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The Forest is Full of Trees

Whenever I’m giving advice to people who want tips on applying for management positions, the number one thing I emphasize is the ability to see the Big Picture. People who get bogged down in the details will not make good managers (IMHO, the only time to micromanage is when you are specifically working with a staff member on correcting behavior or improving a specific skill). You have to learn to delegate and trust that a lot of the micro, detailed work will be taken care of.

But does that mean the details aren’t important? Of course not. In fact, the second piece of advice I give potential managers is to be able to see the forest AND the trees, but that the higher up you move in an organization, the less you have time to personally deal with the details yourself. For example, you can boldly profess a desire to change the face of ebook lending in libraries but if you skip or gloss over the details, you can end up without a tangible product or a deeply flawed collection development policy. That doesn’t necessarily mean your entire project is a failure just because your thinking was visionary and broad, but the details are what make ideas work at a practical level. As a leader, you will often have to trust that the support team you’ve built will take care of those details for you, but that doesn’t make them less important or less worthy of praise, claim and recognition.

We throw our attention at those Big Idea folks and (while I sometimes quibble with who’s chosen to win awards), that’s a good thing. People who think big should be celebrated and held up as examples (and the people chosen then have the responsibility to model professional behavior; as a wise man once wrote, with great power, there must also come great responsibility). However, if we focus our attention solely on these people, while ignoring the support staff, the people who did a lot of the dirty work to make it happen, then we lose something important. “Why” we do things is vitally important and should be our guiding principle but without the ground level work, those big ideas can never come to fruition.

To paraphrase Casey Kasem, dream big but keep yourself grounded by the idea that the greatness of an idea is directly proportionate to the number of details involved in making it happen.



I’m a librarian because my wife told me to.

Now, this is not the way my career started. In fact, my love of books had originally led me to a career in the bookstore business, where I was able to satiate some of my OCD-tendencies (don’t all librarians have a touch of OCD?) with shelving, straightening and organizing materials. The organization system was no Dewey and certainly no LC, but it was a start. I also got to interact with the general public, connecting them with the information and goods for which they were searching. A few years into my bookstore career path, I met my wife while we were working at the same store in Florida (according to her, you can find anything in a bookstore… even a husband), and while this “acquisition” filled one void in my life, my career felt uninspired, despite the positive aspects of the work. I moved up to supervisory positions but without any real drive. Something was missing.

One day, after we’d moved to Atlanta, my wife forwarded me an email from her graduate school about an opening at the library on campus. I applied and got the job. I loved working in the library, and it felt like I was heading in the right direction in my career. I completed library school while continuing to work at the library full-time. Unlike in the bookstore, I felt pride in my progress from a position in the stacks to a position that allowed me to work in both the reference and serials acquisitions departments. I got to work hands-on with information in a more detailed way, both in depth and organizationally. My community was a wealth of students, faculty, and staff, and I relished serving them one-on-one at the reference desk and behind the scenes in Acquisitions. The reference work in particular was instructional – the whole “teach them to fish” analogy – rather than simply gathering and passing on information to a customer in need.

However, once the time came to find a professional position, I hit that same wall many library school graduates do: there weren’t nearly as many jobs as they “promised” when I was in school. This is especially an issue in academic libraries, where I was determined to work. My wife insisted I should look into public libraries, but I resisted. Why was I so determined to remain in academic libraries? Because I loved the job I had so much that I wanted to work at an institution like that forever. So instead of waiting to find the right library job for me, I took a job that, in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have. It was an attractive job at an up-and-coming private college with grand promises of the future. After 18 months in the position, the administration and I could not come to agreement on how to serve the student population, and I lost my job.

At this point, I found myself adrift, wondering if I’d made the right career choice. I took a day to let myself wallow in self-pity then picked myself up, dusted myself off, and moved headlong back into the job-seeking business. I soon found myself applying for any job that I seemed vaguely qualified for: archiving video footage for television stations, reference work at community colleges, cataloging at universities far away from home, and what seemed oddest to me at the time, working at the local public library. Soon after, I scheduled an interview at the public library, and at some point before my interview, it hit me. The public library was the perfect intersection for my interests, allowing me to take the things I loved from bookstores and combine them with the things I loved from academic libraries. I could have that one-on-one time with the general public, helping people who don’t necessarily know how to find what they want and need and combine it with the more in-depth information available in the library’s collections. I could feel like I was contributing to my community while at the same time instructing patrons on how to find further information on their own.

I got the job and am the happiest I’ve been as an employee since I got to take home free pizzas while working at Pizza Hut.

Sometimes it pays to listen to your wife. (She says I should say “always”.)

(This essay was first published as part of the Young Librarian Series.)