Balancing ActThere’s a strong chance you already know about Sarah Houghton, keeper of the Librarian in Black blog. But for this month’s column, I wanted to focus a bit more on Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael Public Library in California. Why, you ask? It’s all about balance. When we read about librarians and the work they’re doing, we’re usually only presented with one side of the story. But most of the people in the library world are balancing their passion for library work with their day jobs. You don’t hear about their time in their day jobs enough, but you should. This is the work that matters most—the small stuff that brings positivity and forward motion to the communities we all serve. With that in mind, I thought it would be great to hear from Sarah, who does an amazing job of balancing her Librarian in Black work with her day-to-day work as a library director.
Most people know you through your online persona and your blog, but first and foremost, I want to talk about your work as director of the San Rafael Public Library. What does a typical day at your library look like?
I can’t say that I have a typical day! Most days start with checking in on urgent email, social media communication, and voicemails. Then we have an all-hands meeting 15 minutes before our main library opens (FaceTime-ing in our branch staff). I usually have a few meetings a day and focus my time on dealing with customers who want to talk to the director, working with our four library groups (Board of Trustees, Friends, Foundation, and Parcel Tax Committee). I do a fair amount of outreach in my role as a director to outside partners, such as First Five, Marin Promise, and the Chamber of Commerce … so there’s some time spent doing that. Of course, there is time dealing with personnel issues as they arise and facility issues, of which we have our fair share. Every day is different!
What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do as a library director? What kind of advice can you give to a librarian who’s new to being a director and has to make a really hard decision/have a difficult conversation?
I can only speak in generalities here, but the hardest thing I had to do was to be faced with a major political poop storm shortly before our tax measure election, in which someone I have no authority over, but who is affiliated with the library, was featured very publicly in the national news for doing something that, let’s say, is antithetical to library values. The hundreds of complaints and threats I fielded as a result of that person’s actions, while having to stay neutral and keep my opinion to myself, was extremely trying during an already stressful phase. Immediately before a funding measure is voted on, everyone is on overdrive already. For new directors, I would advise developing a network of support of other library directors from anywhere … people you trust. Run your scenario by them. Ask them to role-play the conversation with you. We are a helpful profession, and I find it heartening to observe, over and over, people’s willingness to assist each other in these difficult situations.
You have the eyes and ears of all of the readers right now. Imagine there’s someone reading this who really needs some encouragement. Give us a hit of inspiration!
You matter. What you do every day at your job matters. Every interaction, every decision, every project you choose to do or not do. It’s easy to become complacent and fall into a routine. Don’t do it. Our work is revolution writ large. Continue that revolution in some small way every day, no matter what your job is. Question authority, say no to no, and keep our professional values in mind at all times. The community you serve depends on you.
One of the trends that has come up in the “future of libraries” discussion over the past few years is, “We need fewer librarians and more people from other professions in libraries.” There are pros and cons to this idea. We could endlessly debate the cons, but that’s not why we’re here today. Instead, I’d like to focus on one of the big pros of this conversation: James McNutt, the systems administrator of the Darien Library in Darien, Conn. I had the pleasure of working with James while we were both at the Chattanooga Public Library, and his “But I’m not a librarian!” views were critical to some of the great things that happened at that library between 2013 and 2015. Sometimes you’ve got to look outside of your own box to get to where you need to be, and having someone like James around at your library may just be what you need to take that next step.
You don’t come from a library background, and yet you’ve ended up in libraries.
I sort of fell into libraries unintentionally. I, while still filled with the idealistic fervor of an undergraduate, left a mind-numbingly bureaucratic internship at the national labs to get a degree in secondary math education with which I planned to single-handedly close every achievement gap. In reality, teaching just felt like having my heart ripped out and stomped on each day. Aimless and forlorn, I got involved in a startup that I helped redirect into a non-formal technology education platform. As it turns out, libraries can be a great place to get work done, and when you inadvertently start teaching patrons about how they can use a library’s makerspace, you might just find yourself getting offered a job.
You came to the Darien Library as its systems administrator a few years ago. Now you’re also the head of user experience. These are two relatively newer jobs in libraries, but these days they’re a must-have. Tell me a bit about what your position is all about and why it is important.
In libraries with a relatively small technology infrastructure, relying on municipal IT might make sense. However, when you adopt an occasionally over-ambitious hospitality model, the acceptable time frame for responding to technology tickets shrinks, and if it gets really bad, you start questioning whether vendor products actually provide the user experience that you really want, and God help you if you begin to consider attempting to do it better. In-house IT should learn enough about the running of a library to be able to offer ideas for new services, to pull more meaningful statistics about patrons and circulation, and if nothing else, dissipate technophobia among staffers and patrons alike.
As my boss (John Blyberg, assistant director at Darien Library) recently put it, while my title is now head of user experience, I have just taken on more roles in addition to that of systems administrator. It’s a lot, and I haven’t really figured all of it out yet. I now manage all levels of the Help Desk for response to staff and patron technology issues. Right now, I have a really stellar team and group dynamic, and I’m trying oh-so-hard not to screw that up. As you might imagine, I’m also finding myself more involved in administrative and leadership roles.
Libraries are becoming busier and busier these days, and the work is almost never-ending. What do you do to keep yourself sane?
Currently, the thing that is helping the most is working out. In the past, that meant a combination of yoga and ballet, but nowadays I have taken up weightlifting. It’s turning out to be really gratifying and a good way to clear my head. I do sing in a few choirs that focus on early Western polyphony. Lastly, as we’ve talked a good amount about mental health over the years, I also see a therapist regularly. Sometimes I feel like she stirs up more than she helps resolve, but I have no doubt that seeing her is critical to my literal sanity.