This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, February 9, 2000

February 9, 2000 - In Defense of Administration

I've worked a lot of jobs. In rough chronological order, I've been a library shelver, a dishwasher, a stock clerk, a house painter, a nursing home orderly, a library clerk, a bartender, a cook, a bouncer, a university teaching assistant, an art class model, a shoe salesman, a truck driver, a counselor for disturbed juvenile delinquents, a telemarketer, a school bus driver, a construction worker, a wandering poet/philosopher, a property caretaker, a ditch digger, a library volunteer, a freelance journalist, a book store clerk, a graduate assistant, a professor, a college reference librarian, a circulation department head at a public library, an Assistant Director, a Library Manager, a speechwriter (both for me and for others), and a Library Director.

In the course of that time, I've learned a few things. The first one is that every job has intrinsic worth. Every job fulfills a useful function, provides a service somebody needs.

I've learned that there are people who are good at what they do, and make you proud to work alongside them. There are people who are very bad at what they do, or worse, utterly indifferent. They can make the job itself unpleasant. And there are a great many people who fall somewhere in the middle: neither great nor horrible, just marking time. But that has to do with people, not the jobs.

I've also learned that there were really only two categories of my jobs that completely engaged me, that woke me up, energized and delighted me. The first one was the wandering poet/philosopher bit -- although the excruciatingly low pay is what finally drove me into honest labor. The second had to do with libraries, at every level.

I've been thinking about all this because the library recently conducted an internal survey. We asked library staff how things were going -- a detailed checklist about everything from service standards to how well our supervisors and managers performed. On the whole, the survey was very affirming.

I got my share of criticisms, of course, some of them well-deserved. One of the comments that popped up several times was my increasing distance from the front line. Some staff members can still recall when I worked the reference desk, the circ desk, told stories to children, and selected titles for purchase. Others think the only way I can understand what goes on, or demonstrate my respect for their labor, is to work beside them.

But the truth is, as our organization has grown my job has morphed into ... other things. Administration: five syllables that set people to mumbling about bureaucrats and corner offices and "suits."

Well, on behalf of administrators both within and without the library, here's what I think I've learned: administrators worry about things so front line staff don't have to. Administrators worry about whether or not sufficient resources exist to fund current uses, what new services might be needed and when, where new sources of revenue can be found to offset new costs, how old buildings can be maintained or where new buildings should go, what old services and processes should be excised or redirected, how job classifications and salary schedules can be tweaked to get necessary work accomplished at defensible wages.

Having worked both sides of this fence, I see differences: front line staff do their work on the front line, in the moment. And when they go home, their work is done. Adminstrative staff do their work behind the scenes, mostly focused on the future. Their work is never done.

Front line staff do their work at the library. Administrative staff do their work in many locations, often (and most importantly) outside the library.

Front line staff usually have just one supervisor; two at most. Library administrators usually work for Boards -- in my case, seven supervisors.

Front line staff serve the customers; administrators make sure the store can open.

Both staff are necessary, both jobs have their own special demands, and both deserve their own brands of sympathy. But once an organization hits a certain size, I'm not sure it's possible for one person to do both jobs anymore. And let's remember: administrators are always outnumbered.

I try to take comfort in this little gag: before you criticize people, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, if they find out about it, you're already a mile away, and you've got their shoes.

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