What knowledge do library directors need to be effective? On this show Michele Stricker, Deputy State Librarian of Library Development in New Jersey, shares the essentials of library director training developed through her agency to provide effective leadership support in her state. She talks about the essentials that library directors need to know in managing staff, working with boards, influencing elected officials, working with communities, and more.


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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

What knowledge do library directors need to be effective? On this show Michele Stricker, Deputy State Librarian of Library Development in New Jersey, shares the essentials of library director training developed through her agency to provide effective leadership support in her state. She talks about the essentials that library directors need to know in managing staff, working with boards, influencing elected officials, working with communities, and more. It’s fundamental information. Enjoy the show!

Welcome to the show, Michele.

Michele Stricker:

Hi, Adriane, thanks for having me here today—my pleasure.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: Thank you for talking with me today about library director training. This is a relevant topic in the leadership of libraries as many of our listeners prepare for leadership, enter new leadership roles, or hone leadership practices. As we begin, what are some of your thoughts on why it’s important to think about and develop library director training?  01:31  

Michele Stricker:

This is something at the New Jersey State Library that we offer every year. We offer new director’s training, and we also offer refresher courses for librarians who have been directors for a while. The thing is, you’re just not born as a library director. You’re either going to come up through the ranks and learn as you go along, or sometimes you might come from a different field, like me. I came from the art field, and I just popped right into being a library director, and didn’t know anything about it really, and learned as I went along on the job.

What we try to do is get together best practices, experiences that library directors had that we can share with the people who are new that are coming up and coming into the profession, so that they can be the best that they can be, they can do their job confidentially, they can manage their staff and have a good relationship with their staff with their boards, and with the community itself.

You’re just not born knowing these things. You have to learn as you go along. What we try to do is take the most common experiences, the things that we think library directors really need to know and try to do those sorts of trainings with our new directors—just to help them along the way as they gain some experience. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: Let’s jump in with managing staff. What should library directors know going into this area?  03:15 

Michele Stricker:

This may be one of the hardest things to deal with—managing library staff. I always look at it from two different directions. Either you’re going to be a brand new library director and you’re going to walk in cold not knowing the staff at all—this is your first job, or you’ve come from another library, or another state, or somewhere else within the state and you come into the job cold.

Or, you’re going to be the library director who has worked their way up through the ranks. Maybe started out as a reference librarian, or a children’s librarian, or whatever, but now you’re willing to become a manager, department manager, and now you’ve gone and gotten the director’s position. There’s two different ways you’re going to handle staff right then.

If you’re brand new, what I always say is take your time when you come in and don’t try to change anything right away. Take several months—even up to a year to really get to know your library, to get to know your library staff, to know the way things work, or are not working. But, you just can’t come in, I think, and say, I’m going to change everything right off the bat because these are the things that I believe, or these are the things that I want to do. 

Naturally you’re going to sit down and you’re going to meet your staff, take some time to know them. You’re going to tell them a little bit about the vision that you have for the library, the things you would like to accomplish during your tenure there. You also want to hear from them. What do they think of the direction of the library—what’s working, what’s not? All this is information—that you want to make sure that you take your time, that you gather, and that you think about, and that you make decisions very thoughtfully, because you really can’t do anything until you know the library, and the staff, and the community a little bit better. So coming in as a new library director you really want to take your time—not rush any big decisions for fear of alienating either your staff, or even your community.

I often think it’s really harder if you come up through the ranks to become library director. I’ve been in both situations in my career. When you start out, and you’re working in a library, and you make friends there they’re your work colleagues. You may have worked years together and have a great working relationship, and now all of a sudden you’re the supervisor, or you’re their boss. That is a really difficult shift. 

These are your friends and you’re going to want to stay friends with them, however you really can’t. You have to say, I am the director now. It’s a different role than friendship, which is not to say you’re mean all of a sudden, none of that sort of thing. You need to make that separation that you are now the supervisor, and you are now the director, and the staff works for you. You can’t be the buddy-buddy that you were anymore. Or, when the staff goes out for happy hour, or something, you don’t go. You have to decide that if you want to move up into that position, and you want to move ahead with your career, you’re going to have to make that kind of tough decision to separate from your friends in order to maintain the relationship that you are now their boss.

That’s often a very hard transition to make. It’s a hard separation. A lot of times there’s hard feelings, but that’s what goes along with the job, and you really have to sit down and decide that you’re going to make that kind of a break in order to further your career, if that’s what you want. So, there’s the two sides—brand new, moving up and each comes with its own set of challenges, although I do think moving up through the ranks is a little bit harder.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: How can library directors work with boards?  07:25  

Michele Stricker:

Your boards are really the most important people that you have to work with because they employ you, right? I know that this will be going out to a number of different states, and every state is different in the way that the libraries are organized. In New Jersey we have mostly municipal stand-alone libraries. Each of those libraries has an independent board of trustees, and they truly are independent. They are not part of the municipality. They make all of the decisions when it comes to the library. They hire the library director. They approve all the policies that the library director brings up. 

As a library director you are there. You’re working through your board, and it’s very important that you have a good relationship with your board—realize that you do work for them. At the same time it’s the director’s responsibility to keep the board of trustees informed, not only about what’s going on within the library itself and any issues that you might have, but of broader trends within the library field. 

You want to help them with your strategic plan, help guide them—even though it’s really their job to do the plan. You’re going to help them do the plan. You want to let them know of any big, broad trends that are happening, or any problems that are coming up, or how today we have all these book challenges. You need to work together with them on how you’re going to handle that—when there’s a book challenge within your library, or at say an open board meeting when someone comes.

Remembering that they are the people you work for, on the same token I always—I train boards too. I’ll always tell the boards, You’re there to protect your library director. When something happens, if you have to come up before an elected official—the board should be a buffer between the director and anything that’s happening on the outside. I always tell boards, Don’t let the director take the fall for you because you’re the biggest advocates for the library.

You’re working for the board. At the same time the board really needs to look out for their director—protect their director, and help the director whenever they come in. So, hopefully you’ll have that nice relationship together. 

I often tell people, and I tell directors, Make sure at the end of the year you ask the board of trustees to evaluate you. Now that can be a scary thing. Who likes to be evaluated, really? We like to just go along and think that we’re doing a good job, but an evaluation at the end of the year does two things. First of all it lets you know that either the board is happy with the job that I’m doing, or if they want you to change something. It helps document that, at that point, so that you can protect yourself. Make the kind of changes that are needed. You have written documentation of how you’re doing every year, and the things that you’ve brought to the library that you want to bring to the board’s attention. So, make sure you’re getting that year-end evaluation from your board, too. It’s very important.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: Elected officials have a big influence on libraries. What do library directors need to know about this?   10:45 

Michele Stricker:

Absolutely elected officials need to be—you always need to take them into consideration. I would have never believed, before I came to work for the state library, how political it can be with a library in a small town. I had no idea. But, the elected officials are going to be your biggest champions. That’s where you’re going to be getting your funding, right, from the public? Again, every state is different. We have a mandated amount that taxpayers pay towards their libraries every year. It may be different in every state, I’m not sure. But in New Jersey, the taxpayers are funding and supporting the libraries. 

Librarians and library directors always want to make sure that they’re having direct contact with elected officials, and letting them know all the things that the library is doing within the community so that they will continue to support the community. The director, along with the board of trustees, is responsible for doing the fundraising for the library, also reporting to elected officials that you’re spending taxpayer money wisely. 

When I was a library director, at least once a year, I always gathered up my information and I went to a council meeting and sometimes, always, I would bring a couple of library users with me. I would let them talk, and I would tell the elected officials all the things that are going on at the library—what’s new, what’s popular, what we would like to do. Then I would have a couple members of the public talk about how they’re using the library. It was a way to get the good word out, not only to elected officials, but there was also the public at that meeting. Things are very transparent, and the public can hear—maybe the public that’s not using the library, but attends the council meetings, they can hear all the things that the library’s doing.

You always want to make sure you have your elevator speech, and your story about what’s going on at the library if you happen to meet up with an elected official. When you get the elected officials on your side they’re really going to support the library in the future—whether it’s for the mandated funding that you get from raising taxes, or whether you need some extra money for a project. You’ll be able to go to them and say, I know things are tight, but I really need a new boiler, or something like that. When you’re in their minds and they know you’re doing good things it’s much easier for them to approve funding that’s needed for either repairs, or additional capital expenditures, or just increasing the budget in the library in general. So, you want to make sure you and your board both have a wonderful relationship with elected officials.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: It all comes down to serving and working with our communities. What should library directors know when it comes to this?  13:42 

Michele Stricker:

I always say when I talk to library directors that it’s not your library, it’s their library—meaning the community. It’s the community’s library, and you are there to bring the vision of the community for the library into play. 

It’s very important that the director gets out of the library a lot and into the community so that you really get to know the people in your neighborhood. It’s really as simple as that. You’re not going to get to know them if you’re just staying in the library all the time. It’s very important. You do that in strategic planning. We call it a community scan, or an environmental scan. It’s important to know who is in your community. You want to know who’s using your library, but who is not using your library? Who are the people who are not using your library, because they are the ones you want to target for services? 

You can think of it as people in a pocket neighborhood, but you can also think of other communities—the online community, or the business community, or the business community that’s running their Etsy businesses, things like that. There are all kinds of micro-communities that you need to get to know, and that the library really needs to serve. It’s very important that you’re serving everyone. 

When you learn who’s out there, who’s not getting service, who may be underrepresented in a community—when you bring those people along, and you bring them up, it betters the entire community when you reach the people that are not traditionally being reached within the community. When you’re bringing services to them, or bringing them into your library, it betters the entire community. That’s why you’re doing this job. You’re doing it for them. Your job as the library director is to make sure that your library is serving your specific community. 

No two libraries are alike, yes. You’re going to have a lot of similar services. Everybody does story hours and things like that, but everybody is in a different type of community, and you can really look at these micro-neighborhoods, and make sure that you’re reaching out and offering services that are important to everyone. I think that that’s probably the most important thing that you can do as a library director is to get out and get to know your community.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: Is there anything else you’d like to share?  16:33 

Michele Stricker:

From my personal experience as a library director—of course I work in a state library now. It’s very different from when I was a librarian in a very small town. I lived across the street from my library. It was a really fulfilling and rewarding job to be the town librarian. I remember it very fondly. I remember that I felt that I made a real difference in my small community. 

We were the first ones to bring in computers for people to use—I’m going back a ways, obviously. People knew you. I remember—like it was a small library so you did everything. I even had to shovel the snow myself [laughs] before I opened. If I didn’t open, people knew me enough to call my home on the phone and they would say, You know, Michelle, I know you live right down the street, can you get the library open? And, I would say, Can you wait until I shovel the snow away from the front desk before you come in? It was so funny. Or, they would—if my house happened to be closer to them than the library they would put the books in my mailbox at home [laughter] instead of the book drop at the library.

Being known in the community and having that kind of relationship with the people in my community was extremely, extremely rewarding. Even though I laugh at some of the—even though I didn’t like bringing the books from my house, and lugging them over to the library, the difference that you can make as a director in your town is truly amazing. It’s just such a rewarding experience to know that you’re doing—that you’re helping so many people, that you’re doing good things. That’s very, very rewarding.

It’s a very rewarding job. It’s a hard job. You’re on 24/7, almost. I was always checking my email, or if the alarm went off in the middle of the night I would have to go over. It was like that—annoying. But on the whole being a library director, I found—and I’ve had a number of jobs throughout my career, but that was really the most rewarding job for me in my little hometown. Yeah, it was great.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Do you have any favorite management, or leadership books, or resources, and why?  18:50 

Michele Stricker:

There was one, and I’m going to see if I can pull up the ad here. There’s one book that I really liked. I had read it quite a while ago, though. It was called Shackleton’s Way, Leadership Lessons from Antarctic Explorer. Shackleton went on his great Antarctic mission and of course all kinds of problems ensued. That book, Shackleton’s Way, gives you a chapter about Shackleton and his voyage to the Antarctic, but then it juxtaposes there were certain types of leadership skills. 

I read it a long, long time ago, and I know it was a really popular book, but my favorite part about it was that Shackleton put an ad in the paper way back in the late 1800’s when he went on his journey. He needed like twenty-two men to man the ship. I’m going to read you his want ad. In the newspaper the ad said, Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success. It was Ernest Shackleton. 

For those twenty-two positions on his ship he got something like 3000 applications from people who answered and wanted the job. They say this is the greatest want ad ever written. I think that that book is a really interesting read, and we should all know that even though his ship got all ruined in the ice, and trapped in the ice, he brought all twenty-two of his men back home safely. So there’s a lesson in leadership right there, and I think that book would be a great read for anybody that might want to read about leadership in a non-traditional type of way. I recommend that book.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: That sounds interesting, and makes library directorship sound comparatively easy.  21:04   

Michele Stricker:

Yes, [laughs] although some might argue with that, I don’t know [laughs], but yes it certainly does. I know I wouldn’t have been answering that ad for sure. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #9: Thank you, Michele. It’s as you say, none of us is born a library director. I like your state’s commitment to training directors, and appreciate you sharing that knowledge with us here. It’s extremely valuable.  21:18 

Michele Stricker:

We do—in fact I’m just planning the new director’s training for February. We do it in February every year. It’s a two-day process. Sometimes it changes. We offer, pretty much, the same things like: library law in New Jersey; how do you work with your board of trustees; how do you work with elected officials; things like that. But depending on what’s going on at the time, like right now book challenges are big, we’ll tweak that every year and see if there’s a few things that we need to drop off, and what we need to bring on depending on what the hot topics are. So, there’s a little bit of variation in reacting to what’s going on in the world today. So yes, it is very important. We do that every year. 

We also maintain—my line is always open. I get phone calls all year long from directors and library trustees, but a lot from directors who have a certain issue, or need some advice. So, the state library maintains that open line of communication. It’s all private. Sometimes people want to call and tell me something good. Sometimes they just want to call [laughs] because they’re frustrated, or want to cry. We listen and we try to offer the best advice that we can, or give them the citations to the law so that they know. But we’re on call all year long so that we can help our library directors through whatever issues that might happen.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #10: Michelle, in closing, what do libraries mean to you personally?  22:53 

Michele Stricker:

Hmm, that’s a really good question and I think I might give you a two part answer to this. Personally, what do libraries mean to me, personally? First of all I was twelve when I volunteered in my first library. I helped the children’s librarian in my hometown at twelve years old. But for me walking into a library, and walking into my job as the director I can honestly say I just loved walking into the library every single day. I never said, I don’t want to go to work that day. I never said that, but walking in the library, whether I go in there to learn something, or whether I’m going in just to look around and see what I might want to read, or whether it’s a magazine. I would always go in, and I would always come out like a different person every time. Whether I learned something, whether I enjoyed something, whether I spoke with neighbors, or whatever it is, I would go in the library, and I would always leave—I felt like a better person who had learned something. I’d be different every time I came out. For me it was just that enjoyment. 

I just remember—I think it was a really old-fashioned way, I just used to love going down and running my finger along the spines of the books, and maybe just pulling out something. I would just spend like hours just pulling a book out of the shelf saying, That looks interesting, or that looks interesting. It was like my favorite way to spend time. For me, personally, that’s what a library does for me. 

As my job as a library director, and now as in library development at the state library, what libraries mean to me, I touched on it a little bit before—community. It’s all about community. It’s about helping your community. The difference that libraries make in everyday lives is just incredible. We all know that. We’re preaching to the choir, right? But, it’s the truth. 

Being able to help someone on whatever journey that they’re on, and help them navigate though that, and getting them the things that they need in order to be the best person that they could be is extremely rewarding. It’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. So, that’s my reaction—working for a library, what I like most about it, personally. It’s just—I just love going into a library and doing the kind of things, personally, that I told you, walking out being a different kind of person than before I walked in.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #11: Fantastic. Thank you so much for being here on the show.  25:50 

Michele Stricker:

Thank you so much.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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