Kicking off this eight-part series is an interview with Mary Hamilton, director of the Chambers County Public Library in Valley, Alabama. She became the director in May 2003 after working for three years as a reference librarian at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Prior to that, she worked for five years as a paraprofessional in the special collections library at USM. She currently oversees several employees and directs a number of ongoing programs, including an enormously popular children’s summer reading program, book delivery to nursing homes and senior centers, and an active Teen Advisory Board.
I’m sure this question came up in your job interview at Chambers County Public Library, but why the jump from an academic library to a public library?
I wasn’t planning to make a change. It was purely serendipitous. The director’s position at Chambers County Library opened up at just the right time for me. There had been a change in administration at the University of Southern Mississippi that I felt was not supportive of the library. So I was just beginning to look at other library jobs when I heard about the opening.
Also, one of the reasons the job was attractive to me was that I had worked at the Chambers County Library as a paraprofessional staff member for five years before moving to Mississippi in 1995, and the library is located in my husband’s hometown in Valley, Alabama.
What did you do to prepare for this job when you found out you were hired as the director? How did your previous work experience help?
The first thing I did was to pull out the textbook from my library management course. But I really feel the experience I gained working as a paraprofessional at three public libraries and the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection prepared me for an administrative position at a medium-sized public library.
One common aspect of my special collections library and public library jobs was that I was required to perform a variety of tasks, a mixture of public and technical services such as assisting researchers, planning programs, processing manuscript collections, cataloging, creating and maintaining web pages, and supervising student workers.
As a public library director, you have to understand the importance of all areas of service, and having worked in a variety of library settings and performing all types of library tasks made the transition from reference librarian to library director easier than it would have been had I not had these experiences.
Management and leadership are often described as two different endeavors. I usually think of the first as keeping day-to-day operations running smoothly and supervising people, and the second endeavor as thinking of new ideas and goals and putting them into action with the help of others who are willing to go along with you. How do you balance these two endeavors as a library director? Do they overlap?
I look at the difference between management and leadership this way. Management is about making sure everyone has grabbed onto the rope. Leadership is more about getting everyone to pull the rope in the same direction. Balancing the two is probably the most challenging aspect of the job. The two definitely overlap.
When someone at your library comes to you with a new idea for a program or a service, or wants to do something different, how do you encourage them?
I think it is important to listen to all ideas from staff members. Mostly, I just try not to get in the way by being as supportive as I can with funding and a willingness to try new ideas and services. Two staff members have recently organized a Teen Advisory Board. The young adults on the board have hit the ground running by sponsoring a Haunted Library as a safe place for local children to visit on Halloween. They are planning a food drive for Thanksgiving and are raising money to send books to troops through the Operation Books program.
I am blessed with a staff that wants to make a difference for our citizens. The community needs to see the library as more than the place to come for books and Internet access. So, we have spent much time and energy in the last year and half in programming for the children, young adults, and senior citizens.
How do you encourage your co-workers to trust you as a leader? OR How do you identify leaders in your library?
I believe to be a good leader you have to be willing to take time out from the administrative side and spend time at the circulation and reference desks, process and catalog materials, and assist with planning and implementing programs. To really understand what the staff’s concerns are, I feel that I need to work in each area and perform each task every now and again.
The leaders in our library are the folks who take the initiative and who enjoy working in a library environment. The staff members who identify a challenge are encouraged to come up with ideas and solutions. And these are the people I go to when I need help.
What do you think are the most important skills for a public library director? For anyone who wants to lead and manage people?
The most important skill for a public library director is being able to motivate the library staff. I feel that good management/leadership requires motivating employees to fulfill their potential.
How should leaders in the library profession go about cultivating leaders within their own libraries as well as in the profession?
Cultivating leaders in your own libraries is necessary for a successful library. As I stated earlier, this requires motivating and encouraging staff who show potential. One of my responsibilities is to educate employees about the opportunities that are available to them through participation in professional and paraprofessional organizations; attending continuing education workshops; and of course, the possibility of working toward an MLIS. Currently, I am working with the Board of Trustees to develop a policy for tuition reimbursement and release time for staff who are interested in pursuing an advanced degree. You have to look for potential and create opportunities for employees who display a real interest in the profession.