Sep 01 2005
When I was in library school and envisioned my first professional job, I never imagined that I would have to be a supervisor. I was certain that I would need years of experience before I was required to manage anyone.
I was wrong.
I am currently working in my first professional job as a cataloger in an academic library. I supervise a paraprofessional staff person and a student assistant, and have since discovered that it is not uncommon for recent MLS graduates to be hired for jobs that have some supervisory responsibilities - especially in small libraries. I would like to share some of my experiences of being a supervisor in an academic library and some of the things I have learned about supervising - things I wish I had learned in library school.
Initially, I was intimidated by the thought of having to supervise staff. I am not a natural leader, and I don’t usually like to be in charge of other people. My feelings of apprehension were only worsened by my lack of experience with cataloging. How could I tell someone else how to do their job when I barely knew how to do my own? Additionally, the paraprofessional I supervise had held her job for nearly 25 years, and was many years my senior.
As it turned out, I spent my first couple of months learning from my supervisee, as I had no supervisor to train me. She taught me how to use our cataloging software. She explained the different types of materials we collect and how each of them was handled by both Acquisitions and Cataloging. She explained who was who in the library and what the different departments did. When I had a question she couldn’t answer, she would refer me to the proper person.
Your Staff Can Help You
Working with my supervisee in those early months of my job taught me the most important thing I’ve learned about being a supervisor:
You must accept the fact that your staff may know more about some things than you do.
The worst mistake you can make as a new supervisor is to take the attitude, “I’m the librarian, so I know what’s best.” Yes, librarians have graduate degrees and an understanding of the bigger picture. When it comes to making major decisions in the department, we are ultimately responsible. However, staff members who have worked at the library for a while know things that you, as a new employee, couldn’t possibly know. They can tell you when and why current procedures were implemented, what past procedures have and have not worked, and who is responsible for which tasks. They understand the politics of the library and the dynamics of the university as a whole. You should use your staff as a resource to find out information that will be useful to you in this job - and, perhaps, in your career. Your staff can serve you in an advisory capacity, and you should never have the attitude that it is beneath you to seek their advice or opinions.
Being willing to listen to your staff is essential to your success as a supervisor, but there are some other things you can do that will make your role easier. The following are some tips I have learned from experience or have picked up from other managers:
- Don’t change too many things all at once or without good reasonYou might think that, as a new manager, it is your job to come in and shake things up. Making changes when you first start a new supervisory position is an extremely bad idea. You will only meet with resentment. The first thing that any new supervisor should do is observe and ask questions. Find out what the current workflow is and if the staff is happy with it. You must understand the workflow before you can make changes to it. You also need to gain your staff’s trust, especially if you are a newly-minted librarian. Make them see that any changes you propose are necessary. If you see a process that needs to be changed, find an effective change and gauge how the changes will affect your staff.
- Be respectful of staffParaprofessionals who have held their positions for a long time know how to do their jobs. Trust them to do their jobs well. You do not have to keep close watch over everything they do, looking for mistakes. If you notice any areas where improvements are needed, address them right away; do not wait until it’s time for annual evaluations. When your staff has complaints, listen to them. If necessary, be ready to intervene on their behalf with other library departments or the administration. Most importantly, give praise when it is due.
- When supervising students, remember that they are students first. During exams and break times, student assistants may need some flexibility in their work schedule. Allow this when possible. Of course, students should usually stick to their scheduled work times, but remember that their priority is schoolwork.
- Seek the help of other managers in your libraryIf you are uncomfortable in your managerial role or are unsure of how to handle a problem, consult with a more experienced manager. If there are other supervisors in your library, seek their advice on how to handle difficulties, especially if you are unsure about any policies in place to deal with problem employees. Be discreet and do not mention any employees by name. For more serious disciplinary problems, you might have to talk to a library administrator or Human Resources.
Being a new supervisor can be challenging, especially if you are not comfortable in a managerial role. Listening to your staff and being respectful of their skills and expertise will go a long way towards ensuring your success as a manager.
Johnna Childs is the Cataloging Librarian at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama. She is a graduate of University of Michigan’s School of Information, where she previously managed collections for the Internet Public Library.