Career Strategies for Librarians
by Colleen S. Harris
Congratulations! You’ve landed a new management or supervisory position. Some folks bite the
management bullet right out of library school, and some of us work our way up over time to managing
people and processes. In either case, you are now in a position to influence the direction of your
institution, the environment of your colleagues and staff, and services to your users.
As someone who has held management positions in more than one dynamic library, I’d like to offer
some practical (and tested) advice on how you as a manager or supervisor can position yourself for
success with some best practices during your first few weeks. Getting off on the right foot can mean the
difference between spending precious “honeymoon” time making up for gaffes, and setting a solid
foundation for the rest of your time in that organization. For some, items in Week 1 will take the entire first
month; others may complete that week’s recommendations in a few days. Think of these weekly
breakdowns not as strict rules, but as guidelines to prevent you from feeling like you are floundering in
your new position.
The Murky In-Between
If you are the sort who leaves very little time between leaving one job and starting another, make sure
that you have an updated list of your in-progress projects so you don’t let things drop, as well as easy
access to those files during the upheaval of the move. A portable hard drive, online backup, or very good
web-based mail organization skills are necessary for to you be sure you have the most recent draft of
any ongoing articles, presentations, or other important documents. If you have been corresponding with
folks from the upcoming job, make sure you keep track of questions you have so that you can hit the
ground running when you get there. In any case, make sure you budget your time accurately for the move
– this will save you much stress.
Week 1: Getting Grounded
You're ready to go and excited to put your professional skills into practice. First things first! You may be
ready to take on the universe, but you are likely walking into an established organizational culture. While
you may have been hired partly because of your affinity for and ability to deal with and implement change,
changing things may not be your first move out of the gate (though certainly you may have that
opportunity). Getting a good grounding in the current practices and organizational culture will help you
decide what, if anything, needs to change. And with this experience and the knowledge you gain, you’ll
be better equipped to explain the reasons for change in terms of what your department and library value.
Expect to spend time in some sort of orientation your first week, particularly if you join a large academic
library, and listen closely to the policies addressed here.
This is also your opportunity to contribute to the organizational culture as a manager. Your interactions
with your staff and your colleagues will help dictate the sort of environment you work in, so think about
some of the principles you may want your department or unit to uphold. Some of my favorites are
transparency, user-centered focus, accurate documentation and encouraging questions.
Your first week is a good time to start meeting your staff and colleagues. Ask administration or HR for a
copy of your staff member’s work plans as well as their last evaluation. This gives you the opportunity, as
you sit down with your people, to discuss the job descriptions as they’re written and make sure they
reflect the person’s actual work. If they don’t, you’ll need to update those descriptions. This is a great
opportunity to find out from those closest to the work what seems to be working well, what could use
improvement, and the general mood of your department or unit. Throughout the first few weeks, while
meeting with your staff and with your own superiors, remember that clear expectations are essential to
success – the success of your staff, yourself, and ultimately, your organization.
I also recommend meeting your colleagues – they can give you an overview of the organization and an
idea of the upcoming projects you should be prepared for. If there’s an ILS migration on the horizon, you
want to know about it! The more you know, the more you can plan for, and your staff will appreciate not
being taken by surprise.
Start to familiarize yourself with the tools you’ll need to do your job well, particularly your email and
calendaring software, the ILS, any web design interface you may be responsible for, and any other
software or hardware you may be unfamiliar with.
At the end of your first week, your head and plate will likely be very full. Don’t worry, there’s next week to
sort it all out.
Week 2: Action Items, Intersections & Organization
Complete your meetings with staff. In addition to general information about your employees, what they
do, and their concerns, you should have collected your area’s ongoing action items, and this week is a
good time to sort them in an easy-to-read and easy-to-timeline fashion. Start planning to meet with your
front line supervisors or your staff about the ongoing items on a regular basis so you can mark which
have been completed since the last time they were compiled or reported on, and make note of what
action has been taken on the in-process ones. Planning such regular meetings now and getting them
scheduled, allows you to stay ahead of the game and prevent items from falling through the cracks later.
At this point, you should also (depending on the size of your library) be completing meetings with
supervisors throughout the library to see where your workflows and services intersect. This gives you a
good idea of the capacity in which you’ll be interacting with other departments and what expectations you’
ll be facing, and allows you to ask what future planning is happening that might impact your department
and your staff’s workflow.
As you talk to your staff, boss and coworkers, collect your area’s ongoing action items so you have a
sense of what needs to be done, and the timeframe in which it needs to be done. I recommend
maintaining a work notebook (I am a bit old fashioned, feel free to take notes on your iPad) so that you
can jot down notes, questions, thoughts and to-dos. Having these written down makes it easier to review
them later, you’ll be less likely to forget about things, and you can move things forward or cross them out
as you need to. Whether you use high tech iPhone apps or old school composition notebooks, figure out
a system that works for you, and keep up with it.
By now you’ve probably started the inevitable paper and folder piling. This is a good time to figure out a
filing system that works for you. You’ll be pleased later when you don’t have to choose which toppling
tower of paper holds that last batch of statistics, or that last price quote, recent evaluation, or any number
of important papers you’ll have floating around.
Again, remember to breathe. There’s a lot to do, but you don’t have to accomplish it all your first month.
Week 3: Prioritizing
At this point you’ll have a pretty good idea of what needs to get done, what the library would like you to do,
and what your staff would like to do. While some of those things you will have little to no control over, you
may have a good bit of latitude about how to handle the rest of the to-do list. How do you prioritize? If your
group is small enough, you can hash this out at a roundtable meeting. If your unit is a bit larger than that,
and if you can organize it, this might be a great time to plan a team or department retreat. You’ve been
there long enough that you (hopefully) know everybody’s name and what they do, and how their work
impacts the team. Since you’re still new, it’s a good chance to meet with everyone in a group. And it’s a
great opportunity to review the values of your team, which can inform how you order your priorities. This
is also a great way to initiate a culture of transparency by demonstrating how projects will be prioritized
and how you’ll judge competing demands on your time
As a manager, I have a large whiteboard in my office. The GSD (“Get Stuff Done”) Board is a great way to
visually track current projects, department work, action items, and even writing projects if you are involved
in writing articles or book chapters. As things change – and change they will! – the white board gives you
the opportunity to establish and rearrange priorities as necessary, note changing deadlines, and circle
important items (or looming deadlines) in red. I also offer a part of it as the “idea section,” where staff
and passersby to my office can add items they’d like considered by the department. Find a system that
works for you, a quick-glance reminder of the many balls you’ll be keeping in the air.
The rest of this week will likely entail going over your notes, digging into your email, getting trained on
whatever systems your department uses and working on the service desk.
Week 4: Reviewing
Week 4 is a great time to look back over the information you’ve collected to date, to note where your
weaknesses may be and how you plan to address them. (For instance, if you are joining a department
that maintains a lot of statistics, you’ll want to brush up on MS Excel and Access). Make sure you
maintain good communication with your staff and staff in other departments, which will be appreciated
and will also help you to navigate the often-choppy waters of change in staff, technology, and services.
Check with your institution to see if there are additional training opportunities you and your staff may be
able to take advantage of – workshops and classes on supervision, training, communication, technology
and diversity are often available through human resources and IT departments at college and university
With a solid foundation, you can start tackling your work without worrying that you’ve missed important
details. Now that you are mostly situated, you can start to get into the rhythm of your work. At this point,
you should have some method of keeping up with timelines, deadlines, and general project
management, be familiar with the work each of your staff members performs, and know where your
department stands in terms of the larger organization.
Remember, it will take longer than four weeks for you to learn the personalities of your staff and your
colleagues, the ins and outs of whatever office politics exist at your new workplace, and to learn the most
effective way of handling things within your new library. Keep track of ideas and services you and your
staff may not be ready to implement now – with an unexpected budget windfall or as staff time becomes
available, you may get to implement them later. While the first four weeks are a whirlwind, think of the big
picture: you have time.
About the Author
Colleen S. Harris is Head of Access Services at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Colleen
holds an MLIS from the University of Kentucky (2006) and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University
(2009). She blogs at http://guardienne.blogspot.com and goes by the moniker ‘warmaiden’ on most
Article published October 2010
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily
represent the views of the LIScareer editors.