How to Get Things Done: A Guide for Librarians

By Catherine Odson

Be yourself. Don't piss people off on purpose. Make an impact.

This was some of the sage advice given by experienced library leaders to a room of new librarians, most with less than three years of experience, during the "How to Get Things Done: A Guide for Librarians" panel sponsored by the ACRL New Members Discussion Group at ALA Midwinter 2014.

The panel, moderated by Tyler Dzuba (Head, Physics-Optics-Astronomy Library, University of Rochester), featured Aaron Dobbs, Systems/Electronic Resources Librarian, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania; Heather McNabb, Branch Manager, Oaklyn Branch, Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library; Michelle Millet, Library Director, John Carroll University; and Sha Towers, Director of Liaison Services, Baylor University.

Panelists shared advice for getting things done in their first jobs and what they as managers expect from new librarians. Trust, they agreed, was an important thing. In a new position, listening to people across the organization and building an internal network is the first step to gaining that trust. If you need to know something, go find out. Gossip, on the other hand, can quickly destroy trust, and you're not going to get anything done if you are not trusted.

Librarians new to their organization may also encounter pushback to their ideas. When you come up with a new idea, think about who is going to be involved, who may be a partner, and who may be opposed. However, pushing an idea too much can leave a bad impression. It may not be the right time or place for an idea, but it could be in a few days or a few more years. Everyone is working to improve the organization in their own way, Dobbs said; their actions are not intended to hold you back. Sometimes mentioning an idea and letting it go results in the idea later percolating up through other channels, Towers and Dobbs said. When the solution later comes up for conversation, it's not all about you — more people share ownership of the idea and have already bought into it.

Other times the new librarian may be the one doubting a project. These projects, "dead elks" according to Millet, are those no one wants to do, but doing it ultimately builds a stronger relationship with your boss. Sometimes you may have to take on the project exactly as recommended; sometimes you may be able to reach the boss's objectives through other means. Bring alternatives that may be faster, easier ways to get what he or she wants, Dobbs and McNabb said.

Learning the motivation and the "why?" behind your boss's decisions can help you understand the bigger picture of the organization. Anytime you offer to do something, talk to your supervisor about the project tasks and timeframe. Keeping your boss in the loop is important because your actions impact a lot of people. A new idea or initiative might be great, but there may be other factors contributing to a "no," such as time constraints or other upcoming projects. The phrase "help me understand" can be magic compared to similar questions, such as "Why do we...?"

One of the hardest things to do as a new librarian is to reel it in and hold it in, Millet said. Shiny new librarians want to do and fix everything, but even if it is physically possible, you can quickly burn out. She recommended prioritizing your work for the highest impact. And finally, use other librarians as a sounding board, an idea captured in the panel's final words by McNabb: "You should never feel alone, ever."

Catherine Odson is a courseware support librarian at the University of Pennsylvania.