Just Add Water: The Instant Making of Assistant Directors

No one likes change, especially sudden change, and most emphatically we tend to dislike the kind where we feel totally out of control about it. But sudden change often is better than the long, drawn out excruciating type of change where they warn you it’s going to happen and then nothing does for awhile, and then when you least expect it, then they pull the rug out. Actually, we’ve been going through that kind too at my library, but that’s another story.

Recently, there have been some rather abrupt changes at my workplace. These changes, to be honest, didn’t really come out of nowhere, but to many who work with me, they seemed to happen overnight and without much lead time. But the conditions had been brewing all along, right under our noses. It was just a matter of time …

This is the story of two of my direct reports becoming my peers over the course of a couple of weeks. To be fair, I had a hand in this decision and although I do not directly gain from the change, in the long run, I may gain much. Or I may crash and burn; it remains to be seen what effect it will have on me. But this story is not about me, really.

Instead, this is about the serious “brain drain” many academic institutions are suffering from as the economy lumbers toward better days, but not quite fast enough. We have very talented librarians at my institution, but this is a place where employees have not seen a meaningful salary raise for 5 years (except for a couple of symbolic gestures hardly worth the administrative paperwork to make them happen). This is also one of those institutions that can’t (or won’t) decide whether librarians should retain faculty status and so as we wait in limbo for a decision on this, the natives get restless.

Our associate dean (now the interim dean) has been juggling two + jobs since our dean retired last summer. The assistant director for special collections retired this spring, as did several other key personnel. We’ve needed additional voices present on the management group, and it was unlikely we would successfully recruit from the outside since our campus administration is currently restricting us to only offering 1-year contracts. Under normal conditions this sort of sudden upward mobility might not occur this way, but desperate times require creative solutions and I applaud our interim dean for recognizing talent from within when we need it.

So our interim dean made a somewhat radical move. And in retrospect, I think, a very smart move. The individuals involved are well-respected department heads who were considering heading elsewhere, but instead are staying and being given more responsibilities (and yes, pay, we hope). One is a newly conceived position for scholarly communication leadership and the other is going to carve out a new division focused on acquisitions and collection development activities. And me, I’m giving up the acquisitions and collection development piece but taking on library systems, web applications and discovery, but keeping cataloging and ILS Services. (We haven’t had anyone in the AD for library technology position for over a year, so I am helping out by adding that to my plate). There are others within the ranks who are also serving in various interim leadership roles as well.

Several aspects of these shifts in responsibilities are of interest to me. First, the reactions from others, both within the library and from colleagues outward have been a mixed bag. Some of the typical comments:
• Does this mean if I can garner an outside offer, I too can get a lucrative counter-offer from the university? (Uh, well, that depends …)
• Library Technology and Cataloging? They don’t go together — We have nothing in common! (Actually — Data and MetaData are related. And, surprisingly, this seems to be a trend – though frankly, I didn’t see it at first myself. But we’re not so out of synch, this arrangement is being tried at other libraries too. Not to mention the cataloger/programming movement …)
• I don’t like how sudden this was! (Gosh me too, but really, aren’t you glad these great colleagues didn’t leave us?)
• So, how do you really feel about what they did to you? (In this case I was part of the doing, so I don’t feel too bad, actually.)

This is not to say we won’t have bumps in the road — I know we will, but I’m sure we’ll work through them. I hope in the long term we will all be better off for having been willing to try something new and retain great people for at least a little while longer.

Secondly, as a member of the Taiga Steering Committee, and a veteran in the field, I am interested in mentoring new assistant directors and others who fall into that management level (regardless of what the job title may be), and I’d like to hear people’s thoughts about their experiences being thrust into new responsibilities. I would like to invite those who have had similar experiences with “sudden succession” to be guest bloggers here. Let’s consider this another theme for the blog as we go forward.


July 2013- Assistant Director for Discovery & Technology Services, Joyner Library, East Carolina University August 2008-June 2013 Assistant Director for Collections & Technical Services, Joyner Library, East Carolina University

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7 comments on “Just Add Water: The Instant Making of Assistant Directors
  1. Amy says:

    Congrats on leading with your brain and not your emotions. One of the first questions we need to ask ourselves is, “Is this good for my institution?” That is our responsibility and (sometimes) burden.

    Also, how exciting that some folk get an exciting new responsibility. As we’ve cut back on staff the path upwards has shrunk. We aren’t properly mentoring into leadership because there are so many fewer positions. This is going to bite us (and some think it is already apparent) as people retire and filling positions is more difficult.

  2. Chris Bourg says:

    Thanks for sharing this story — I hope you will keep us posted on how it turns out.
    The “brain drain” you mention is a real issue. Here at Stanford we are in competition with silicon valley tech firms (established and start-ups) for any of our folks with tech skills. And as the tech world (and everyone else) starts to understand the value of metadata, we are in danger of losing folks from other parts of the organization as well. Luckily, we compete pretty well on quality of life and a sense of higher calling.

  3. Ann Frenkel says:

    Ages ago I worked for a hallowed institution which seemed to pride itself on not promoting from within. And then suddenly you would see a notable exception– with the explanation that this situation was different/unusual. Definitely a mixed message.

    Sometimes promoting from within is the very best way to go, and not just because of brain drain. It’s good because of increasing the sense of commitment, good working relationships, institutional understanding, positive staff morale, mentoring by example, etc.

    But I think it really only works if you intentionally mix in new hires at the same time. I think it’s important to find a way, no matter how/what, to keep bringing in new blood. Diversity in your staff includes having a mix of old guard and new guard.

    That said, it sounds like you are making some daring and smart choices, and it will be interesting to see how it works!

  4. Eleanor Cook says:

    Thanks for the comments. We are having far more success with entry level positions in recruiting potentially great people from the outside, and we keep reminding the university administration that having multiple career tracks is confusing. This issue has to be resolved soon. In the mean time, we are trying to assure our bright new librarians that we value them. Some of them have also had chances to move up the ladder. Where we still have challenges is with moving staff up. That’s another discussion for another day!

  5. Dennis Clark says:

    Eleanor —

    Thank you for your post! I think shines a bit of light on the derision for succession planning throughout academic library culture. Academic libraries tend to value the “openness” of search processes to the exclusion of developing people who are good at what they do and are willing to move up in an organization. We all hear that you have to “move out to move up”, so it’s nice to see your interim Dean take these steps. The most important thing for academic library leaders to do is to hire well, regardless from where!

    (I moved out to move up, several times, but I’m not very patient.)

  6. Chris Bourg says:

    Promoting from within versus having an open external search is an interesting and tricky topic. Although I myself was an internal promotion I have concerns about the fact that internal promotions are often secret deals that circumvent the usual, more open hiring process.

    I love the idea of giving our own staff a chance at leadership positions, and I think in some situations, internal promotions can be really good for overall morale. But I have seen cases where internal promotions cause serious morale problems because of other staff wonder why they did not get the opportunity to compete for the job in question.
    I think I favor the approach of doing an open search and encouraging qualified internal staff to apply. That way, if the internal staff person is the one selected they have added legitimacy in taking on the new role — especially if it involves leading former peers.

    Of course, every situation has its own dynamics; and the one you describe sounds like one where an external search would not have been the right approach.

About “Gentle Disturbances”

The title of our new blog, “Gentle Disturbances”, is a tribute and a reference to the husband and wife artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art consists of vast, temporary outdoor installations, such as the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin, the 24-mile Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin counties in California, and The Gates in New York City's Central Park. Christo has asserted that their art creates “gentle disturbances," designed to challenge traditional perceptions of the spaces and landscapes they inhabit. By encouraging viewers to see familiar landscapes in new ways, their art disrupts assumptions about permanence, ownership, and categorization.

While we claim none of the artistic or political impact of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, we hope that this blog and its many contributors will challenge us all to look at the landscape of academic libraries and higher education in new ways. We aspire to “gentle disturbances” of the kind that will lead to productive conversations and creative approaches to our common challenges.