by Steven R. Standefer, MLS
City Librarian-Library Director, Mansfield Public Library

“Never tell your people how to do things. Tell them what you want them to do, and they will
surprise you with their ingenuity.” George S. Patton, War As I Knew It. (1947)

And so it is with the people we work with in the library. While we obviously need to equip and train our loyal minions, giving them the tools and the know-how to perform effectively, we should also keep them out of harm’s way and have the good sense to get out of theirs and let them do their jobs.

People who work in libraries are special. They tend to be smarter and better read than average, are there because they want to be, are loyal and usually there when we need them. If we want to keep them that way, we need to grasp their need to be understood and given opportunities to take ownership of the roles they fill on the library staff. Making sure they know what is expected of them and know how to do accomplish it is paramount.

Library support staffs, like librarians, also tend to be very conscientious and patron oriented to a fault. This is a good thing because it generally means that, in addition to offering outstanding service, friction between staff and library users is minimized. Occasionally, though, a staff member will run afoul of a patron, leading to confrontation between the staff member and the patron, and often involving their supervisors. We should never take the side of patron against a member of the library staff. If there are improvements a library staff member can make in his or her comportment with patrons or performance on the job, that is for us and our staff members to work out together. As far as the public is concerned, a staff member who may have made a mistake was trying to follow library policy. Always.

And finally: Supervisors often impede the progress of their organizations by standing too close to the people doing the work. If it is necessary to constantly look over the shoulders of the folks working for us, do we really need them? If we are working as hard at their jobs as they are, maybe there is a problem. Maybe they need to just move on… or we do.

There is a misperception, especially in libraries where too few staff is the norm (most of us), that good supervision involves getting out there and working along side of the staff we are supposed to supervise, cataloging, checking out materials, answering reference questions, fussing with the computer network, etc., sort of like a player-coach. If that is so effective, why isn’t player-coaching the pervasive model in the NFL, the NBA or Major League Baseball? Yes, you do see examples of it, but not many. Why is that? Because, it doesn’t work.

Coaching, as with other areas of management, involves stepping back, getting the big picture, offering perspective and encouragement, and then getting out of the way so the players can win the game. Being the coach is the coach’s job, just as supervising (which involves coaching) is the supervisor’s job. It involves vision and leadership. The more we get down in the trenches with the staff, the more our vision is impeded, and the less we lead.

Train and equip them. Protect and take care of them. And get the heck out of their way. This will lead to a healthier, happier library staff organization, and a library that is truly outstanding.




Original Publication Date: 
February 1, 2010
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