Being with Books: So You Think You Can Be the Boss

Vernon R. Totanes

Von Totanes Grace Danico

Illustration by Grace Danico

As he steps up to take on the job as head librarian at Ateneo’s Rizal Library, Von Totanes learns that libraries are about people as much as they are about books. This is the first of a series about people who work with books called “Being with Books.”

“I am pleased to inform you that the search committee tasked to recommend the next Rizal Library director has recommended that you be appointed director beginning April 1, 2013.”

This message appeared in my inbox more than a year ago, as I was finishing my dissertation in Canada. By the time you read this, I will have been Director of Ateneo de Manila University’s Rizal Library for more than 90 days. I am a licensed librarian with a bachelor’s degree in Management Engineering from Ateneo de Manila, a master’s degree in Library and Information Science (MLIS) from University of the Philippines, and a Ph.D. degree from University of Toronto. I have worked at CityTrust and BPI, and ADB and PCIJ. I’ve taught high school religion at Ateneo de Cebu, and library management and research methods at UP. I was ideal for my current position in many ways, except for one important detail: I had never been the boss.

While I am distinctly unqualified to dispense advice regarding how one becomes a good manager, I can share how I prepared for my new job, the challenges I encountered, and the lessons I’ve learned.

 Do your research

I did two kinds of research before taking on the job. The first was practical research. I shadowed Larry Alford, Chief Librarian at University of Toronto (UofT)—the third largest research library in North America (after Harvard and Yale)—for two weeks; and spoke with Jim Neal (University Librarian, Columbia University), who graciously agreed to meet with me when I visited New York. I also interviewed the head librarians at two Jesuit universities with student populations similar to Ateneo de Manila’s: Linda LoSchiavo (Director of University Libraries, Fordham University), who was then transitioning to her new role as interim director after almost three decades at Fordham; and Tyrone Cannon (Library Dean, University of San Francisco), who earned his doctorate during the second half of his 18 years at USF.

The most important insight I gained from shadowing Larry and speaking with Jim, Linda, and Tyrone was that someone occupying the top job in a university library need not memorize the Dewey Decimal Classification system to know the answers to all the questions that students might ask, which is what most of my non-librarian friends seemed to think I was hired to do. Instead, it was clear that the head librarian’s primary responsibility was something I had never done since I graduated in 1995, and that was to manage people. It was then that I realized that even though I had just finished my Ph.D. and did not really want to open another book for a long time, I needed to hit the books again. And that was the second kind of research I did.

I searched online and in bookstores for the bestsellers most relevant to my situation and, depending on what was available, acquired the ebook or print versions. Among the most helpful were What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Crucial Conversations, and Good Boss, Bad Boss. The book with the most intriguing title turned out to be the one that was most practical: You Can’t Fire Everyone. But the one that I found most useful, and which I have continued to reread over the past eight months, had a title that was pretty bland, and did not reveal much about its content.

Analyze and plan

In The First 90 Days, I discovered a useful framework for dealing with my new situation. Unlike most of the other books I consulted, TF90D distinguishes between the different types of transitions that newly-appointed managers might need to navigate, and argues that each requires a different strategy. The idea that I could not plan for the future until I had diagnosed the situation—whether it involved a Start-up, Turnaround, Realignment, or Sustaining success (STaRS)—led me to conclude that I could relax a little. (The 2013 edition of TF90D indicates that STaRS is now STARS, with the A standing for “Accelerated growth.”)

I was aware that I would have to deal with more than a few problems, but since my predecessor Lourdes David had already instituted many changes during her 11 years as Director—including making the Rizal Library more responsive to the evolving needs of the faculty and students than it used to be—I was confident that all I had to do was sustain her previous success. According to TF90D, this diagnosis meant that I had time to study the existing culture and act deliberately. The ship, thankfully enough, was neither new nor sinking nor misdirected. I could take my time and inspect every nook and cranny before deciding what else could be done for a ship that was running just fine.

Even better, I was entering a culture in which administrators are mentored and given time to grow into their roles. I was relieved to find out that Ateneo, to quote TF90D, does not “identify star swimmers by throwing children into the pool unprepared; we teach them to swim, coach them, and then let performance speak for itself.” Thanks to the search committee that selected me despite my lack of managerial experience, I was given the opportunity to begin as Assistant Director. This designation allowed me to shadow the incumbent and get to know the prevailing culture at the Rizal Library for several months without having to contend with the day-to-day decision-making that I now realize would have prevented me from getting to know the librarians and staff in a more personal way. 

Talk to everyone… and LISTEN

As Assistant Director, I decided that my number one priority was to talk to all the permanent employees—all 66 of them—before I took over as Director. I first heard of this approach from Victor Salanga, SJ, former President of Loyola School of Theology. Larry Alford at UofT also mentioned that he had talked to all his staff when he took over. But it was through TF90D that I thought of asking the same questions of everyone, so that I could be more objective about the whole exercise and compare answers later on.

When I started, I made it a point to personally fetch each of them from their place of work to the venue for our one-on-one interview. The only exceptions were the maintenance staff, who did not have their own desks and had to be told to proceed to my office by a particular time. Each interview took at least 15 minutes, with some lasting more than an hour. I assured them of the confidentiality of our discussions, and then asked them about their impressions of the Rizal Library, as well as the first thing they would change or improve if they were the Director. I recorded their responses on a spreadsheet, and common concerns emerged as the number of interviews accumulated.

The information gathered through these conversations with librarians and staff—along with less formal sessions with administrators, faculty, students, alumni, vendors, and even librarians from other universities—helped me identify where the gaps between perception and reality were, as well as the interventions that needed to be prioritized. Sometimes, the same stories were told from so many different points of view that it felt like I was watching Rashomon. But I reminded myself that determining what actually happened was not the point of the exercise. The objective was to get to know my people and what they were thinking, and let them get to know me, too. 

Accept reality

When I was still a penniless Ph.D. student, I told myself that my primary duty was to write, write, write. If I was to obtain my degree sooner rather than later, I had to write chapters, conference papers, applications for funding and travel grants, and emails asking for advice, permission, or scanned documents. Occasionally, I would sign checks to pay for a few purchases. None of the checks was ever for an amount larger than a few hundred dollars, but at least the money was mine.

Now that I am a salaried employee, it almost seems as if my chief responsibility is to sign my name on every piece of paper that crosses my desk, including requests for clearance, permission to use the library for free, and orders for checks—not the checks themselves. During the past month, I’ve already authorized payment for amounts greater than six years of tuition at University of Toronto. The money, however, isn’t really mine to give away. Just as signing my name isn’t really “writing,” of which I have done very little lately. When I began this article, for instance, it felt as if I had gone back to writing my dissertation.

But I’m not complaining. In the same way that I chose the life of a Ph.D. student in 2006 and stuck with it until I got my degree, so too am I accepting the reality that goes with being the boss. Whereas I used to devote entire days in various libraries photographing documents, examining books, and taking notes, now I spend entire weeks inside my dream library without opening a single book. Whereas I used to send emails to my adviser, committee members, and potential sources of information hoping that they would reply sooner rather than later, now it is I who keep librarians, faculty members, students, et al., waiting for my replies. And whereas I used to consider myself lucky to be invited to speak at conferences, now I have to refuse most invitations because of all the work that needs to be done.

By the time you read this, I will have been the boss for more than 90 days. My life has changed in many ways, but in some ways—with all the research I’m doing, the analysis and planning, the talking and listening, and the constant reminders to accept the reality of my situation—I am, in fact, still a Ph.D. student hoping against hope that everything I’m doing will eventually count for something. Being the boss, to me, isn’t about the position or the benefits that go with it. Being the boss is about making a difference in the lives of the people who report to me and the people we serve.