Leading Inside & Out | Leadership

Library leaders often also head citywide initiatives and national associations. How do they balance the demands of both?

Library leaders often also head citywide initiatives and national associations. How do they balance the demands of both?

Running a library is a full-time job and then some. Yet library leaders across the country still find time to lead communitywide, state, and national initiatives. These efforts advance the power and prestige of libraries as a field but can still pull focus from their institutions. LJ spoke to leaders who wear such multiple hats about how they balance their time—and why the balancing act is worth it.

Why outside involvement is important

Kristen Sorth, director of the St. Louis County Library, says, “We partner with people so we can have a thriving region.” Those partnerships include Big Brothers and Big Sisters of St. Louis, where Sorth serves as an Executive Committee member and chair of the Governance Committee; the YWCA of St. Louis, where she is a member of the Women of Achievement Selection Committee; Focus St. Louis, where she sits on the Leadership St. Louis Advisory Committee; and other regional initiatives concentrating on economic development.

“The library [has] a unique perspective that we can share with regional leaders,” Sorth says. “We can share what our patrons are looking for. It’s important for the library to have a voice because we touch so many people in different ways.”

Lauren Pressley, associate dean of University Libraries, director of the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) Library, and a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker (M&S), adds that such participation also brings feedback to improve service. “Librarians need to understand their community and context...and adapt to their community’s needs.” As well as serving as the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) VP and president-elect, ­Pressley is a member of the UWT Strategic Plan Coordinating Committee.

Kristin Shelley notes that leadership outside the library improves the library’s relationships and reputation. “I am out there…building relationships within the community,” she says. “It’s important for library directors to be out there to invite people in.” Shelley, director of the East Lansing Public Library, MI, practices what she preaches: she is president-elect of the Michigan Library Association and chair of its Legislative Committee; chair and board member of the East Lansing Rotary Community Service Committee; a committee member for One Book, One Community; cochair of a new committee to develop a communitywide program on racism; and a member of a city task force working to qualify East Lansing as an AARP age-friendly community.


Such relationships also build potential collaborations with other organizations. Trevor Dawes, vice provost for libraries and museums and May Morris University Librarian at the University of Delaware and a 2007 M&S, says, “We can’t do it all alone. We have to develop partnerships to be more effective. There is a saying that if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. We want to go far. How can we offer our collections to the broader community?”

In pursuit of these goals, Dawes is coleading an initiative to develop a multi­cultural center on his campus; partnering with the state librarian and colleagues in New Jersey on developing a Regional Hub for the Digital Public Library of America; acting as an American Library Association (ALA) Executive Board member; and serving as 2019 ACRL conference chair.

Taking on additional roles can also advance a leader’s career. Courtney Young, who will be university librarian at Colgate University, NY, beginning July 1, and a 2011 M&S, tells LJ, “Over the years I have had career opportunities with increasing responsibility, and [I] believe those opportunities have come because of work outside of the library, such as [being] ALA president [2014–15].” Her myriad outside responsibilities, which also include ALA Executive Director Search Committee chair, ACRL Keynotes Committee and national conference cochair, and editorial board member for academic journals, have helped her, she says, develop a better understanding of her day-to-day work.

Where to focus

One factor leaders must weigh is where to spend their limited time. Personal principles play a role, and many suggest finding opportunities that fit their skill set to ensure that they add value. Says Pressley, “I cast a very wide net early in my career. I became more focused when I became a mother. I choose to work with groups I can learn from...and make a net-positive effect.”

Alignment with the library mission is another important criterion. Felton Thomas Jr., executive director and CEO of the Cleveland Public Library (CPL) and a 2002 M&S, allocates his time to outside organizations that are important for the library to have a voice in. “I’m part of the food bank, because…six years ago CPL started working [with them] to offer summer lunches for kids. I have passion for it. Poverty and what libraries can do to assist with poverty and hunger, they touch both library values and my personal philosophy.” Thomas views that passion as necessary for involvement: “A bank president told me, never choose to be on a board that you aren’t willing to be the president of,” he says. Thomas took the advice to heart: he’s chair of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank board, past president of the Public Library Association (PLA), and a member of the Cleveland/Cuyahoga County Workforce Development board and the Group Plan Commission board.

Balancing internal, external commitments

With limited time and resources, how do they make it all happen? Shelley says, “I am lucky to have a fantastic staff, and I know I can leave the library in their good hands when I’m working on outside things, which helps. I work long hours and do most of my prep work at home at night. But I’m willing to put in the hours and [make] sure to take time for myself and vacations.”

“I can’t do the external job without the internal job,” says Sorth. “If I’m not authentic, it won’t resonate with those outside the library... I can’t be authentic if I’m not involved in the internal workings and don’t get to see the impact we have on patrons. As for authenticity, I also owe that to our library employees and that means knowing their successes, challenges, and how much work they do for this community.” Sorth’s board is also very supportive of her work outside of the library. “They truly recognize the value that the external work has to the library and the region.... Our administrators are amazing, dedicated, and talented. We work hard as a team to find the perfect balance. I couldn’t do either part of my job without them.”

Thomas doesn’t differentiate between internal and ex­ternal commitments, “I don’t see them as two jobs. My work for the boards I’m on helps to support my role as executive director of [CPL]. It is important that the issues that the community faces, such as food insecurity, have the library’s input for a solution.”

Pixey Mosley, associate dean for Administrative and Faculty Services, University Libraries, Texas A&M University, College Station, emphasizes prioritizing: “Recognize what is truly important rather than what’s nice to do.” The philosophy allows her to juggle her work with roles as ALA Library Leadership & Management Association president and on the university’s honor council, Student Academic Appeals, Academic Freedom, and Responsibility and Tenure committees.

Rachel Rubin, director of library and information services, Capital University, Bexley, OH, must balance her role at Capital with serving as an ALA councilor-at-large, Resolutions Committee member, ALA-APA Certified Public Library Administrator Certification Committee member, and ACRL President’s Program Planning Committee member, as well as on Capital’s University Technology, General Education, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Learning Planning committees. She says, “The most obvious and difficult piece is carving out the time.” To do so, she schedules time for tasks, not just meetings. “One thing that has worked pretty well for me is making an appointment in my calendar for whatever I need—then I know I have the time set aside and I don’t make other meetings or allocate that time to something else.”

Sorth “lives and dies by the calendar.... If it’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t exist. Be willing to be pulled in many directions,” she advises, saying, she’s “probably overscheduled but that’s OK,” because she’s never bored.

If you’re thinking of adding a hat

All the leaders interviewed for this article advise those interested in getting involved outside the library to do so and say that you don’t have to be a director or manager to start.

Mosley suggests, “Show up. Volunteer. If you see an opportunity, indicate why you would be a good fit. Talk to the chair to get engaged before formally being appointed. Find ways to help out. If you have an idea, find a place that you will [get] support for it. Propose it.”

Says Young, “It’s something that you have to want to do. If you don’t enjoy it, nobody wins. Pick something that you feel you can positively impact. Find an opportunity to showcase your skills or passion for something that you don’t get to do in your [daily] work.”

Pressley adds, “Early in my career, I spent a lot of energy trying to get everything perfect and not getting a lot done. Now I know that to get something done is to get it good enough to put it out in the world. Continual improvement is a better goal than perfection.”

Rubin sums it up: “Why not try? It gives you the opportunity to learn from others, try something different, and make good things happen in ways you may not otherwise be able to. It’s incumbent upon all of us to keep learning as individuals and to keep advancing the missions of our institutions and our profession.”

Wendy Tressler Jasper has worked in a variety of management roles at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, OH, for 17 years, most recently as part of the 2020 Vision Plan department, administering a $135 million building program. She also serves on the LLAMA BES Executive Team. Find her on Twitter @wltress

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