Help Your Team Shine
One of the neatest parts of my job at the Chattanooga Public Library was the chance to meet so many amazing librarians from all around the world. Almost every week, someone was visiting the library to see what the staff was doing with the gigabit internet connection that linked the whole city. It was during one of these visits that I met Warren Cheetham, someone whom I had followed online for many years (read his blog, Stained Glass Waterfall).
Warren’s on a never-ending quest to grow into a better librarian and leader for his staff. His positive attitude and kindness-first approach to working in public libraries are inspiring. This is what I’ve always admired about him, so I thought he was a perfect fit for this column.
Your official title is coordinator of planning and business development at CityLibraries Townsville in Australia. Tell me what you do in a typical day at your library.
I have a team of seven staffers who are responsible for planning across the whole range of library services, including adult services, children and youth services, collections, digital services, and business development. It’s a great role, as I get to learn and understand the whole range of services our library provides our community. We have three other teams in our library; one team looks after scheduling and resourcing, and the other two teams deliver the services directly to our community. Broadly speaking, I see my role as setting a vision for my team to aspire to, helping them understand where the boundaries of their work are, and then helping them do the best possible job they can in their role. I try to remove barriers to their work so they can get on with doing great things.
A typical day usually involves meetings, either to discuss projects, ideas, or challenges, or to pass on information, instruction, or training. Helping my team solve problems and look for new opportunities is rewarding. I try to read regularly, usually reports, news articles, and blog posts covering topics inside and outside of the library ecosystem. I’ve found there’s a huge amount to be learnt when you look outside your own industry or professional group. The rest of my day is usually spent scheduling and managing workflows, projects, and correspondence. Finding balance between competing tasks and regular re-prioritization of projects and tasks is a continually evolving skill!
You’ve always mentioned that you’re most thankful to have had great training in leadership skills and excellent role models. What’s the most important leadership training you’ve had?
For a long time, I thought leadership skills were something you were born with. Some people were naturally inclined to become great leaders, and others weren’t. I was fortunate to undergo a formal leadership training course at work, which taught me that leadership involves a skill set and an attitude. The skills can be learnt and practiced, and the attitude is something to be consciously chosen. So I now believe that anyone can learn to be a leader (no matter what position they have in a team) and that leadership is a mindful choice.
How do you balance your day-to-day work with the long-term goals you are tasked with helping carry out at CityLibraries?
This is something that is done moment to moment, decision to decision. Having a clear idea of what those big-picture goals are helps to make the smaller decisions. How much time do I spend researching and replying to this email? Do I really need to attend this meeting? Should this project be paused in order for another project to take priority? It’s a state of constant re-evaluation of the tasks being done and choosing where to put effort. I think if I can get those small decisions right more often than not, then the bigger-picture goals are achieved.
I am always curious about the work that other types of librarians do. One of the most common things people outside my profession say to me is, “So, you’re a librarian—I guess that means you read all day?” Similarly, I’m not sure about the daily responsibilities of academic and special librarians. Luckily, social media has helped shed some light on the matter for me. Over the past year, I’ve been following the tweets of Porsche Schlapper (@STLlibrarian), a “digital curator” in St. Louis. I’ve been impressed by her work, and I thought it would be great to get her personal insight into her job. So read on, enjoy, and learn something, so that the next time you speak with a special collections librarian, you don’t have the urge to ask him or her, “So, I guess you just work with old stuff, right?”
Can you tell me what it’s like to be the special collections librarian at the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library? What does your typical day look like at this unique and specific library?
Like pretty much every librarian in every institution, my days have the potential to be radically different back-to-back. I actually hold two job titles—curator of the Pott Library and special collections librarian of the St. Louis Mercantile Library. (The Pott Library is a special collection within the Mercantile Library.) We are also affiliated with the University of Missouri–St. Louis, so I have job tasks at both the library and the university levels.
Generally speaking, all of my work revolves around increasing access to and awareness of our collections. And since we’re a small institution with big collections, that work comes in a variety of formats. In any given day, I am perusing catalogs, on the hunt for new waterways-related materials, processing new collections and writing finding aids, scanning new materials to be made available on our digital library and Flickr, creating metadata, updating our website, giving tours to visitors, researching for presentations to the community and library members, attending committee meetings on subjects like digital preservation, creating research guides and teaching materials, overseeing student employees and volunteers, and working with our advisory boards on new library projects. And no collection is an island—I’m frequently helping my fellow curators with their own research, projects, and so on.
We live in a world that’s changing so quickly due to all things digital. How does this affect your work?
Perhaps what I’m most excited about is that we’re starting to connect with K–12 classrooms via web chat when physical visits aren’t possible or practical. The subject of my collections (rivers and steamboats, primarily) means that some of the ephemeral items in the collection simply cannot leave the building—you try to move a 20-foot-plus pilot wheel! But digital visits mean I can now share these items with students easier than ever before.
Tell me a story about how something you did at the library changed someone’s life.
My favorite moments are when a lot of hard work in making collections accessible and a little fortunate fate can connect a patron with the exact right thing at the exact right time. I’ve been present for research breakthroughs, “I’ve never seen this picture before!” moments, and speechless, hand-over-mouth awe looking at something they thought would be too historic or special for them to be allowed to see. The air sometimes seems to crackle with excitement when I’m able to pull something from the archive and visitors are able to find ancestors’ names on a passenger manifest, photographs of boats, or historic documents connected with well-respected figures—bridge engineers or captains, for example. These are small, regular occurrences for us, since we work with the materials daily, but can be monumental and once-in-a-lifetime for the visitor. I find it really rejuvenating to celebrate these moments with them and remind myself why we do what we do.