v32#2 Let’s Get Technical — Sharing Responsibility: Our Experiment with Interim Co-Directing a Technical Services Department

by | May 11, 2020 | 0 comments

Column Editors:  Stacey Marien  (Acquisitions Librarian, American University Library) 

and Alayne Mundt  (Resource Description Librarian, American University Library) 

Column Editor’s Note:  In this issue’s column, we outline how Stacey and I have taken on co-directing Technical Services department while the position is vacant.  We outline factors to consider when sharing responsibilities and tips for how to make it successful. — SM & AM

The Situation:  Recently, our library’s Director of Technical Services left our university for a wonderful opportunity at a well-known federal library.  As would be expected whenever there is turnover in an upper management position, we knew we were in for a challenge during the interim period while the position was vacant.  We had recently hired a new Electronic Resources and Serials Librarian and have been continuing in progress workflow documentation and revision and various cleanup projects after migrating to Alma/Primo.  The search process for faculty librarian positions can be lengthy, so we knew we could possibly be without departmental leadership for at least six months or possibly more. 

The Solution: We came up with an idea for how to handle interim leadership of the department while the Director of Technical Services position was vacant.  We proposed to our University Librarian that we split the interim directorship of the department.  The scale of director-level responsibilities would be a lot for one person to handle while simultaneously onboarding a new librarian and managing our own unit head responsibilities.  We thought splitting the responsibilities could be a workable solution.  We suggested to our University Librarian that we split the director responsibilities roughly along the lines of internal versus external facing, with Alayne taking on many of the external-facing responsibilities, and Stacey handling many of the responsibilities internal to the department.  We would co-manage some of the department-level responsibilities, such as the onboarding of the new Electronic Resources and Serials Librarian.  Our University Librarian agreed to the proposal, and we have been working with this arrangement for the past several months. 

We decided to divide the work up by internal versus external for several reasons.  First, it is a fairly logical way to delineate responsibilities.  Additionally, due to timesheet approval and other administrative and logistical factors, one person needed to be the in name only department head.  It also made sense for a single person to do the external-facing work so there would be consistent representation from the department, such as in meetings with other library departments.  We decided that Alayne would be the external-facing half of this interim co-directorship since she had an interest in experiencing the upper management aspects of the director role.  We agreed that Stacey would assume responsibility for the bulk of the internal-facing work, which was a good fit for her due to organization skills and efficiency.  We agreed to split many of the aspects of onboarding the new Electronic Resources and Serials librarian because we each have expertise that would help in her training. 

Lessons Learned

1)  Develop a Plan — When we first found out that our Director was leaving, there was a lot of uncertainty about how to handle the transition and upcoming vacancy.  After landing on the idea of an interim co-directorship, it took multiple conversations over the course of several weeks to figure out how it might work.  When someone at a department director level leaves, both formal and informal institutional knowledge often goes with them.  In the absence of any formal succession plan, having a position description, if one exists, or even a checklist of their responsibilities to work from can help in delineating responsibilities.  If your outgoing director is able to provide you with a list of their current projects and job responsibilities, it will be easier to navigate the transition.  We used these documents as a stepping off point to guide us in dividing the responsibilities.

2)  Trust is Paramount — We are in a fortunate position in that we have worked together for more than ten years.  We have already collaborated on many publications and projects, have developed a strong working relationship over time, and we know each other’s strengths and areas of expertise.  We knew we could work together in sharing the interim position responsibilities because we have collaborated so extensively already. 

3)  Rely on Your Strengths — One of the reasons we think this interim co-directorship has been successful thus far is that when deciding how to divide responsibilities, we relied on our strengths and interests in doing so.  Stacey is naturally very organized and has taken a lead on running internal meetings and updating and clarifying workflow.  She also has expertise in licensing, budgets, negotiations, working with vendors, and has a well-established relationship with our university’s procurement office, so she has been able to handle those aspects of managing Technical Services as well as onboarding our new Electronic Resources and Serials Librarian.  Alayne is known to be pragmatic, has strong relationships with colleagues in the Access Services department where so much work intersects with Technical Services work, and already sits on several library and consortia-wide Alma, Primo, and digital strategies teams that require technical services expertise.  She has been able to work with other library departments to ensure smooth communication and collaboration.

4)  Communication is Key — Because we are each representing different aspects of leadership in directing the Technical Services department, we must stay in frequent communication with each other and keep each other apprised of meetings, projects, and problems that arise in our different areas.  We also occasionally need to act as a conduit to relay information to each other.  We have regularly scheduled meetings to discuss issues and informally check in briefly several days per week.

Potential Pitfalls

While interim co-directorship may not be appropriate for every organization, it has worked well for us so far.  We think that because we have been able to divide responsibilities, we are moving the boat forward, not just keeping it afloat, as is sometimes an inherent limitation with some interim positions.  We are doing our best to ensure that the Technical Services department stays current with ongoing initiatives and regular work.  One caveat is that we have observed that the time we spend in meetings has increased overall.  We find that we need to meet with each other frequently to update or discuss issues that come up both internally and externally.  We have standing meetings on a weekly basis or more often as needed, and also rely heavily on email and chat to touch base several times daily.  That said, we think that co-directorship has been the best fit for us.  

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