How to Get Library Leadership Experience (Without Managing Employees)

Megan Hartline —  November 3, 2015 — 3 Comments

book cover for Catch-22 by Joseph HellerYour library career path has a catch-22: you can’t get a management position without management experience – but you can’t get management experience until you’re in a management position.

If this is your current dilemma, know this: you have a loophole.

We talk a lot about the difference between leadership and management. This distinction works in your favor for career development. Leadership comes from any position, so you can gain leadership experience even before you enter a management position.

When it comes time to apply for management positions, good hiring managers equate leadership experience with management experience. You can develop those skills in non-supervisory roles by getting leadership experience within (or even outside of) your library.

Manage a Project or Program

Look around your library for an upcoming project or program. Perhaps your library will soon start preparing for summer reading, banned book week, or creating a teen advisory board.

It’s easier to take on an established project than to create one from scratch, but a word to the wise: some librarians are a little territorial about their pet programs. Maybe Mona in Public Services has coordinated Banned Book Week since 1982 and would sooner pull a controversial book behind the desk than let you have a crack at it.

On the other hand, maybe Mona is completely over coordinating this event and ever since 1982, she’s been waiting for the day someone new would take it on.

Know your office politics and be open with your boss. Say something like, “I was wondering if I could take ownership of a program. Banned Book Week is coming up, and I was wondering if that might be a good choice. If not, I’m open to taking on anything else you need coordinated.”

You can also take on a project. Projects are different than programs: they have an end date, and they’re usually not about service delivery to library users. Examples of projects might include weeding the reference collection or finally RFID tagging the DVDs in storage.

Whether it’s a program or a project, running it takes time management, sustained effort, and coordination of multiple factors – all very necessary leadership skills.

Service to the Profession

What’s your library niche? There’s an excellent chance that there’s a specialized committee out there, waiting for your professional service. Angela Semifero, a library director, joined a committee early in her career as a YA librarian to plan a teen services conference. Her role started small, but after a few years of gaining experience she became the conference chair.

Joining a committee is easy peasy. Trust me: the committees want you, especially if you’re willing to take on a smidgen of accountability. In the United States, you can volunteer for your state level library association or at the national level with ALA (timely alert: the committee volunteer form is due November 6).

Service to the profession is a great way to develop and demonstrate leadership skills. As with Angela’s case, there’s often an opportunity to take a chair role on the committee. Also, building a network outside of your own library shows future hiring committees that you have the crucial leadership ability to establish connections between people.


Animated clip from The Hunger Games with Katniss struggling to volunteer as tributeAre you hungry for more in your career? Do you want additional training, growth opportunities, and a way to make an impact?

Volunteering is an amazing way to develop your career. Like libraries, nonprofit organizations operate on a shoestring. In many cases, they rely on skilled volunteers – which means there’s an opportunity to develop your skillset and step into a leadership role.

A few years into my library career, I realized that I had somehow sidestepped anything to do with instruction. This gap in my resume would make it really hard to shift into a different job in most academic libraries. To fix this, I started volunteering as an adult literacy tutor. I was passionate about the cause, and the literacy organization gave me extensive training in adult learning. Eventually I even took on a leadership role mentoring other tutors. I developed my career while making a difference in my community.

Check out VolunteerMatch to find a volunteer opportunity that matches your interests, commitment level, and availability.

Supervise Students, Pages, or Volunteers

“Wait,” I bet you’re thinking. “The title of this post is about how to get leadership experience without managing employees.”

Yep. Absolutely. And in reality, supervising temporary part-time employees is far different than managing permanent staff. As Ask a Manager points out, the expectations and commitment for these times of workers is very different. This leads to less pressure on the person supervising them.

That lower amount of pressure means that taking on this kind of responsibility is also the absolute best way to prepare yourself for that next step. When you supervise even a small group of pages, there’s a lot to learn about hiring, training, and performance management.

Supervising student employees at an academic library was my first taste of formal management. I took it super-duper seriously, transforming a neglected office into a place where student employees were extensively trained, held accountable for their work, and (gasp!) given semesterly evaluations and feedback. This gave me the experience and credibility to take on more formal management in my next library role.

Frame It as Leadership

Back to that catch-22: you want future hiring committees to look at your resume and understand that you have leadership experience.

Make sure you understand how your experience contributes to your ability to take on a leadership role. Cindy Fesmeyer, a public library director, said of her professional skills, “They include everything I picked up along the way by just living my life. From home ownership and motherhood to volunteering on the Boards of Directors of a few organizations I liked, I picked up skills by participating in my various communities and helping take care of business.”

Be ready to sell how volunteering, managing a project, or coordinating pages prepared you to take on a next-level managerial role. Check out our guide for library managers on how to identify emerging leaders, and think about how your experiences demonstrate qualities like engagement, conviction, and invention.

The library profession needs you as a dynamic leader, so get out there and beat that catch-22! Share with us in the comments how you got (or plan to get) library leadership experience.

Megan Hartline


Megan Hartline (@awrybrarian on Twitter) is a librarian in Denver, Colorado. In addition to librarianship, Megan's background is in nonprofit leadership. She would love to visit your library to talk about management, workflows, or customer service.

3 responses to How to Get Library Leadership Experience (Without Managing Employees)


    This is a must read for those in all fields who are looking for management, or more importantly leadership experience. I have managed businesses for the past 12 years and the skills mentioned are relevant to all fields.


    Yes to all of these! For a while, I was stressed out as a solo librarian with 1.5 staff members until I told myself it was a fantastic leadership role for a new librarian. (Our direct supervisor is the dean of our campus, not the library director at the other campus.) Framing my experience as leadership has also been good for my morale. I feel less uneasy in my unofficial middleman position.

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