In September 2018, I stepped in to the role of Interim Associate Chief Librarian to cover a maternity leave. Leading up to this move, I had waffled about it for months. I was very happy in the portfolio I was in, though feeling guilty thinking that it was a lighter load than I could handle. It became clear that it was a challenging opportunity to try on something new, and see for myself if it was right for my future.
It’s been a couple of weeks since returning to my liaison portfolio and, dear reader, I cannot say how much of a relief it is to be back. I learned a lot while in administration; some highlights and lowlights:
It’s a lot of work.
Like, a LOT. Most of my weeks felt like marathons. By the time the weekend came along, all I wanted to do was hide at home with my family for two days. I didn’t even want to socialize. Sometimes, it was overwhelming – some days were booked solid with back to back meetings, and having a lunch break was something to be grateful for. A lot of the meetings were difficult. Sometimes political, sometimes strategic and sometimes just delivering bad news or being the face of difficult change. When you are in administration, you have to keep your cool. Those who know me well, know this is not something I excel at. Sometimes I failed and my frustration would spill over and I would agonize over it for days. It aged me. I mean, this also happens to me outside of this experience, but it just came up WAY more often!
NB: I did not have to travel for this job, but I got to see my boss’ travel schedule up close and personal. It was BANANAS. I have no idea how she manages, but she does, and mostly without breaking a sweat. Mad respect.
And part of me really liked that.
The hectic schedule, the near constant need to put out a fire, the mini-crises that would pop out of nowhere, the unpredictability of it all… part of me was totally in my element and thriving. It sparked an inner workaholic that I normally work very hard to deny. I don’t want to be that person. I need to not be that person.
You have the power to effect (some) change.
So, yes … it was a lot of work. But a lot of it was important work that led to really great outcomes. I was the chair of the appointments committee and had the great fortune to lead THREE faculty searches. THREE! The recruitment process was an honour and a delight. There are so many talented and brilliant librarians out there. Having the privilege of reading their applications and seeing such passion for the profession was most certainly the best part of this job. Of course, with the hiring also comes the letting people down gently part, but I tried to do it in a way that was empathetic and encouraging.
I also felt empowered to just go ahead and dive into new initiatives. A few of us took a course on libraries and homelessness to learn about how we could provide a more welcoming atmosphere for everyone; I got the green light to start up the White Fragility Book Club; I got to work with the amazing folks at Positive Space to strengthen the library’s role as an inclusive space for queer visibility and programming; I got to be a part of finalizing our new liaison model and seeing it through to implementation, and so many others.
I’m just not very sophisticated
There was never explicit pressure to dress or behave a certain way, but I felt like I needed to walk the walk and talk the talk. Trouble is, I’m just not very good at it. I bought a few new wardrobe items that I thought passed as “work dressy”, but otherwise, I think I wore a jacket exactly three times. They are suffocating and you have to dry clean them. Hard pass. After a while, though… I started to notice a trend: while a lot of dudes wore suits and dressy casual, several of them didn’t, choosing jeans and aggressively casual clothes on the regular. I never noticed women doing the same. So, I said fuck it, and started wearing my khakis and jeans more frequently. I feared no judging at that point, but it took me a while to get there.
There were several times that I had to speak on behalf of the library and I sweated each and every one of them, no matter how much time I had to prepare. I cannot fathom having to do this on the regular, and with no end in sight. Also… you lose your academic freedom – something that once you’ve embraced is very hard to let go.
When the shit hits the fan, it’s gonna hit you
I alluded to how much work this gig was, but damn was it ever a lot of responsibility as well. It was apropos that I ended as I had started – as Acting Chief Librarian, and both times, crises fell upon my shoulders. Floods, massive downtown parades gone awry, bomb threats, crime scenes… all of them moments where I had to pull up my britches and get my boss face on, all the while thinking to myself “what the hell am I doing?!?” But you do, and you manage, and eventually the day ends.
On my first day, I was a nervous wreck. I opened my email first thing in the morning at home and found that there had been a burst pipe in the stacks and subsequent flooding. We had a big mess on our hands and collections had been damaged. As I made my way into work, I tried to picture what I would have to do. I came up blank. It all seemed very surreal. Once I arrived, I made contact with the Lead Hand in charge of stack maintenance. He apprised me of the situation and ended by saying “We just need Jane to make a decision about what to do next.” It had the effect of snapping me out of my self-induced stupor. He was right. I just had to make a plan, and that was that. And so I did. I put one foot in front of the other and it all came together. I’m so grateful to him for saying that when he did. I was in charge, and others were looking to me for direction. That’s the job.
And now I know
Part of the reason I wanted to take this on was so that I could figure out how it all worked. I wanted to see how the sausage was made, if you will. Now, I have first hand knowledge of why things take a seemingly INTERMINABLE amount of time to get done. I have a far greater understanding of university governance and HR practices. There’s so much going on behind closed doors … and much of it has to stay there. Transparency and accountability are so key to a healthy organization, but it takes a lot of intentional effort to practice it, not to mention a lot of herding cats if it’s not all information that’s yours to share. I like to think that this will make me a better librarian, and hopefully a more patient and forgiving person.
And that’s that. I’m back to being a liaison librarian and was happy to pass the torch back to my very talented colleague who’s taken on this job for the long haul. I salute her and others who have chosen this path. For now, I can say for sure that it’s not for me. I brought home a lot of work stress and spent a lot of time looking at my email on my phone. I just don’t think it’s what’s best for my family right now. A couple of weeks ago, we ended up running late in the morning because we couldn’t find my son’s shoes. Yelling and screaming and tears ensued. As we rushed off to school, Elliott said “I wish it was July 1.” It was like a knife through the heart. July 1 was the date that we had frequently mentioned as the day I would no longer be doing this job.
And so, when the day came, my fellas came downtown to help me move offices and shut ‘er down. We all survived, only slightly scarred and a lot wiser. Onward.