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

For the April installment of “Interviews with Library Leaders,” we interviewed Barbara MacAdam. Barbara is the head of Reference and Instruction at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, and the former head of the Undergraduate Library at the University of Michigan. Barbara has numerous publications in management, user education, and undergraduate education.

Collaboration on college campuses is becoming crucial for academic libraries. What strategies have you used to make libraries a partner in collaborative efforts on campus?

It may sound awfully basic, but the first strategy is to really know what's going on across campus. I read the campus student newspaper every morning (cover to cover, even sports!) and the official campus weekly publication every week. If I see a unit or a committee or faculty member with a new project that might logically involve the library, I'll pick up the phone and call or email them or even send a handwritten note, just see if we can find some mutual goal or way the library can support what they're doing. No one ever has reacted negatively to this, especially since the library is offering support/collaboration generally without asking for resources from them.

Faculty governance has also been a great way to get to know faculty colleagues and build close ties to campus units (e.g., to Athletics, Student Affairs, Office of Multicultural affairs, etc.). A place like the University of Michigan is really a small town where much collaboration is initially established one-on-one between mutually committed individuals. Being able to call someone you may have met in a different context really can pave the way for making a large campus "smaller."

Most often now, since our subject specialists are so involved with the campus, it will be a staff member who will point out some opportunity and suggest they follow up and see where the library could serve as a partner or take even a larger role and convene a group across campus to discuss mutual interests. My role is to try to support this in any way I can. There's no one way to do this, but the essential components are to recognize an opportunity for collaboration when it comes along, move quickly to contact someone just to talk over the possibilities, don't push or sell the idea but just explore it mutually at first, and be clear about what the library can actually contribute that could make a difference or have an impact, and work to identify overlapping goals.

The Information and Reference Department changed, under your guidance, from a tiered reference service to a model with subject-specialists at the desk. What are some of the methods you used to make this new model successful with staff members?

Fortunately, this came at a time when we had the opportunity to recruit several new positions, and the influx of both additional staff and new staff who came from institutions where they had provided and wanted to provide direct reference service made a big difference in changing the culture. But really, this was not a hard sell at all. We just focused on the reputation and needs of the University of Michigan community, and the level and quality of the research assistance and reference service this community needed and deserved.

Practical aspects that reduced problems in transition included that we had a critical number of staff so we weren't asking people to go from zero hours/week at the reference desk to 15 or 20! It really averaged (and still does) to between 4 and 6 hours per week. We also moved in phases--beginning with rotation through Sundays, and then Saturdays. Again this meant one or two weekend shifts a semester. Because everyone participated, the change was small for any one person but the overall benefits to the public were enormous and we could all see that.

Maybe most important is that the positive feedback from faculty began to pour in--people actually noticed (not so much the personnel change as the new vitality and depth of service overall) and everyone loves to be part of an outstanding reputation. It's probably worth adding that with the entire department working so directly with the public, collectively there was an immediate shared understanding of our environment, how users were working, what their needs were, and everyone's breadth of knowledge grew exponentially in terms of confidence and expertise across this complex resource environment.

A user-centered approach to library services is a big thrust at the University of Michigan. How do you develop this dedication to user needs in staff members?

The most important step is to hire people who are committed to public service, but also enjoy it and are effective at working with people. This seems so obvious, but the reality is that it is hard for any of us to really see ourselves as others do, and having extensive expertise in an area does not mean you can teach well or work well with everyone (from undergraduates to very demanding faculty). This is a skill that is hard to develop if it doesn't come to you at least somewhat naturally.

Another big part of this is that if you have staff, especially subject specialists who feel they are truly part of their research community and invested in the needs of that community and the larger public good, then like the very best faculty, they will put just as much effort into the collaboration and service as faculty do in teaching. Service needs to be a goal stated explicitly, an assumed, essential value: "We provide outstanding service!" You also have to make this concrete, practical, and easy. What does this mean? It might mean suggesting we fax something to a user if that's helpful, actually taking a user to someplace in the stacks if they are really confused, encouraging staff to hand out their business cards (or a colleague’s card) at the desk to link a patron up to the right person and personally, calling elsewhere to help solve a problem or pave the way for a patron. Small things can demonstrate that we're focusing on the person--not just the question. Staff appreciate feeling that they are part of a highly respected, well known service--the best!

What do you think are the most important skills to develop for anyone who wants to lead and manage people?

These are not necessarily in any order:

  • You need to be outward looking, not parochial and not just focused on your unit or immediate area of responsibility. Know where the campus is going; see the library in the bigger picture so you can help staff understand the larger context.
  • Have ideas and be able to articulate them--make others excited about them too.
  • Be honest, always. You may have to keep certain things confidential for good reason, but whatever you say should be true as you know it. It does staff no service if you are not honest about the budget picture or you let someone think you support an idea when you don't.
  • Communicate well. Be direct, but sensitive about people's feelings. Sometimes the straight line isn't the shortest distance between two points, and you have to give careful attention to who needs to know what, and when. No one minds being praised in public, but anything negative that will put an individual in a negative light should always be dealt with in private.
  • Have a sense of humor, especially about your own limitations! Encourage a little zaniness.
  • Be flexible.
  • Respect staff and recognize that they are the true experts in most areas and success will depend on how well you listen.
  • Be determined and firm enough to deal with very difficult situations.
  • Understand resources and find ways to support what your staff want to do--when all is said and done, staff will be the source of most innovations and forward looking ideas--your job is to help them make that happen.
  • Support your administration and be a part of the difficult decisions. Don't ever convey the library administration as a vaguely distant "they" (versus us)! Be exactly the kind of staff member to your supervisor and administrators as you would want in the staff who report to you.
  • Treat your colleagues with respect. If you say one thing to them and another behind their back (to other colleagues or your staff), you will convey to staff that this is an acceptable way to behave.
  • Try always to treat staff the way you would want them to treat each other or the public (or you if the positions were reversed!)
  • Temper a sharp tongue, and when in doubt, shut up!

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? Do they overlap?

The standard distinction, but still useful, is that management is about "doing things right" and leadership is about "doing the right things." All processes will go to entropy over time and need shoring up/reinforcement or need to change. In that sense they require two things: tracking them and stepping in when needed where the routine gets derailed. A well-managed place needs relatively little day-to-day management. Performance evaluation, budget monitoring, schedules, policy, hiring, supervising -- all management. Strategic planning, resource analysis and allocation, program review, new program development, defining new positions and recruiting, professional development -- all leadership. Here is the way I look at these two aspects: leadership helps me know what we should be doing and figuring out how to do it, management involves the more practical and concrete steps to achieve tangible outcomes. Good ongoing management should ensure that most of the organization runs well all the time, leaving room for consideration of "what next" or "how better."

What are the best techniques for implementing a new program or a service, particularly for new librarians who are not necessarily in a leadership role? What techniques can you use to make your ideas successful?

  1. Enlist your supervisor’s support, excitement, and advice. No one is in a better position to be a strong advocate for you in the organization. (If you don't believe this to be true, then you likely have another kind of challenge!)
  2. Find adherents or advocates for your idea among your colleagues -- people who will be willing to contribute their time and energy.
  3. If you have support from outside the library for a new service or program, make sure that this is shared sensitively as part of the initiative. If colleagues and administrators know there is interest and enthusiasm from campus partners, it will help provide support for you idea. But no administration wants to be surprised by an idea (i.e., hear about it after it's been under discussion across campus). By the same token, you don't want to make colleagues feel they are being "blackmailed" into participation (e.g., “Student Affairs is really excited about this so we all have to get on board.”)
  4. Find out how ideas move forward effectively in your organization--does your supervisor want you to put together a short proposal? Or are things handled more informally, such as "floating" your idea at a staff meeting?
  5. Do your homework. If you know there are no real additional resources to be had, be explicit about how this could realistically be done and sustained within the means you have. Try to avoid asking for additional money; scrounge what resources you can in whatever way you can! How can staff see the return to them or to the library for involvement in some endeavor that may be outside their normal responsibilities?
  6. Is there an efficient, realistic way to give this a try and see if it proves its value? In other words, could it be done in an "entrepreneurial" phase without an enormous investment and could it be gracefully relinquished after this stage, if necessary?
  7. Are other institutions doing this already and getting a lot of attention and positive feedback for it? Can you subtly (and the emphasis is on “subtly”) tap the organization's sense of identity and value system?
  8. Draft your final report on the project before you start--in other words, make sure you will collect the evidence you need along the way to support your conclusion that this is officially a "success"! Be clear going in what, specifically, will constitute "success."

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

Start with everyday opportunities:

  • If you are part of a group, offer to take minutes, or perform some other kind of useful role. Become known for being "on-task" and "on-time." Do an excellent job at these routine tasks.
  • Volunteer or accept an invitation to serve on a library committee or a task force being formed, even it if isn't innately exciting.
  • If you have a good idea, accompany it with practical suggestions on how to go about implementing it.
  • Watch how effective leaders in the organization operate--how do they do things, and what makes them effective. Try to be conscious of how other people react to you, your style of communication--do they listen, do your ideas seem welcome, or do they seem put off?
  • Your first leadership opportunity will have a halo effect. If you do a good job as chair of a group (even a small unit-based task force or committee), word will get around and you will be invited to take on others things. This is why the same people get asked to serve on committees or take on new initiatives over and over again.
  • Be someone who offers constructive solutions, not someone who just identifies problems that need to be solved. Don't be a whiner. One of my favorite quotes is from Sam Rayburn: "A jackass can kick over a barn; it takes a carpenter to build one."
  • If you are part of a group, listen, observe and learn, but share your ideas thoughtfully--you don't want to sit there like a lump on a log, but you need to be careful that you aren't too pushy.
  • Talk over your goals with your supervisor or a senior colleague and invite their help and guidance on how to develop your leadership interests.
  • Surprise people! Get yourself appointed to a national committee, or a faculty governance committee, or publish even a small article. Help people see you in a new light!