Rural Librarian: Toxic Libraries - What Are Some of the Causes?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Toxic Libraries - What Are Some of the Causes?

Have you ever worked in a toxic work environment? Most people have had this experience at least once in the work world. Sadly, I have talked with many librarians and library employees who are suffering daily in a toxic library. Is this common? In my opinion, yes.

Let's define a toxic workplace, in general, first. What are the hallmarks of dysfunction in a library?

• In a toxic workplace, library leaders show favoritism to loyal followers, and punish anyone who does not show proper deference.

• Toxic workplaces have bosses that crush and question new ideas out of defensiveness and fear.

• Toxic workplaces do not value employees and treat them accordingly.

• Toxic workplaces are always asking their workers for more while giving less in return.

• A toxic library or workplace can look a lot like a dictatorship in some small and isolated third-world country.

Perhaps the worst and most pervasive hallmark of a toxic and dysfunctional workplaces is that No One in charge can acknowledge problems and deal with them effectively. Writing for PsychCentral, Melody Wilding (LMSW) adds that the dysfunctional workplace features a lot of drama. Sound familiar?

Lack of Library Management Skills

One of the reasons many libraries flounder with poor leadership and high turnover of employees is because of lack of management skills. These are complicated personnel and leadership issues, and most American Library Association accredited library programs do not have an emphasis on library management. During my program at the University of Tennessee, we did not have one course in library personnel and board management. Think about it. Libraries are complicated entities being run by information professionals who may have zero supervisory experience when they assume a leadership role. As a library director, you have to juggle all constituents from staff, to students, to parents, to board members, to the county commission. Library leaders need to be well-informed, forward-thinking, communicators who are good at nurturing and building a team. Without benefit of a proper Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, many libraries are lead by tribal elders who have not changed in decades. So it is great that the University of South Carolina just announced a new Master's Degree program in Library Management.

Too Many Cooks in the Library

Another reason why there are so many toxic libraries has to do with the strength of involvement from the community, library patrons, the state library commission, and the library board. As nonprofit businesses, there are many groups of constituents who want to be involved in the way a library serves its community. Mostly, this is good. Public libraries want the community involved so that the library may serve them better. But what if the library board is controlling of the director and employees? Most library directors serve at the pleasure of the board, and keeping the board informed, involved, and happy comes with the territory. Many small rural library boards do not understand that the director runs the day-to-day operations of the library and their main responsibility is to fundraise, create policy, and oversee the budget. Library boards who are overbearing and controlling contribute to creating a dysfunctional workplace for most. Library boards need to understand their unique role and they need to stand behind their director.

An Uninvolved Board

I have also heard library leaders complain of uninvolved and complacent boards. If board members do not show up at meetings regularly they miss the narrative, thrust, and goals of the library. And sometimes, libraries with little board oversight have the potential to become strange little petty fiefdoms, a bizarro world where nothing makes sense. The library without oversight is as vulnerable for becoming toxic and dysfunctional as the library with too much. Let us all pause and give good cheer for successful library boards that can walk that fine line between being supportive and being over-/under-involved. I have seen healthy library and nonprofit boards-- it can make or break the success of any nonprofit workplace.

The Nonprofit Equation

As a nonprofit business, there is no financial bottom line. Libraries do not necessarily need to make money to stay afloat. So, what indicators may a library use to know it is healthy and thriving? Statistics are one story. How many items circulated? How many library visits? In many ways, a successful library may use exceptional customer service to keep these statistics healthy. However, in my experience, I have encountered many librarians who don't seem to understand what excellent customer service looks like. In the corporate or retail world, poor customer service skills would not be tolerated, especially when the results are in lower profits. In my tenure as library director, not a single board member ever asked to see circulation statistics, and during my early days of directing I did not realize how important they may be. As a student and practitioner of marketing, all of your endeavors should be trackable. How do you measure and analyze the success of your library? Good library leaders focus on assessment, gathering data, and analyzing statistics to inform good decisions. These reports should be provided to board members and the public regularly for good library relations. Many board meetings feature a Librarian's Report. This is a great place to discuss accomplishments and goals, important statistics and trends, and to keep the library board members informed. This is invaluable communication that builds collaboration and cooperation between the library and the community.

Employers Marketplace - The Economy Is Still Recovering

When I was a graphic designer and art director in the 1990's in Philadelphia, I had my pick of good jobs and better jobs. I left one of my first nonprofit jobs after five months because I could see the dysfunctional writing on the wall. I also gave one of the best lines of my career: "This job did not meet my expectations." Since the economy crashed in 2007-08, it has become an employer's marketplace. I have encountered many employers who have the attitude that their workers should just be happy to have a job, any job. In a competitive job market, employers are less likely to treat their workers well. Maybe in another decade the economy will bounce back, but the wealth of the 1990's will probably not appear in my lifetime. Sadface.

The Technology/Age/Culture Gap in Library Workplaces

This effect will vary by geographical location. In states with older librarians and less funding (like West Virginia) there is a huge technology gap between young and old librarians. Older librarians resent younger librarians who come with ideas of new technology. I have met many older librarians who still weep tears over the loss of the card catalog and who fear learning new technology. This resistance to change means that underserved states who are ruled by older librarians will remain less technologically advanced than their neighboring states with better populations and tax bases. Sadly, this may be another way that poverty becomes cyclical in Appalachia.

For many of us, we can not afford to be highly selective in choosing a library job. But I do urge people who are looking for a librarian job to do some research before they accept a job in a toxic library. This may be difficult as many toxic workplaces may be good at making appearances matter. At your job interview, ask why the previous person left. Ask about their style of management. Ask questions, and remember that you have valuable work skills and deserve to work someplace that treats you well. In the meantime, it feels like so many good librarians are just waiting for about ten years in the future. Older librarians will retire, new technology will overcome, the economy may actually bounce back. Hang in there, good librarian friends. The future of libraries is going to be a good one.

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