Jessica Jones (@bibliographics), Branch Manager of the Larry J. Ringer Library in College Station, Texas talked to us about the unexpected turns her library career path has taken – from academic cataloger to director, then a jump to public libraries. She also gave us the scoop on the difference between managing an academic library and a public library. We love Jessica’s management philosophy: “Hire good people, train them well, and then get out of their way.”
Tell me about your career path. What was planned and what was unexpected?
I came to graduate school with the goal of being a preservation librarian. I was just a few credit hours short of a double specialization, but graduated a semester early with the Library and Information Services concentration since I thought it was safer than Preservation Administration. This was during the recession, but I had public library experience already, having spent a year at the San Antonio Public Library (SAPL) prior to grad school, and I volunteered/interned with the Ann Arbor District Library. I hoped that if all else failed, I could go back to the SAPL to wait out the recession until preservation positions started opening up again.
I reached out to SAPL a few months before graduation, and they were in a hiring freeze. The job market in 2009 was . . . grim. I was offered a full time position with benefits in New Mexico two months after graduation, and I took it. I packed up and drove the 1500 miles out to Espanola, New Mexico to be a cataloger for Northern New Mexico College (Northern).
The cataloger position did not technically require my MSI, but as I started work there, I began to realize how much that position had needed someone with the degree. I worked very hard to improve the standards and consistency and thus won the trust of my superiors. When the Assistant Librarian left a few months after that, I seized the opportunity to assume a position that actually required my degree and added the responsibilities of access services, collection development, and teaching information literacy. About a year later, the Director retired, and I was nominated to be the Interim Director while still performing the duties of Assistant Librarian. At this point, the only things I was not doing were cataloging and ILL, and I was the only academic librarian in a county the size of Connecticut. I kept the place afloat, expanded our digital offerings, and shed the “Interim.”
Post-recession, as a director in my early 30s with supervisory, administrative, and budget experience that is easily translated into other areas of librarianship, my next job hunt was much easier. My husband was offered a position as a PhD student at Texas A&M University, and I had an offer in College Station shortly thereafter. I am currently the branch manager at a public library, and I supervise 18 people who are fantastic and have made me feel very welcome and appreciated.
What’s your leadership philosophy?
It is difficult to completely separate my leadership philosophy from my management philosophy, which is: Hire good people, train them well, and then get out of their way. As my library’s leader and manager, I consider myself an enabler. Librarians don’t go into this line of work because it’s lucrative, it’s because they care; so, as a leader, I try to help my employees feel like they the opportunity to do things they care about.
I realize that I have been very fortunate in my career trajectory; I worked very hard for my experience and titles, but I know others who have worked hard and just weren’t in places where those titles were up for grabs. I currently supervise 6 masters-holding librarians, and several of them have been in the field longer than me; as their leader, I advocate for them constantly so that they can pursue the projects they love. The best leaders I have known in my professional life have tried to do the same; let people aim high, and try to meet them there with the guidance, skills, and supplies they need to achieve the goal.
When moving from an academic to a public library, what adjustments did you have to make to your management style?
My academic library experience involved a lot less face time with patrons than my public library experience. You often have more tech-savvy patrons in an academic library, which means more email and chat reference requests. In this public library, most of the reference happens in-person. What this has meant to my management style is that it has gone from a more process-centric method to people-centric. If a librarian is spending 8 hours a day on a reference desk, I worry more about burnout than email efficiency, for example. You can answer emails at your own speed, but if someone is standing at the desk, they need you right now.
To manage a place where almost every situation is more acute means that I have to spend a lot more time thinking about my people and making sure they are taken care of. This is not to say that I am perfect at this; I miss things sometimes, and I try to remind my librarians and clerks that I rely on them to be self-aware and tell me what they need. In an ideal world, everyone’s needs would be perfectly communicated and met in a timely manner. That’s not always the case, and I can always do better; this is a lifelong learning process.
You mentioned your library is adding services that demonstrate value to the community. Can you talk a little bit about the changes and new services?
It isn’t news to anyone in this audience that libraries often face an uphill battle when it comes to expanding (or even maintaining) our budgets. Because the immediate association many people have with libraries is “books” – specifically, popular fiction – we are often seen as a luxury instead of a community investment. Changes, therefore, are often creative (the nice word for “on a shoestring”) until their value has already been demonstrated. We have several librarians here who are doing some really great and creative things in their programming that rely on their inherent interests and expertise, such as: English conversation circles, themed storytimes for the entire family, collaboration with outside groups like our local NaNoWriMo, and early literacy workshops for parents and educators. We are reaching out to all age groups at all levels of literacy in an effort to provide the kind of engagement that improves the lives of all of our patrons and promotes a sense of community ownership.
What’s the top thing you think librarians need to do in order to succeed?
There are a lot of things that I attribute to any personal successes I’ve achieved so far. Some things have come more naturally than others, but, for where I am now, these are the top takeaway lessons:
Project confidence and be direct. Be creative and offer a solution whenever you bring up a problem. Admit when you are wrong or when you don’t know something; this goes a long way toward proving trustworthiness, which leads to more responsibilities. Challenge yourself and acquire new skills and knowledge whenever you see the opportunity. Say “Thank you” and “Please” and show your appreciation for others’ hard work as often as you can.
What do you see in the future for public libraries?
Because we are publicly funded, predicting the future of public libraries is inherently tied to politics. The political climate right now feels very polar, and I do worry a little about the public library’s future in some communities. I feel fortunate to be in a college town that appreciates the value of education and lifelong learning, but not every library is so lucky. My branch here is a wonderful example of what you can do without a lot of money, but we do definitely think about what we could be doing with more of it: workshops, maker spaces, guest speakers and author visits, web development, enhanced automation, etc.
This is all to say that I think the future for public libraries will be dependent on the values of their respective communities. I think the future for librarians is a little more predictable; whatever new technologies are introduced, and whatever technologies we are given the funds to procure, we will continue to do our best to bridge the Digital Divide, provide our communities with opportunities to learn and entertain themselves, and serve as guides for a world of information that expands exponentially every year.