What He Said...
Elevating the Debate


I'm amused that Sunday's note on my vacation has generated several comments looking for career advice, most recently from Sarah, who asks, "As a new grad,... how does one get administrative experience?"  This speaks to one of the most common dilemmas facing those who are trying to move up into their first supervisory position -- "Every job ad seems to want somebody who already has supervisory experience!  How am I going to get any in the first place?"  No question that this is a tough hurdle to overcome.

Several years ago, when MLA's Medical School Libraries Section was transmogrifying into the Leadership and Management Section, one of the questions we were faced with (I was chair of the section at the time) was, aren't you just setting up a section for directors or director wannabes, and is that something we really need?  So we went to great lengths to point out that leadership and management skills are necessary if one is going to be successful in any professional position, from entry level across the board.  I think the section has done a pretty good job at getting that point across, and directing its activities to librarians at every stage of their careers.

In my reply to Bob Riley's comment, I mentioned the importance of people skills and good communication skills.  I consider these to be the bedrock of the successful administrator, and they are qualities that an entry-level librarian can demonstrate from the first day on the job.  Too many times over the years I have found myself in conversation with someone who explains that they're seeking some higher management job because then they'll be able to get people to do things the way they want them done.  Using the unearned authority of one's position to command people isn't leadership, and if you are not successful in effectively motivating your peers, you are not going to be very successful just by becoming their boss.

Most organizations these days try (with more or less success, I suppose) to foster a team approach, and there will be ample opportunities for a new librarian to demonstrate their leadership and administrative abilities.  How effective are you as a member of a team?  Can you handle disagreements in a positive, straightforward, but nonconfrontational manner?  Are you willing to take on new projects that may require you to move outside your comfort zone?  How effective are you at sharing credit and celebrating the successes of your colleagues?  Do you get your projects in on time, or ahead of time?  Do you alert your supervisor and your team members of potential delays well ahead of the time that they become critical?  There will come a time, before too long, when you're no longer the newest member of the department -- how do you relate to the person who comes in after you?  What do you do to share your experience and expertise with them to help them be successful?  Do you project a positive and enthusiastic attitude?

Most importantly, do you carry yourself in such a way that you are recognized as a person of integrity?  Do your colleagues see you as someone that they can trust, as someone who lives the values and ethics of our profession?

If you can exemplify these qualities, from your first day on the job, you will find yourself being given more responsibility over time.  You will find yourself being asked to manage more projects, to take the lead role in new initiatives.  When it comes time to apply for that next position, this will give you the track record that you can stand on, and that will lead your references to give you the kinds of recommendations that may persuade potential employers that you're ready for a supervisory position.   It won't always -- don't kid yourself.   You'll need a healthy tolerance for disappointment.  Success is not guaranteed, and there are plenty of people who aspire to a director's job who never get there.    But the basic qualities that make good directors are the same ones that make good entry-level librarians, and you should be working at improving yourself in those areas every single day. 

And that means now, and for the rest of your life.



Participation in professional organizations at both the local and national level is a great way to develop and demonstrate the leadership skills that will be essential at the director's level. By serving on committees, all comprised of volunteers with limited time, one learns how to motivate without having any real authority. Especially if you work in a library with a relatively small staff, exposure to ideas and professionals outside your own library is important...sometimes if only to make you see how good you have it back home (or how bad). Service on committees is often how more senior librarians assess the "up-and-comers". The ability to lead/manage/chair a committee of even a small state or regional organization shows potential, and usually all it takes is to volunteer to serve on committees. Then, provided you do what you say you are going to do, (and do it well), give credit where it is due, and use good judgement, your name will become known, and you may be asked to run for office. If you do not do these things, you run the risk of your name becoming well known in an unflattering sense. Nominating (and search) committees will avoid you like the plague.

Don't fall into the trap of whining about not having enough time, or not being reimbursed for travel expenses. This is how you invest in your career. It makes a difference.

T Scott

Lynn -- thanks so much for adding the note about involvement in associations. I thought about that just as I was finishing my post and didn't have time to get it in. Association activities is definitely one of the things that I look at when perusing resumes.


I understand what you're saying about leadership, service on committees, etc. But, what about the institutions that won't even look at your resume once they realize you aren't in an "administrative" position? I've known several librarians over the years, all with about 10 years experience, who have applied for administrative/supervisory positions. Yet, they were invariably told that they didn't have enough experience, despite the number of committees they served on, projects they managed, etc. It just seems that all the job ads want somebody in the position already. None seem willing to take a chance on an "entry-level" librarian.


What with the alleged "graying" of our profession, I see the opportunities for librarians with 10 years of professional, "administrative" experience to be huge. But I work with health sciences libraries, not with big ARL-type libraries - many of which, by comparison, are extremely stodgy.

At the tender age of 37, I was turned down for a job because I wasn't old enough (that's what the chair of the search committee told me!). Not because I didn't have enough administrative experience, mind you. When I found out they were planning on offering the job to someone a year younger than me, I protested. They re-opened the search, and hired a MUCH older person. Members of the search committee were not well connected in the professional library community, or they would have known the person who they selected was "bad news". She was subsequently fired - so much for experience. Meanwhile, I saw the handwriting on the wall, and left at the first opportunity.

My point is - when an organization makes it clear that you aren't what they are looking for it doesn't matter what they claim your "deficiency" to be. I would not want to work for, or stay with an organization that did not value both my skills and my potential.

I know how discouraging it is. But, as Billy Joe Shaver (http://www.billyjoeshaver.com) says - "If at first you don't succeed, just try and try and try again.

T Scott

There's no question that it can be frustrating, but I agree with everything that Lynn said. Finding the right job is very much a matter of finding the right fit. When I finished the NLM Associate program over twenty years ago, I applied to four different libraries -- I was applying to essentially the same position in each library, and each was of a similar size and reputation. In each case I heard from the director of the library within about two weeks of the interview -- two of them were not the least bit interested, and two of them offered me the job. It certainly wasn't a matter of my experience or lack of it.

It is also important to read job ads carefully and distinguish between what they actually require and what they prefer. Just because you don't have the "preferred" level of experience doesn't mean that you might not be a good candidate.

Finally, for an entry level position in particular, the letter of application is extremely important. It should enthusiastically, but professionally, explain why your particular experiences make you a perfect fit for their job.

All that being said, the odds are almost always against you whenever you apply for something because there are going to be multiple applicants for each position. You just have to keep looking for that right fit.


I want to comment on this statement "Don't fall into the trap of whining about not having enough time, or not being reimbursed for travel expenses."

For those of earning entry level salaries and have families to support reimbursement is very important. We all don't get directors' salaries and it is difficult to explain to a four year old that we can't have a family vacation because mommy has to go to a conference.

T Scott

Reimbursements are definitely important -- and something that you should always ask about when considering whether you want to work someplace. As a director it has always been a top priority of mine to provide adequate funding for my staff to participate in professional activities, and at Lister Hill I think we do pretty well with that. Nonetheless, if one wants to advance in their career, being involved professionally is essential whether you're getting reimbursed or not. When I started getting active in MLA, over twenty years ago, I was certainly not making a director's salary. I got some things reimbursed, but I also scrimped and spent my own money and didn't take vacations. When Lynn started getting involved professionally she was a single mother working at a small library in Alabama and very decidedly not making a big salary. If you can't get to national conferences, look at regional and local options. Increasingly, the technology makes it possible to be an active committee member or section member without leaving home. We all have to deal with the delicate balancing of our work/life priorities, and the consequences of the choices that we make. Being a director doesn't change that one little bit.

Katy G.

I'd like to reiterate points that both Lynn and Scott made. Remember that an organization places an ad for its *ideal* candidate. Only rarely do they receive applicants who have all of the required and preferred experience, qualities, etc. So, that cover letter is really, really important. When Scott says that the letter should "explain why your particular experiences make you a perfect fit for their job", don't limit yourself to job experiences. That's where the professional association/committee work comes in. Or even committee work for volunteer activities outside of the profession. If you were involved in leading or motivating people, that experience helps. To use a tired phrase, think outside the box when it comes to selling yourself and your skills.

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