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Two Years at Cupcake U: Reflections



Two years ago today (Sunday, October 30) I started my journey as a library director at Cupcake U (as I sometimes call My Place Of Work).  These first two years have been exhilarating, challenging, growth-inducing, hair-graying, mind-bending, mirth-generating, and never boring. (I’m always surprised when librarians say budgets are boring. There’s nothing boring about money! Yum, yum, money!)

I have the following 15 reflections. Many are not new revelations for me–not in this job, not even in this career. But they are the reflections that resonate with me when I think about where I’ve been since October 30, 2009.

  1. It’s worth repeating: it’s my job to stay positive, and to build that point of view in others in and out of the library. Plus staying positive feels good. That doesn’t mean I can’t see or respond to problems; it just means that I intentionally hold at bay what Karen Armstrong calls our “reptilian brain.” My proudest moment was when someone referred to me as “Pollyanna-ish.” Radical optimism? Bring it on!
  2. Practicing radical hospitality in a library is spiritually profound. It makes me a better person to constantly ask, how can we serve our users better? How can I go the extra mile for them? How can I surprise them with better service than they expected? How can I grow our extravagant welcome? (That can mean everything from improving the foyer signage to adding a fantastic new service to communicating better to dealing with difficult people and enforcing reasonable guidelines.)
  3. I am getting a fresh lesson in the signs of a welcoming organization: people sleep in our chairs, eat at our tables, hang out just to hang out, ask to hold events in our rooms and spaces, joke with us and at us, run into my office to ask if I have any pain reliever (or a pen or a piece of paper or whatever), respond in droves to our surveys, sign up for our Vision Task Force, and above all, use our services. Print circulation — which I had written off as dead, and frankly wasn’t focused on — has tripled from a year ago, with no one single driver responsible. Everything else–walk-in traffic, e-resource usage, event attendance–is growing.
  4. With all that, I still have to remind myself that I’m working in a library that has had almost no updates in over 50 years, has a computer lab with 9-year-old PCs, is hot in the summer and cold in the winter, etc. I continually force myself to step back and see the library with the eyes of prospective students or faculty (as well as the eyes of a librarian who has toured countless libraries, often with camera in hand).
  5. Building and maintaining relationships is my core library service. I think of it as a bus. I am always asking, who’s on board? Who needs to get on board? Who’s moving toward the door?
  6. The buck really does stop here. A stopped sink or a student worker who doesn’t show up is my problem. It may not be something I solve directly, but I own it.
  7. Success is never owned; it’s shared among many. It takes a village.
  8. Higher education is fascinating. I mean that sincerely. It’s also extremely predictable, and again, I mean that sincerely. You can bet that any time you see a situation or observe conflict between agencies, or note a pattern of behavior in a particular species (Homo Facultus, for example), it’s not even close to sui generis.
  9. It is easier to problem-solve around enduring traits than to try to change people. If faculty don’t read email, then make friends with their admin assistants, who do.
  10. It is harder but more rewarding to supervise four people (plus sundry interns and whatnot) than 300 people. I have done both (and everything in between). Supervising 300 people really means supervising upper-management. Supervising a small group means I am upper management.
  11. I swear on the Gutenberg Bible, if I ever again work in a library large enough to have an admin assistant, I’m going to treat that person like gold.
  12. Then again, the right undergrad, trained properly, can do mighty fine copy-cataloging. And yes I do check their work.
  13. There’s a world of difference between “no” and “not now.”
  14. The question is always what do OUR users need and want. That’s important to keep in mind when assessing the latest trends–not just for adopting new services, but for deciding when to retire, sustain, grow, downsize or even resurrect a service.
  15. It feels even better to thank someone, and to praise them, than it does to receive thanks and praise.

This is also the 90-day anniversary of arriving at the Harvard Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians; I’ll have a post about that in a week or two.



Posted on this day, other years:

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  1. Gillian Barr wrote:

    Thank you. I am just beginning a new “cure”: a long-standing campus ministry that is in what could be called a “rebuilding phase.” Several of your 15 points hit home with me and were things I needed to read. Especially 1-6, 11, and 13. Of course I’ve always said that library work and pastoral ministry share a lot more characteristics than many folks realize . . .

    Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Dinah wrote:

    Congratulations!! Huzzah!

    Monday, October 31, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  3. Stiil wrote:

    Congratilations! But why do you call it “Cupcake U”?:)

    Wednesday, November 2, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink
  4. Well said.

    One of your points is higher education is predictable, and patterns of behavior are unlikely to be unique to your institution. (I think that’s what you meant?)

    In another point, you emphasize “OUR users needs and wants”, implying that they are quite different from other institutions’.


    (Incidentally, if the latter point is about the latest-new-thing, the answer might be that the latest-new-thing probably isn’t serving the needs and wants of anyone elses users either; but I suppose it’s more polite to avoid implying that to all the institutions adopting it anyway, and more polite to say, well, it might be good for you, but not us.)

    Friday, November 4, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  5. Jonathan, my point is that people are predictable, in terms of workplace behavior. In fact, people are so predictable that there wasn’t one case study at LIAL that didn’t seem (to me, at least) to be fully universal.

    But people are unique — as are the larger circumstances in which we find them, such as the assemblage of souls at a tiny private university in Northern California. It is the latter reality that drives my statement about “OUR users’ needs and wants.” I’m not only pointing at other institutions, I’m pointing at myself, and I’m actually thinking more about divesting rather than adopting, as in the librarians who are quick to write off traditional research help and print collections. I’m guilty of the latter; I was truly surprised to see print circ rising, even though I had (illogic at work here) invested resources in improving its usage. It’s still true that a very small percentage of our print collection sees any use, but usage has still shot up.

    We’ve implemented a lot of new-to-us services, almost all successfully. It’s hard to explain how far behind we were, but one of those services interlibrary loan–or as someone said to me, “Welcome to 1977.”

    Saturday, November 5, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  6. Because it’s tiny and pretty!

    Saturday, November 5, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  7. A. Martinez wrote:

    Congratulations, and thanks for this thoughtful post. I’m approaching my 3-year anniversary as manager of a branch library, and am inspired now to create a list like yours; great way to self-assess, see where I’ve grown, and see what goals I want to set for the next 1 or 3 years. Especially love your #5, as I work in a public library and relationships are everything.

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Permalink
  8. That positive energy you work hard to maintain really does spread and catch everyone up — not just your staff, but the students who use our library and among the faculty and administrative staff. To me, that’s been one of the discoveries of working at Cupcake U. — the very real power of optimism and positivity to be an agent of change.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  9. It helps to laugh! We should have Martin do a session on laughter yoga.

    Saturday, November 19, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

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