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Leadership by the Numbers

No really, the math isn’t that hard.

In late April–a month into the last quarter of our fiscal year–I was presenting at a statewide deans’ council on a major proposal (the short version: tightening up our “loose federation”) when the emails started arriving. In minutes, everything changed. Suddenly I was in the middle of Fiscalpocalypse 2016, a crisis the diameter of Jupiter.

For the next five weeks, I lived and breathed the Fiscalpocalypse. Suddenly thrust by necessity into the role of chief fiscal analyst, I began running report after report (not without a lot of coaching and encouragement from other financial analysts), pushing hard to find the real answers to basic questions: how much do we have, what are our obligations, what do we need to keep or cut, and what contractual obligations am I able to commit to.

It’s what I did at 4 a.m., 9 p.m., weekends, holidays, every spare moment. I had a lot of spare moments because the stress of this situation bore down on me like the atmospheric pressure on Venus. Sleep was scarce and troubled. Reading anything unrelated to the issue was impossible; staring at pages, all I saw were numbers. Even half-hour walks or visits to the YMCA found me absentmindedly going through the motions while my brain churned ceaselessly, yammering through multiple scenarios, combing through formulae for clues. The clues were important, because I needed to know how we got to Fiscalpocalypse 2016 so I would understand how to get us out of it.

It was not entirely unanticipated. Once you start asking, “Do we need an audit?” you already know the answer. And the system worked, because there was a “catch” from above that resulted in those emails and in my temporarily expanding my portfolio to include budget analyst. But actual situations have jagged edges missing from anticipation of the same, and those edges hurt.

Nevertheless, there came a Sunday afternoon when I felt profound relief washing over me, releasing the muscles in my back and neck until I felt myself uncurl and sit fully upright for the first time since the crisis began. I went for a walk, and was able to listen to a podcast and enjoy the flowers. I had dinner, and tasted the food. I slept the night through. I woke up and felt, to use that great expression, like my old self. I greeted old self warmly. She was missed.

It wasn’t that the situation was better. It was rather grim. It was that finally, I knew exactly what was going on. And note, I didn’t “feel” or “believe” I knew what was going on; I knew it. Because the thing about numbers is that most of the time, if you have confidence, experience, and are handy with basic arithmetic, as long as your data are credible, you can manage a budget for any institution smaller than say, the Air Force.

Most of us can do arithmetic; the confidence will come with experience. What has struck me repeatedly across my twenty-plus years in libraries is the dearth of experience: too many library professionals go much too long in their careers before they participate in managing budgets. By budgets, I don’t mean a small chunk of money set aside for spending on books, not that this isn’t a good place to start. I mean the whole solar system: salaries, materials, operations. Even in private institutions where most regular salaries are kept confidential, two out of three of those planets should be available to up and coming professionals.

It’s good practice to have other eyes on your numbers (which I do), but I will be frank and say that across the years, particularly at jobs in smaller institutions, it’s been up to me to pretty much manage the beans on my own. I was accountable for each bean and it was assumed I would “make book,” and without really thinking about it, I did that (I guess because I had to do that in the Air Force, and I didn’t think about it much there either).

And what I know about numbers is they are impervious to emotion. I can cry my eyes out, and the numbers don’t get bigger or smaller. I can fume and rant, and they stay just as they are. I can wander the halls with a tragic face, and when I come back, the numbers are exactly as I left them. It’s something I like about numbers, at least the sort of numbers we deal with in library budgets: in this crazy malleable fungible mutable world, numbers just ARE.

(Now, this rule applies internally. It does not apply to outside forces who may indeed may have multiple interpretations of fiscal policies that have significant impact on allocations and so on. I’m referring to the paper sack of money a library administrator sits on and manages.)

Here is a pattern from my career: I arrive at an institution, I get hands-on with a budget (either a big chunk assigned to me, or the whole thing), and I unearth the bugs. It could be approval plans someone forgot about, mindlessly siphoning money every year though nobody needs those resources any more. (For a long while, I could count on finding forgotten  microfilm subscriptions.) It could be a personnel line or another item from another department erroneously appearing in my ledger. These things really happened at different institutions, and they weren’t a big deal. In each case I found myself earning the respect of the financial folks because they saw I wasn’t queasy about budgets and I wasn’t afraid to dig in and do the work.

But for a lot of library people, for a major portion of their career, the bulk of the budget is a distant drumbeat. There is enough money or not enough or suddenly some left over, and that’s what they know. Nor are they pushed, or push themselves, to learn the basic skills they need to manage money. I consider my Excel skills modest, but I have seen library professionals in fairly important positions unable to do basic tasks such as filtering, subtotaling, and linking formulas.  Far too many times I have looked at a spreadsheet where X+ Y is a hand-keyed sum that does not equal the sum of X + Y, or where a number sits without explanation: what is it, and where did it come from? Some of the scariest documents I have ever seen in my career were annual fiscal forecasts, purportedly ledger-based, created in Microsoft. Effing. Word.

And let’s not discuss how many library organizations have been stricken with accounting fraud that happened because one person in an organization had exclusive control of the money and the executive just didn’t “do math.” When “Father Knows Best,” watch out.

People, these are LIBRARY BUDGETS. I remember someone telling me our budget was complex and I said no, the federal budget is complex, we don’t have enough money to be complex. Library budgets don’t require understanding credit default swaps or synthetic CDOs. Even if you have more than one fund (and we do) and even if those funds can change from year to year (and that’s true as well), and of course everything goes up in cost all the time: in the end, to quote a Wendy’s commercial that was a mantra of logistics management during my time in the Air Force, parts is parts.

A lot of fiscal literacy boils down to being willing to look at the numbers logically and head-on. Not emotionally, not with “oh but I don’t do math,” not with a pernicious disinterest in the source of life (and that’s what money is to a library), but just pulling out those skills that got you through fourth grade.

Once upon a time long ago, in a galaxy far away, I spent two days in a conversation that went like the following. Assume the usual facts about FTEs (full time equivalents); there are no tricks or hidden exceptions in this example, and let me give you this crucial factoid: the number this is based on is $144,000.

Person A: How many student worker FTE did we have last year?

Person B: 2.6.

Me: No way.

Person B: 2.6.

Person A. I don’t really know anything about this.

Me: Arrgh! There’s no way! (Opens calculator, just in case fourth-grade math skills had vanished) How could student workers make this much?

Person B: It’s annualized.

(Note use of jargon to try to deflect inquiry. Of course FTE is based on an annual calculation, but it’s not “annualized,” though I do consider student workers a good investment, in the more general sense.)

For the next two days, I kept saying “no way,” because anyone with basic math sense knows that student workers don’t earn that much; even if you don’t know the rate of pay, you know, from a quick scribble on that scratchpad you keep in the front of your skull right above your eyeballs, that 144,000 divided by 2.6 would result in a salary of ca. $55,000 a year. That’s before you factor in more insider baseball knowledge, such as the size of the library and student headcount so on. It’s like when grocery store eggs shot up in price last year and I thought holy moley, a dollar-plus an egg? I didn’t need to pull out a calculator to know something strange had happened to the price of eggs. In the end, I was tolerated, not believed, by Person B.  I hope Person A has since nurtured at least a soupcon of mathematical curiosity.

But anyway, back to the present tense. Fiscalpocalypse 2016 isn’t over, but it’s under control. At MPOW, the plane is no longer flying into the side of the mountain; it now has excellent airspeed and heading, and my hand is firmly on the throttle. It’s a smaller plane, but I know what it is made of, from its nose cone to its flamethrowers to its empennage, and I will trade in a large, bloblike uncertainty hurtling who knows where for a trim but crisp certainty with a functioning GPS any day. I’m where I need to be in relation to knowing our finances, not just for the moment but the future, and I make sure key people know the deets, too. This is how I run things now, as I have elsewhere. Yes, we will be hiring a budget analyst, and I look forward to firing myself from my role as CFO (though not from my responsibility to know what is going on). But if there is one good thing to come out of this, it is the opportunity for me to dig deep into the financials and get to truly know the source of life for all we do. War is not peace, numbers do not cry or pout, and blessedly, parts is parts.

Margin of error

dogwhistleI just had a wonderful stroke of luck that bailed me out of a big ole boneheaded error I made yesterday. It is the kind of error that I have a certain notoriety for — not all the time, just once in a while, when I am on overload and stop reading email all the way through, forget to review checklists, and otherwise put myself in a dangerous position with decision-making. The stroke of luck was due to someone who had a solid sixth sense that something was not quite right.

This error reminded me of my most illustrious “did not read the memo” gaffe, which I share here for the first time ever.

At my last university, I was invited to participate in a university president’s inauguration ceremony and quickly scanned the invitational email. Wear regalia and process to a stage? Sounds easy enough! Ok, on to the next problem!

But after we were seated (on a large, brightly-lit stage facing audience of oh, several hundred), I gradually realized that everyone else on stage was getting up one by one, and giving a speech. My hands started trembling. I had no speech. I looked out into the audience. There were the other library people, gazing calmly at their fearless leader. I mean, if anyone likes to give a speech and can knock one out of the park, it would be me, right? The woman who has presented seventy-bazillion times?

My mouth turned to ancient parchment and I could feel cold perspiration wending its way down my torso. I suspect if you had been able to see my eyes, they would have been two fully-dilated orbs in my panicked face. I could feel the hair on my head whitening.

Out of about two dozen people on stage, I could see that I was scheduled to go next to last. The speakers walked to the podium one by one. What to do, what to do?

Breathe. What tools did I have at hand? Breathe. I have a small paper program for the inauguration. Breathe. What is going on with the speeches? Breathe. Observation: the speeches are mostly too long. Breathe. Try to still my hands. Notice that the audience is getting restless. Breathe. Smile out at the audience. Breathe.

It was my turn–a turn that for once in my life came far too quickly. I walked to the podium, looked out at the audience, and smiled. I slowly unfolded the small program and frowned at it for a moment as if it were my speaking notes while I mentally rehearsed the two or three points I would make. I began with a joke about not wanting to speak too long. Other words, now forgotten, ensued, as I winged it onstage. I could hear laughter and appreciative rustling, though I was so anxious my vision was too blurred to see past the lectern for the next two or three minutes. I summed up my speech by noting that the university, like our library, was small and mighty, a joke which if you know me has a visual cue as well.

As soon as I was outside, I owned up that mistake to my team. Not to brag about getting through a disastrous mistake unscathed (well, maybe a little), but also to fully claim my error. This situation was awful and funny and educational, all at once. It was about my strengths, but also about my weaknesses. I believe I slept 14 hours that night. It became part of our library lore.

There were many clues that I was in the vulnerability zone for error yesterday. Distraction, overflowing email, too many simultaneous “channels”; I had even remarked the previous week that I was trying hard, but sometimes not succeeding, at not responding to email messages while I was in a face-to-face meeting.  The people I was interacting with were equally busy and besides, it wasn’t their job to see that the conditions for making major errors had become highly favorable. That was my job, as the senior mechanic in charge of this project, and I wasn’t doing it.  Clues abounded, but as my overload factor increased, I missed them — a classic case of being unaware that I was unaware. And I ignored the checklist sitting in front of me just waiting to help me, if only I would let it do so.

I had excellent training in the Air Force about the value of using checklists, and I have touted their use in libraries. People often need convincing that checklists work and that checklists are not an indication that they are somehow dumb or stupid for not being able to extemporize major tasks, even though there is a preponderance of evidence underscoring their utility. In aircraft maintenance, failure to follow checklists could, and sometimes did, cost lives; even when lives were not at stake, failure to follow checklists sometimes led to expensive errors. And yes, for yesterday’s mistake, there was a perfectly reasonable checklist, but I didn’t review it. Just as there were email messages I didn’t read all the way through, and just as I didn’t catch that I wasn’t shifting my attention to where it needed to be.

As I reflected today about awareness, checklists, and stumbling toward errors, I looked outward and thought, this is what this presidential campaign feels like to me. There are cues and signs swirling around us, and an abundance of complementary cautionary tales spanning the entire history of human civilization. Anger, vulgarity, and veiled hints at violence abound. The standards for public discourse have declined to the point where children are admonished not to listen to possible future leaders. We worry, with half a mind, that what looked like a lame but forgettable joke a few months back is simultaneously surfacing and fomenting an ugliness that has been burbling under the body politic for some time now. We watch people dragged away and sucker-punched at rallies as they clumsily try to be an early-warning system for what they fear lies ahead. We have all learned what “dog-whistle” means–and yet as the coded words and actions fly around us, we still do not understand why this is happening. We sit on this stage, programs wadded in our sweating hands, watching and watched by the restive audience until our vision blurs; and we do not have a checklist, but we do have our sixth sense.

Change is a hurricane or a door

2016-02-28 15.03.50

California Poppy, taken after last week’s lush rain

My formative years as a librarian were in library systems that built themselves around the concept of aggregated strength through collective action. (If you’re thinking that sounds socialist, take heed that this concept could easily describe the armed forces.)

That concept has a very weak toehold in California, across all systems. Yes, there are some shared systems and some resource-sharing and “power of this and that” and whatnot, but colleagues I know who can compare California with states with strong “systems” self-identification agree that for whatever reason, it’s different here.

Now fast-forward to early last year, when as a newly-minted CSU library dean I smoothed my starched pinafore, straightened the bow in my hair, and marched into my first statewide meeting, only to be corrected when I referred to our library “system” that the 23 state university libraries are actually a “loose federation.”

There are long-term ramifications to being a “loose federation” that are publicly available to anyone who cares to find them. To quote my doctoral cohort buddy Chuck, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” (Ben Franklin may or may not have said that, but Chuck says it a lot.) But more interesting to me is that not long before I arrived, our loose federation came together on a momentous decision that puts us on a path to systemhood by agreeing that the 23 libraries, currently independently licensing a mishmosh of library management systems from varied vendors, would move to a single system, prophetically named the ULMS (Unified Library Management System).

In all fairness, this isn’t the first collective effort of the Loose Federation. We stand on the shoulders of Biblio-Giants, which in my case is particularly helpful since it means I can see the projector screen even when taller deans are in front of me. We have a common core of e-resources that are centrally funded and brokered. In times past, there have been joint statements, strategic plans, and so on. It is because of our ancestors we can at least think of ourselves as a Loose Federation, versus 23 libraries doing their own thang.

I’m part of a committee that is deeply involved in the process to identify and answer key questions related to resource sharing. It is possible… just a wee possible… that it might have been good to ask some of these questions, if not before agreeing to move to a unified system, at least within the context of the vendor selection, but that’s spilled milk.

As we deepen the questions we pose and study the data for our answers, it’s increasingly evident that there’s a critical difference between agreeing we will provide all libraries a garden-variety database we would all license anyway versus agreeing that we’re going to move to a centralized system. This is one of those movies where two people go on a date and then find themselves married, except it’s biblio-polygamy, and most of us are opposed to polygamy on the practical ground that multiple spouses sounds exhaustingly complicated, like having more than two cats, and when you add librarians to the mix it sounds even scarier.

First, we’re losing local control to a central office, so we need to design and practice governance at a scale we haven’t experienced before. The central office needs our guidance (and they are the first to say that). We no longer have the luxury of having weak or strong governance years. We need to be always on our game. And the communication across and among the 23 libraries needs to be top-notch.

Second, the new system simultaneously provides opportunities and limitations. For example — the example I’m most intimate with — we will have the capacity to share resources among the 23 libraries as we have never done before. We’ve done it with physical books, but in a work-around-y, hodgepodge  manner, and we haven’t done it with e-resources. That opportunity/limitation opens many doors and poses many questions. The smartest folks are either thrilled or alarmed by this because they see a future where our physical and electronic library collections are managed and shared on a massive scale.

The thrilled-or-alarmed crowd also understands (at least I think they do) that some of the most keenly-desired wishes of the resource-sharing community can–in some cases, will need to–come to fruition. I particularly relished the moment earlier this week where I spoke with an expert who noted a particular limitation that would make most interlibrary loan department heads I know of faint for joy, because it would frog-march us to the Promised Land of standardized loan policies, where we would all have to–are you sitting down? Do you have smelling salts pressed to your nose?–agree on how long a borrower at another library could check out a book. (As Trotsky said, “You may not be interested in standardized resource-sharing loan policies, but standardized resource-sharing loan policies are very interested in you.”) And that’s just one teensy finding that has surfaced.

There are many more ramifications of this system move; most, I believe, will be good. But what I am also being reminded of is that change is a hurricane or a door. The people who expected this to be like things always were, except maybe a little less expensive and labor-intensive, are now spinning in the eye of the hurricane, wondering what hit them. The people who saw this as leading to opportunities both seen and unseen are slowly (not without pain, but with keen anticipation) opening a massive door to our future.

Channeling Winston

This is a very short post intended to test the theme I’m using (veryplaintext) but the title was inspired by a thought I tweeted the other night:

Holding infinity

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour
This weekend Sandy and I had a scare which you have heard about if you follow me on Facebook. I won’t repeat all of it here, but our furnace was leaking carbon monoxide, the alarms went off, firefighters came, then left, then came back later to greet us as we sat on our stoop in our robes and pajamas, agreeing the second time that it wasn’t bad monitor batteries as they walked slowly through our home, waving their magic CO meter; they stayed a very long time and aired out rooms and closets and… well. I could see that big crow walking over our graves, its eyes shining, before its wingspan unfurled and it rose into the night, disgruntled to have lost us back to the living.
After a chilly (but not unbearable) weekend in an unheated house, our landlord, who is a doll, immediately and graciously replaced the 26-year-old furnace with a spiffy new model that is quiet and efficient and not likely to kill us anytime soon.
Meanwhile, we both had colds (every major crisis in my life seems to be accompanied by head colds), and I was trying valiantly to edit my dissertation proposal for issues major and minor that my committee had shared with me. Actually, at first it was a struggle, but then it became a refuge. Had I known I would be grappling with the CO issue later on Saturday, I would not have found so many errands to run that morning, my favorite method of procrastination. But by the next morning, editing my proposal seemed like a really, really great thing to be doing, me with my fully-alive body. I had a huge batch of posole cooking on the range, and the cat snored and Sandy sneezed and when I got tired of working on the dissertation I gave myself a break to work on tenure and promotion letters or to contemplate statewide resource-sharing scenarios (because I am such a fun gal).
I really liked my Public Editor idea for American Libraries and would like to see something happen in that vein, but after ALA I see that it is an idea whose idea needs more than me as its champion, at least through this calendar year. There’s mild to moderate interest, but not enough to warrant dropping anything I’m currently involved in to make it happen. It’s not forgotten, it’s just on a list of things I would like to make happen.
That said, this ALA in Boston–ok, stand back, my 46th, if you count every annual and midwinter–was marvelous for its personal connections. Oh yes, I learned more about scholarly communications and open access and other Things. But the best ideas I garnered came from talking with colleagues, and the best moments did too. Plus two delightful librarians introduced me to Uber and the Flour Bakery in the same madcap hour. I was a little disappointed they weren’t more embarrassed when I told the driver it was my first Uber ride. I am still remembering that roast lamb sandwich. And late-night conversations with George. And early-evening cocktails with Grace. And a proper pub pint with Lisa. And the usual gang for our usual dinner. And a fabulous GLBTRT social. And breakfast with Brett. And how wonderful it was to stay in a hotel where so many people I know were there. And the hotel clerk who said YOU ARE HALF A BLOCK FROM THE BEST WALGREENS IN THE WORLD and he was right. It’s hard to explain… unless you remember the truly grand Woolworth stores of yesteryear, such as the store at Powell and Market that had a massive candy counter, a fabric and notions section, every possible inexpensive wristwatch one could want for, and a million other fascinating geegaws.
Sometimes these days I get anxious that I need to get such-and-such done in the window of calm. It’s true, it’s better to be an ant than a grasshopper. I would not have spent Saturday morning tootling from store to store in search of cilantro and pork shoulder had I known I would have spent Saturday afternoon and evening looking up “four beeps on a CO monitor” and frantically stuffing two days’ worth of clothes into a library tote bag (please don’t ask why I didn’t use the suitcase sitting right there) as we prepared to evacuate our home.
But I truly don’t have that much control over my life. I want it, but I don’t have it. Yes, it’s good to plan ahead. We did our estate planning (hello, crow!) and made notebooks to share with one another (hi crow, again!) and try to be mindful that things happen on a dime. But if I truly believed life was that uncertain, I couldn’t function. On some level I have to trust that the sounds I hear tonight–Sandy whisking eggs for an omelette, cars passing by our house on a wet road, the cat padding from room to room, our dear ginger watchman–will be the sounds I hear tomorrow and tomorrow. Even if I know–if nothing else, from the wide shadow of wings passing over me–that will not always be the case.
Onward into another spring semester. There aren’t many students in the library just yet. They aren’t frantically stuffing any tote bags, not for their lives, not for their graduations, not for even this semester. They’ll get there. It will be good practice.

Speaking about writing: I nominate me

I have been immersed in a wonderful ordinariness: completing my first full year as dean, moving my doctoral work toward the proposal-almost-ready stage, and observing the calendar in my personal life. In November I pulled Piney III, our Christmas tree, out of his box in the garage, and he is staying up until next weekend. We missed him last year, so he gets to spend a little more time with us this season.

Meanwhile, I spent a few spare moments this week trying to wrap my head around a LibraryLand kerfuffle. An article was published in American Libraries that according to the authors was edited after the fact to include comments favorable to a vendor. I heard back-alley comments that this wasn’t the full story and that the authors hadn’t followed the scope, which had directed them to include this perspective, and therefore it was really their fault for not following direction and complaining, etc. And on the social networks, everyone got their knickers in a twist and then, as happens, moved on. But as someone with a long publishing history, this has lingered with me (and not only because someone had to mansplain to me, have you read the article? Yes, I had read the article…).

Here’s my offer. I have been fairly low-key in our profession for a couple of years, while I deal with a huge new job, a doctoral program, family medical crises, household moves, and so on. My term on ALA Council ended last summer, and while I do plan to get involved in ALA governance again, it’s not immediate.

But once upon a time, I made a great pitch to American Libraries. I said, you should have a column about the Internet, and I should write it. I had to walk around the block four times before I screwed up enough courage to go into 50 East Huron and make that pitch (and I felt as if I had an avocado in my throat the whole time), but thus the Internet Librarian column was born, and lo it continues on to this day, two decades later.

My pitch these days is that American Libraries steal a page from the New York Times and appoint a Public Editor or if you prefer, Omsbudman (Omsbudwimmin?), and that person should be me. Why me? Because I have a strong appreciation for all aspects of publishing. Because I’ve been an author and a vendor. Because I may be an iconoclast, but most people see me as fair. Because a situation like this needs adjudication before it becomes fodder for Twitter or Facebook. Because at times articles might even need discussion when no one is discussing them. Because I came up with the idea, and admit it, it’s a really good one.

A long time ago, when I was active in Democratic Party politics in Manhattan, a politician in NY made himself locally famous for saying of another pol, “He is not for sale… but he can be rented.” One thing about me, despite two books, over 100 articles, being a Pushcart nominee, being anthologized, etc.: I am not for sale or for rent. That has at times limited my ascendancy in certain circles, but it makes me perfect for this role.

If you’re on the board of American Libraries, or you know someone who is, give this some thought. We all have a place in the universe. I feel this would be perfect for me, and a boon for the profession.

The importance of important questions

2015-08-10 19.00.21Pull up a chair and set a while: I shall talk of my progress in the doctoral program; my research interests, particularly LGBT leadership; the value of patience and persistence; Pauline Kael; and my thoughts on leadership theory. I include a recipe for  cupcakes. Samson, my research assistant, wanted me to add something about bonita flakes, but that’s really his topic.

My comprehensive examinations are two months behind me: two four-hour closed-book exams, as gruesome as it sounds. Studying for these exams was a combination of high-level synthesis of everything I had learned for 28 months and rote memorization of barrels of citations. My brain was not feeling pretty.

I have been re-reading the qualifying paper I submitted earlier this year, once again feeling grateful that I had the patience and persistence to complete and then discard two paper proposals until I found my research beshert, about the antecedents and consequences of sexual identity disclosure for academic library directors. That’s fancy-talk for a paper that asked, why did you come out, and what happened next? The stories participants shared with me were nothing short of wonderful.

As the first major research paper I have ever completed, it is riddled with flaws. At 60–no, now, 52–pages, it is also an unpublishable length, and I am trying to identify what parts to chuck, recycle, or squeeze into smaller dress sizes, and what would not have to be included in a published paper anyway.

But if there is one thing I’ve learned in the last 28 months, it is that it is wise to pursue questions worth pursuing.  I twice made the difficult decision to leave two other proposals on the cutting-room floor, deep-sixing many months of effort. But in the end that meant I had a topic I could live with through the long hard slog of data collection, analysis, and writing, a topic that felt so fresh and important that I would mutter to myself whilst working, “I’m in your corner, little one.”

As I look toward my dissertation proposal, I find myself again (probably, but not inevitably) drawn toward LGBT leadership–even more so when people, as occasionally happens, question this direction. A dear colleague of mine questioned the salience of one of the themes that emerged from my study, the (not unique) idea of being “the only one.” Do LGBT leaders really notice when they are the only ones in any group setting, she asked? I replied, do you notice when you’re the only woman in the room? She laughed and said she saw my point.

The legalization of same-gender marriage has also resulted in some hasty conclusions by well-meaning people, such as the straight library colleague from a liberal coastal community who asked me if “anyone was still closeted these days.” The short answer is yes. A  2013 study of over 800 LGBT employees across the United States found that 53 percent of the respondents hide who they are at work.

But to unpack my response requires recalling Pauline Kael’s comment about not knowing anyone who voted for Nixon (a much wiser observation than the mangled quote popularly attributed to her): “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” 

In my study, I’m pleased to say, most of the participants came from outside that “rather special world.”  I recruited participants through calls to LGBT-focused discussion lists which were then “snowballed” out to people who knew people who knew people, and to quote an ancient meme, “we are everywhere.” The call for participation traveled several fascinating degrees of separation. If only I could have chipped it like a bird and tracked it! As it was, I had 10 strong, eager participants who generated 900 minutes of interview data, and the fact that most were people I didn’t know made my investigation that much better.

After the data collection period for my research had closed, I was occasionally asked, “Do you know so-and-so? You should use that person!” In a couple of cases colleagues complained, “Why didn’t you ask me to participate?” But I designed my study so that participants had to elect to participate during a specific time period, and they did; I had to turn people away.

The same HRC study I cite above shrewdly asked questions of non-LGBT respondents, who revealed their own complicated responses to openly LGBT workers. “In a mark of overall progress in attitudinal shifts, 81% of non-LGBT people report that they feel LGBT people ‘should not have to hide’ who they are at work. However, less than half would feel comfortable hearing an LGBT coworker talk about their social lives, dating or related subject.” I know many of you reading this are “comfortable.” But you’re part of my special world, and I have too much experience outside that “special world” to be surprised by the HRC’s findings.

Well-meaning people have also suggested more than once that I study library leaders who have not disclosed their sexual identity. Aside from the obvious recruitment issues, I’m far more interested in the interrelationship between disclosure and leadership. There is a huge body of literature on concealable differences, but suffice it to say that the act of disclosure is, to quote a favorite article, “a distinct event in leadership that merits attention.” Leaders make decisions all the time; electing to disclose–an action that requires a million smaller decisions throughout life and across life domains–is part of that decision matrix, and inherently an important question.

My own journey into research

If I were to design a comprehensive exam for the road I have been traveling since April, 2013, it would be a single, devilish open-book question to be answered over a weekend: describe your research journey.

Every benchmark in the doctoral program was a threshold moment for my development. Maybe it’s my iconoclast spirit, but I learned that I lose interest when the chain of reasoning for a theory traces back to prosperous white guys interviewing prosperous white guys, cooking up less-than-rigorous theories, and offering prosperous-white-guy advice. “Bring more of yourself to work!” Well, see above for what happens to some LGBT people when they bring more of themselves to work. It’s true that the participants in my study did just that, but it was with an awareness that authenticity has its price as well as its benefits.

The more I poked at some leadership theories, the warier I became. Pat recipes and less-than-rigorous origin stories do not a theory make. (Resonant leadership cupcakes: stir in two cups of self-awareness; practice mindfulness, hope, and compassion; bake until dissonance disappears and renewal is evenly golden.) Too many books on leadership “theory” provide reasonable and generally useful recommendations for how to function as a leader, but are so theoretically flabby that if they were written by women would be labeled self-help books.

(If you feel cheated because you were expecting a real cupcake recipe, here’s one from Cook’s Catalog, complete with obsessive fretting about what makes it a good cupcake.)

I will say that I would often study a mainstream leadership theory and  then see it in action at work. I had just finished boning up on Theory X and Theory Y when someone said to me, with an eye-roll no less, “People don’t change.” Verily, the scales fell from my eyes and I revisited moments in my career where a manager’s X-ness or Y-ness had significant implications. (I have also asked myself if “Theory X” managers can change, which is an X-Y test in itself.) But there is a difference between finding a theory useful and pursuing it in research.

I learned even more when I deep-sixed my second proposal, a “close but no cigar” idea that called for examining a well-tested theory using LGBT leader participants. The idea has merit, but the more I dug into the question, the more I realized that the more urgent question was not how well LGBT leaders conform to predicted majority behavior, but instead the very whatness of the leaders themselves, about which we know so little.

It is no surprise that my interest in research methods also evolved toward exploratory models such as grounded theory and narrative inquiry that are designed to elicit meaning from lived experience. Time and again I would read a dissertation where an author was struggling to match experience with predicated theory when the real findings and “truth” were embedded in the stories people told about their lives. To know, to comprehend, to understand, to connect: these stories led me there.

Bolman and Deal’s “frames” approach also helped me diagnose how and why people are behaving as they are in organizations, even if you occasionally wonder, as I do, if there could be another frame, or if two of the frames are really one frame, or even if “framing” itself is a product of its time.

For that matter, mental models are a useful sorting hat for leadership theorists. Schein and Bolman see the world very differently, and so follows the structure of their advice about organizational excellence. Which brings me back to the question of my own research into LGBT leadership.

In an important discussion about the need for LGBT leadership research, Fassinger, Shullman, and Stevenson get props for (largely) moving the barycenter of LGBT leadership questions from the conceptual framework of being acted upon toward questions about the leaders themselves and their complex, agentic decisions and interactions with others. Their discussion of the role of situation feels like an enduring truth: “in any given situation, no two leaders and followers may be having the same experience, even if obvious organizational or group variables appear constant.”

What I won’t do is adopt their important article on directions for LGBT leadership research as a Simplicity dress pattern for my  leadership research agenda. They created a model; well, you see I am cautious about models. Even my own findings are at best a product of people, time, and place, intended to be valid in the way that all enlightenment is valid, but not deterministic.

So on I go, into the last phase of the program. In this post I have talked about donning and discarding theories as if I had all the time in the world, which is not how I felt in this process at all. It was the most agonizing exercise in patience and persistence I’ve ever had, and I questioned myself along the entire path. I relearned key lessons from my MFA in writing: some topics are more important than others; there is always room for improvement; writing is a process riddled with doubt and insecurity; and there is no substitute for sitting one’s behind in a chair and writing, then rewriting, then writing and rewriting some more.

So the flip side of my self-examination is that I have renewed appreciation for the value of selecting a good question and a good method, and pressing on until done.  I have no intention of repeating my Goldilocks routine.

Will my dissertation be my best work? Two factors suggest otherwise. First, I have now read countless dissertations where somewhere midway in the text the author expresses regret, however subdued, that he or she realized too late that the dissertation had some glaring flaw that could not be addressed without dismantling the entire inquiry. Second, though I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it expressed this way, from a writer’s point of view the dissertation is a distinct genre. I have become reasonably comfortable with the “short story” equivalent of the dissertation. But three short stories do not a novel make, and rarely do one-offs lead to mastery of a genre.

But I will at least be able to appreciate the problem for what it is: a chance to learn, and to share my knowledge; another life experience in the “press on regardless” sweepstakes; and a path toward a goal: the best dissertation I will ever write.

Come together, right now

Golden Eagle in flight - 5 by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Golden Eagle in flight – 5” by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Tomorrow is my first convocation at my new university. For my international readers, a convocation in this part of the world is usually a ceremony in the autumn where faculty, students, and the schools that serve them are welcomed into the new academic year. (Although sometimes “convocation” is a graduation, which I suppose makes it a contronym, and it is also the collective noun for eagles).

At Holy Names, convocation was a student-centered event, and began with the university community, dress in its finest, climbing up the 100-plus stairs to the dining hall for speeches and a lunch. I do not know entirely what to expect from tomorrow’s event (except there is no lunch, and it is held in the largest theater on campus, and relatively few students will be present), but I know that it will be different and that in its difference I will learn new meanings, symbols, and ways of being.

All weekend I have had the last four lines of Yeats’ “A prayer for my daughter” running through my mind:

How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

There is a saying on the Internet, “do not read the comments,” and when it comes to major poems, I extend this to “do not read the commentary.” I made the mistake of browsing discussions of this poem, only to discover that rather than the sky-wide reflection on chaos versus order I know it to be, it is actually, among other flaws, a poem advocating the oppression of women. The idea that the poem is a product of its time, or that a father would want to be protective of his daughter, or that there is something to be said for the sanity of a well-ordered home life, is pushed aside in favor of squeezing this poem through a highly specific modern sensibility, then finding it wanting.

Higher education has been described as irrelevant, in a crisis, in need of great change, overpriced, stodgy, out of touch with the world, a waste of effort, and most of all, in need of disruption. And yet every fall universities around the country unite the stewards of academia in a ceremony that is anything but disruptive (convocation: convene, come together) and reminds us that the past, however conflicted and flawed, is the inevitable set of struts for building the future. Convocation tells us that the work of summer is done, and now it is time for students to matriculate, spend a few days having fun and learning the campus culture, then settle down to work. The clock is wound, and begins to tick:  professors teaching, administrators administrating, and librarians librarying and otherwise being their bad (as in good) information-professional selves.

When I think about the harsh words tossed at higher education, I am reminded not only of the dishonoring of great poems by forcing them through a chemist’s retort of present-day sensibility, but also how some leaders–and I have been guilty of this myself–are in such a rush to embrace new ideas (particularly our own new ideas) and express our pride in our forward-looking stance that we forget that many times, things were the way they were for a good reason that made sense at the time; and we also forget that in a decade or two our own ideas will be found ill-suited for the way things are done in that new era. When we do that we hurt feelings and body-block the gradual changing of minds, and for what purpose? We can and should continue the hard work of making higher education better, but we should also honor and embrace the past. Give the past its due, because for all of its failings, it birthed the present.

I see now that part of the thrill of convocation for me is how it fills a necessary void: the honoring of my own conflicted past (and all human pasts are conflicted), as well as my commitment to movement into the future. We have events honoring our own birth and also the calendar year, but too many cultures lack a Yom Kippur or Ramadan to help us reset and recommit. Lent comes close, but it is now nearly ruined by Secular Easter and muddy symbolism; as Sandy observes, it is strange behavior to celebrate the Lamb of God, then roast him for Easter dinner. I am also impressed by how many clueless people schedule ordinary events for Good Friday, which is the religious observance that makes Easter Easter.

So onward into the academic year. The spreading laurel tree of academic custom, framed by convocation in early autumn and graduation in spring, gives my life well-framed pauses for introspection and inventory, pausing the slipstream of dailiness, stirring memories, reflection, atonement, and even where warranted, a little quiet praise. Births and deaths, broken friendships and promises, things (to borrow from the Book of Common Prayer) done and left undone, achievements big and small, harsh words and kind actions, frustrations and triumphs, times of fear and times of fearlessness, critical moments of thoughtlessness and those of careful consideration: tomorrow morning, dressed as one does for signature moments, I will tag along behind librarians as they wend their way to a place I have never visited and yet will come to know well, and learn a new way of coming together, in this autumn that closes one book and starts another.

The well of studiousness

KGS.Pride.2015

Pride 2015

My relative quiet is because my life has been divided for a while between work and studying for exams. But I share this photo by former PUBLIB colleague and retired librarian Bill Paullin from the 2015 Pride March in San Francisco, where I marched with my colleagues in what suddenly became an off-the-hook celebration of what one parade marshal drily called, “Thank you, our newly-discovered civil rights.”

I remember the march, but I also remember the  hours before our contingent started marching, chatting with dear colleagues about all the important things in life while around us nothing was happening. It was like ALA Council, except with sunscreen, disco music, and free coconut water.

Work is going very well. Team Library is made of professionals who enjoy what they do and commit to walking the walk. The People of the Library did great things this summer, including eight (yes eight) very successful “chat with a librarian” sessions for parent orientations, and a wonderful “Love Your Library” carnival for one student group. How did we get parents to these sessions? Schmoozing, coffee, and robots (as in, tours of our automated retrieval system). We had a competing event, but really — coffee and robots? It’s a no-brainer. Then I drive home to our pretty street in a cute part of a liveable city, and that is a no-brainer, too.

I work with such great people that clearly I did something right in a past life. Had some good budget news. Yes please! Every once in a while I think, I was somewhere else before I came here, and it was good; I reflect on our apartment in San Francisco, and my job at Holy Names. I can see myself on that drive to work, early in the morning, twisting down Upper Market as the sun lit up the Bay Bridge and the day beckoned, full of challenge and possibility. It was a good part of my life, and I record these moments in the intergalactic Book of Love.

And yet: “a ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” I think of so many good things I learned in my last job, not the least of which the gift of radical hospitality.  I take these things with me, and yet the lesson for me is that I was not done yet. It is interesting to me that in the last few months I learned that for my entire adult life I had misunderstood the word penultimate. It does not mean the final capper; it means the place you go, before you go to that place.  I do not recall what made me finally look up this term, except when I did I felt I was receiving a message.

Studying is going very well, except my brain is unhappy about ingesting huge amounts of data into short-term memory to be regurgitated on a closed-book test. Cue lame library joke: what am I, an institutional repository? Every once in a while I want to share a bon mot from my readings with several thousand of my closest friends, then remember that people who may be designing the questions I’ll be grappling with are on the self-same networks. So you see pictures of our Sunday house meetings and perhaps a random post or share, but the things that make me go “HA HA HA! Oh, that expert in […….redacted……..] gets off a good one!” stay with me and Samson, our ginger cat, who is in charge of supervising my studies, something he frequently does with his eyes closed.

We have landed well, even after navigating without instruments through a storm. Life is good, and after this winter, I have a renewed appreciation for what it means for life to be good. That second hand moves a wee faster every year, but there are nonetheless moments captured in amber, which we roll from palm to palm, marveling in their still beauty.

Between a noodle and your favorite dress

So a little over a week ago Jeff Jarvis tweeted about the German pilot who may have committed suicide by crashing a commercial plane:

I tweeted back. He tweeted. Tweet. Tweet. Tweet. Tweet. Etc. And then:

Quickly followed by:

I was less upset than puzzled and bemused; even if I was completely wrong, all I did, as someone pointed out, was mildly disagree with Jeff over something I do happen to know something about.

With the day job and the doctoral work and other things going on, I decided to wait to respond until I could respond with a fey blog post tweaking Jeff for what other Twitter user called his Saran-wrap-thin skin. Then I thought, I’ve had bad days. Maybe, just maybe, he had one too, and everything I had been saying had been passing through a filter of something much more serious going on in his life. Perhaps this is a situation that can be repaired. So I tweeted, “so a few days have passed. Is it possible to revisit my comments through MRI (Most Respectful Interpretation)?”

Followed by three more tweets from me, explaining how I know him (through a conference in Boston in 2004), offering an olive branch, creating the possibility for pushing past that incident.

Crickets chirped.

I get it.

It’s not that I miss Jeff Jarvis. I haven’t had any sort of collegial relationship with him. I didn’t have a heroic image of some Jeff Jarvis for this Twitter thread to debunk. He was just someone I had once encountered whose public opinions I sometimes read and sometimes did not read. In my personal firmament, Jeff Jarvis has hovered between Japanese noodle soup and extra-nice shoelaces… something I wouldn’t go out of my way for, but would be happy enough to encounter. Unless the options were better, like an oyster po’boy or socks with a kitten pattern.

It’s something larger and more ineffable. Maybe it’s the person I was in 2004, before the wind-down of Librarians’ Internet Index, the huge mistake of the move to Florida, the amazing return to California, and a few triumphs and heartbreaks and losses along the way. Maybe it’s the times in my life I have taken umbrage (that evil nostrum that sits on a far-too-convenient shelf), flamed into an angry response, and not opened myself to reconsidering my reaction.

But more likely it was hearing on Tuesday that Gail Schlachter had suddenly died, and feeling drenched in grief and wishing I could just spend a few minutes with her again, even in one of those charmless windowless conference rooms where Gail spent so much time patiently, cheerfully sharing her gifts with others. Just to watch her walk up to me on the floor of ALA Council and tell me how happy she was to see me. Just to see her smile, as bright as the sun, and listen to her wise and funny comments on all things LibraryLand. Gail had the gift of making every person she encountered feel special and welcome and the smartest kid in kindergarten. She was witty and kind and beautiful and patient, and entirely her own person. She had a heart the size of our galaxy, and so many of us will miss her.

Gail was way above soba noodles and special shoelaces. Gail was that sort of person that if you knew her even slightly, she was more than equal to the best oysters on the half-shell you ever had, or that special dress you will remember forever. She had the knack for saying things so kind, things I so needed to hear at just that moment, that I would fold her comments into a small square and tuck them forever in my heart. Gail was powerful and astute, but I don’t know if she fully realized how much she meant to so many people.

So in the end, I have a twinge of sadness that I have become to Jeff Jarvis what my dad, may he rest in peace, referred to as P.N.G., for persona non grata. But it’s not about who I have been to Jeff, since in all honesty to him I’ve just been some peon out there in the vast online galaxy, and now I am in minus-peon zone, in that strange parallel galaxy you go when you have dutifully followed orders and fucked off. It’s about that person I was in 2004, and the places I’ve lived and the cats Sandy and I have outlived and the people I’ve served and the others who have left us. It’s about all those times when I wish I could have just a few minutes more with the people I care about, and how I curse myself for the times I have been “too busy” to have that moment with someone who I can no longer have moments with again, or too proud or too angry to mend a fence. It’s about the way life breaks our heart simply by moving forward.