The 2004-2005 NMRT’s Membership Meeting and Program Committee Presents Interviews with Library Leaders

For the month of May, the NMRT Membership Meeting and Program Committee chose to interview Elaine Cline, Chief Librarian of the Ralph J. Bunche Library at the United States Department of State. She has been employed at the State Department in this capacity for one year, where she supervises a staff of twenty-five. Her previous library experience includes employment as both Associate Director and Director of two academic libraries, and her immediate past employment was as an Assistant Director of the District of Columbia Public Library system.

The interviewer is Andrea Cheney, a member of the NMRT Membership Meeting and Program Committee.

(Note: This interview was conducted in person and recorded on audiotape, but has been slightly edited for length.)

What prompted you to accept your current position as Chief Librarian of the Ralph J. Bunch Library at the State Department?

I was an Assistant Director at the District of Columbia Public Library, a job that I found challenging and very important. During a time of transition there I saw that this job was available. It was fortunate because the opening for this job was actually advertised a year before, and then was re-advertised. The subject matter was of interest to me. Also, my daughter and son-in-law were just completing their first tour of duty as Foreign Service Officers, so I had been learning more about the State Department through them. I thought that this was interesting and I applied for the job here on a whim as the Director of D.C. Public Library, who had hired me, was leaving and the library’s future there was uncertain. I thought that this was a good time to test the waters and it turned out to be a really good opportunity for me.

How did you build upon your other past work experiences to prepare yourself for your current position?

My career has really been varied and has often been dictated by reasons that had nothing to do with my own professional growth. In fact, when I went to library school, I thought that I was going to be a school librarian. Most of my classes were in school librarianship. I am married to an academic, and so right after we both finished our graduate programs at the University of Michigan, we went to Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. A cataloging position was available there, so I started my career as a cataloger. I think that the job as a cataloger and knowledge of MARC record structure have both made me a better reference librarian, and have helped me in positions of leadership as well, since I can talk MARC tags with catalogers. (Most library leaders come out of the public service side, not the technical service side.)

My other work experience includes serving as the Associate Library Director at Hope College, and as the Library Director at Augsburg College. Approximately two years into [this latter] position, I was also appointed head of all technology at the college. Next, I came to Washington, D.C. and I worked at the Air and Space Museum Library at the Smithsonian Institution, which gave me a really wonderful opportunity. Since it was more of a lateral move and since I was older than most of my peer colleagues, I was able to do a lot of mentoring, which is really an important part of what leaders should do. Had I been hired at a higher level, I would not have been able to mentor to them. From there, I was able to go to the District of Columbia Public Library where I became the Assistant Director. At D.C. Public I was in charge of IT and technical services. Toward the last year and a half there, I was in charge of the main branch of the library system as well. The position at DCPL has allowed me to pull my experiences completely together and to use them in a different setting.

I feel very strongly that one of the things that we do in the profession is to pigeonhole ourselves—and the profession itself pigeonholes us as well. So if you are a public librarian, you may think that you can only move up and apply for jobs in the public library field. Likewise, I think that some academic libraries can be notoriously rigid about hiring librarians from different library environments; sometimes the thinking is, if you haven’t worked in an Association for Research and College Library before, you shouldn’t bother to apply for jobs in academic libraries. So I think that the profession would benefit greatly from more of us “cross-fertilizing” in different types of libraries, since everything you do in one job prepares you for the next. (At least it should, because you never know when an opportunity is going to come up.) Doing a little of something in past positions will make you a more competitive candidate for a new position.

Management and leadership are often described as two different endeavors: The first as keeping day-to-day operations running smoothly and supervising people; and the second as thinking of new ideas and goals, then 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?

There is a distinction between leadership and management; they are two different skills. Often if you are a visionary leader, you had better make sure that there is someone on your staff who is empowered to manage the library, since the day-to-day work has to be done. But it’s really important as a library director to avoid getting “down into the weeds” too much and micro-managing. And I believe as a leader you have to step back and let the people who work with you do what they need to do. Give direction, provide the vision, but also allow them success and possibly to make some mistakes. Leaders can sometimes be so risk-averse. Sometimes you have to allow your staff to try things even if you think that they may not work. So I step back and say that this is the direction that I think that we should go in.

This is the leadership part—supplying the vision, supplying the direction, but then turning to the staff and asking: from your viewpoint, how can we best make this work? It is easy to sit in the office and dictate what should happen, but it really is the people on the front lines who need the opportunity to perform the work necessary for carrying out the library’s vision. Yet as a manager, I need to make sure that if I give m staff that kind of freedom, I have to make sure they get the training and support they need. Also, it is very helpful for leaders to talk to each other; sometimes we get a little isolated when we don’t have someone with whom we can share ideas.

When someone comes to you with a new idea for a program, service, or wants to do something different, how do you encourage them?

I try to both encourage their enthusiasm and temper it with some reality. I ask them for a proposal, which should tell me what the ramifications are going to be for the rest of the staff. If there are budgetary consequences, then the proposal should describe what they are. I remind them that using other staff members’ skills includes budgetary concerns, too. Once I receive the proposal, we then work through it and see what we can do. In a bureaucracy it is often difficult to start new programs, but I try to encourage people to flesh out their great ideas before we go much further because I think that this is the best way to ensure success if we are ready to do something new.

How do you encourage your co-workers to trust you as a leader?

Trust has to be earned. You can’t make people trust you. You have to exhibit by your behavior that you are worthy of their trust. I think that is something that you continue to work on all of the time. For example, I have two rules: I don’t like whining, and I don’t like to be surprised. If something has happened at the front desk, I want to know about it, so that if I hear about it later, I can be an advocate for the staff. So I believe that is how you earn trust. I also think that trust is earned by being honest with people even when you have to tell them things that they don’t want to hear. If there is an employee who is doing something that they should not be doing, I need to tell them to stop. If I don’t do that, I lose the trust of the staff that has either observed that behavior or have seen something happen.

How do you identify leaders in your library?

I identify leaders by how they work in their jobs, but also how others respect them. Often there are leaders who are not in positions of leadership, but because of the strength of their character, their experience, and the way that they deal with people, they are leaders. These leaders have to be encouraged as well. Even people who have reached a plateau in the library should be encouraged.

What do you think are the most important skills for a library director to have or for anyone who wants to lead and manage people?

You have to love what you are doing. That is really important. If you don’t love what you are doing, it’s very difficult to lead an organization. You must be willing to give people advice that they don’t want to hear, and conversely, you really have to learn to celebrate successes; this is extremely important. Something else that has been most helpful for me is to get out of the library and make sure that the library is visible to others in the institution—make sure other departments recognize that the library is a critical part of an institution’s mission. I think that this is something that library directors need to do, and that library staff need to understand, because it’s important to the library’s success.

What advice do you have for current and up and coming library professionals who want to take on more of a leadership role in their libraries?

Take any kind of training that you can, and network. In almost every place where I have worked, there have been training opportunities. Both ALA and ACRL have some training options as well. I just think that everyone needs to take advantage of these opportunities, because it’s an investment in your own future. Library budgets being what they are, institutions cannot always afford to do what they should be doing in terms of providing training, so occasionally you have to make some sacrifices yourself in order to have a better career.

The other thing to do is to network. Join library associations. Local and state associations are wonderful places to practice at being a leader, and they’re almost always hungry for people to volunteer and to work in positions. Also, volunteer to be on task forces and committees at your library or institution. Work of this kind is the best way that I know to come into contact with different kinds of people, and to learn how to lead, how to run a meeting, and how to talk to people whom you don’t know very well. These are all good ways to self-train to be a leader.

I think that we librarians are sometimes not very good at tooting our own horns, and we need to improve in this area. Because of our training, we have wonderful skills. For example, I was appointed head of technology while Director at Augsburg College because I came forward and said, “I can do this,” and convinced my Dean that I could.

How should leaders in the library profession go about cultivating leadership within their own libraries and in the profession?

One of the things that I think about is that we have people in our profession, often in academic libraries for example, whom I have known to be wonderful reference librarians--sought after by students and faculty because they were so good at what they did. Yet the only way for them to really advance in our profession was to become a supervisor or a manager. I think we need to find ways to allow people who perform their jobs with excellence to continue doing what they love and to advance. In public libraries, children’s librarians are in this position; in order to advance, they have to stop doing what they love in order to move up. So we need to find ways that reference librarians and children’s librarians can continue to move up, to get more responsibility, but also to increase their salaries.

Some people go into supervisor or management roles because they want to earn more money. That makes sense. But sometimes these people are not as happy in those roles as they would have been had they continued to do what they really love. So we have to find a way in the profession to address this. I also think it’s crucial to recognize leadership in ways other than traditional “director” positions, and that now is a good time to look at advancing into leadership roles. After all, the profession is aging. I am on the leading edge of the baby-boomers so I know that within the next five years we are going to lose an incredible number of people to retirement. The younger librarians really do need to start preparing themselves to take over those positions.