re being nit picky and missing the bigger overall concept. One should never refer to something they don’t understand as foolish.

      • Lucy

        Of course the public should be the priority in public libraries, but library directors cannot forget the needs of the front-line staff. Library directors may make decisions and implement new policies, but it’s the front-line staff who work with these decisions and policies, and it’s the front-line staff who are the very face of public libraries for the public.

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