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Career Strategies for Librarians
Preparing to Chair a Committee Meeting
by Laura A. Sill

While I would never claim to be an expert on the subject of effective committee meetings, I have certainly
experienced the process by serving as chair or member on some 40 local committees and 15 national
level committees over the past 13 years. If you’re in library school, get prepared for this process; you can’
t escape it! If you are a new library professional, you have probably already discovered that it is a
mainstay in the culture of many library organizations.

So, how do you react when approached to chair a committee? Consider the invitation an honor and vote
of confidence by your administration that you have been asked to do so. Take the responsibility as chair
seriously. Not only are your time and efforts worth something, so are those of your committee members.
The bottom line is that if the committee chair isn't on the ball, the committee will most likely go nowhere.
Expect as committee chair that you will bear the burden of seeing the committee through whatever
challenge is presented you. If you do not feel you have the experience to handle the assignment, don't
necessarily decline the offer outright. First consider whether it would be an opportunity to sharpen your
professional skills or expand your knowledge of an area of librarianship. Remember that serving as
chair is a management position that comes with the benefit of knowledgeable committee member
resources. If, however, you are not committed to seeing the committee succeed, you should consider
declining the assignment. If you don't have the option of having an opinion about whether or not you buy
into the assignment as chair, accept it graciously and make the most of it.

What do you need to consider before you meet for the first time with your committee? I offer you the
following ten items:

1. Understand why you need to meet.

Be sure you understand your charge. If it is not clear, find out what the charge means. Understand it in
the context of the library organization and other activities taking place in your library. Be aware of the
politics involved in the charge. Understand what the intended outcome is especially from the standpoint
of the recipient of your work -- most likely your administration. This may mean that you seek advice on
how to best present your findings, but it might also include understanding what the administration's
priorities are in relation to your charge. Nothing is more frustrating than doing the investigation, writing
and packaging of your findings, only to find that its presentation or conclusions stall, mislead, or kill
completely any further work on the topic. Such upfront discussions help form mutual commitment to the
charge by both those asking that it be carried out and those working to do so.

2. Know your committee members.

As soon as possible get a list of your committee members' names and department affiliations. If you do
not know everyone on that list, make a point of getting to know him or her. What you are doing through
any committee process is forming relationships. In addition to names and affiliations, it is essential that
you know something about members' skills, strengths, interests, and (perhaps most importantly, their
hidden) agenda. Giving some consideration the potential group dynamic created by committee.

3. Think about your meeting before it happens.

This tidbit of advice is meant to eliminate the last minute planning approach to your meeting. This point
should be followed, especially before your first meeting with committee. Your actions in the very first
meeting will set the tone and the first-impressions of your committee members about the committee's
upcoming work, your ability as chair, and the expectations for them as committee members. While it
might be possible to recover from an ill-planned meeting in the long-term, in the short-term it will result
in a waste of time, while you try to do your planning on the spot with committee members looking on.
Expect to do some planning for each subsequent meeting. This activity doesn't have be time consuming
or labor intensive. Knowing what sort of tone you want to set in the meeting, roughly what you want to
cover, and how you want to leave the meeting are helpful things to consider. The following points
continue to clarify this planning process.

4. Decide what type of meeting you want to have (e.g., brainstorming sessions, communication
opportunity, action item resolution).

Once you have thought about your goals for the meeting, it is helpful to think about how you will ask your
committee members to work through your plan. If you know why you are holding an individual meeting,
selecting an appropriate method for carrying out the meeting should fall into place. Consider your
committee members’ comfort or reaction to whatever method you select. Some find brainstorming, for
example, to be difficult, uncomfortable, or a time-waster. Others may be annoyed by a face-to-face
meeting to communicate the current state members' work, since other means of communication (such
as email) may be felt to be as effective and less time consuming. Do your best to fit the approach for the
meeting to the outcome for that meeting, as well as to the anticipated reaction of the approach by each
committee member. It is always a good idea to have a back-up approach in place. For example, if
brainstorming isn't working, be prepared to move on to another approach, or even to conclude the
meeting to allow you time to regroup for the next. Don't, however, let the approach to the meeting become
the focus of the meeting. Keep the committee focused on the charge and goals and be prepared to be
flexible in the approaches used to achieving the goals.

5. Set an agenda.

This suggestion seems obvious, but you would be surprised how often it is not carried out. Show
respect for your time and that of your members. Map out an agenda, even if it is a brief one. In so doing,
you may even find there is no reason to meet at a given time. There is nothing admirable about faithfully
meeting, if there is nothing to meet about.

6. Communicate the agenda, time, and place of the meeting prior to holding it.

While it is certainly common practice to share the agenda at the meeting, it is again an issue of courtesy
that you additionally distribute the agenda prior to the meeting. Coupled with the actual action items,
committee members often find a reminder of the date, time and place of the meeting to be helpful. Just
receiving the agenda a few days in advance of the meeting will provide them an opportunity to double-
check their schedules and prepare for the meeting.

7. Know who will be in attendance and have a plan for dealing with those who are absent from the
meeting.

Have an idea who will be in attendance. Pay attention to your committee members' schedules. This
becomes very important when your committee is dependant on an individual committee member for
input. If the agenda is focused on an area where an individual's participation is essential, but they are
unable to attend, the meeting might best be cancelled. If important news is being shared at a meeting
and members are absent, consider how they will take the news. You might need to sit down with them
one-on-one prior or after the meeting and share the news, rather than wait for the communication to
reach them in another fashion. If assignments are to be distributed at the meeting, think about how you
will make assignments for those who are absent.

8. Distribute relevant documents for review prior to the meeting.

Nothing slows down a committee meeting like unprepared members. Unless you prefer members to
talk off the cuff without all the relevant information, be sure they have in hand, a few days before the
meeting (or whatever timeframe is appropriate), information that will support the work that the committee
intends to conduct during that particular meeting. If you unable to get information out before the meeting,
take that fact into consideration as you think about the points that I outlined previously in points 3-5.

9. Do a dry run of the meeting in your mind.

Once you have all your planning complete, your agenda in hand, knowledge of those who will be
present, run through how you will work your way through the agenda, even if only in your mind. Consider
where certain members might participate or not and how you'll handle those who monopolize
discussion or those who remain silent. Consider the possible concerns that individual members might
raise, and think about how you might handle any sticky reactions or ideas. Remember as chair, you are
a guide for your committee. Most likely, you don't want to appear dictatorial, but it is your responsibility to
remain in charge of the committee process.

10. Bring a positive attitude to the meeting.

I have hinted throughout this column that we, as library professionals, are time-bound and usually not so
in our favor. Additionally, certain topics for discussion or work that must be conducted may not be
exciting, only necessary. Your attitude is an important cue for your committee members. If you appear
annoyed, bored, distracted, it will set a tone for the meeting that will most likely make it a less than
productive or enjoyable experience. By positive attitude, I don't mean that you need proclaim that what
you are doing is the best thing yet or that you can't acknowledge that some charges are less than
glamorous. I do, however, mean that you bring a professional attitude to the table. Be positive in the
sense that you remain steadfast in knowing that what you are doing has a point, is part of a larger
course of action, and has meaning for the organization. If you find that your unsure about this in terms of
your charge, your should reconsider point 1!

About the Author:

Laura A. Sill, MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been a member of the University
Libraries of Notre Dame library faculty since 1989, where she has held positions in the areas of
acquisitions, serials, and systems. She has been active in the American Library Association since 1988.
Serving the ALA New Members Round Table in several capacities, she was elected President in 1996.
She is currently active in the ALA Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) and Association
for Library Collections & Technical Services (ALCTS). She is a member of the North American Serials
Interest Group (NASIG) Continuing Education Committee. Laura is currently Systems Librarian at the
University Libraries of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana.

Article submitted Dec 2001

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