Today's Library Director, Part 1: Conflict Management and Familiarity with Legal Issues

Watch the full webinar from Sarah Houghton here

For many librarians aspiring to become a library director in the future, having the power to make decisions regarding budget, staff, and the community is an exciting concept. Finally having the ability to lead changes in your library’s programs? Gaining the opportunity to transform an institution into your dream library? What could be better?

Many may be shocked, however, to discover a huge gap between the necessary skills for library directors taught in school and the skills actually needed for library directors to be successful in real life.

After all, how can you really know how to be a library director until you’ve filled his or her shoes?

Last week, speaker, consultant, and blogger, Sarah Houghton gave us a glimpse of what it takes from her own experiences as Director of San Rafael Public Library. Covering the ten essential skills she wished she’d known before becoming a director, Sarah explores topics from mastering conflict management to avoiding burnout, and gives practical examples and obtainable resources for each.

Her biggest suggestion? Get your feet wet before jumping in. What do you need to know before you dive into the role of being a library director?

Her first two pieces of advice are outlined below. 

1. Conflict Management

“There’s a lot to be said for having the skills to be able to walk into a very tense situation and being able to deflect the negative energy and work with the people in the room to find a mutually agreed upon solution,” says Sarah.

Whether you’re dealing with a patron who’s escalated their complaints over a fee to the library director or you’re ironing out a disagreement between two staff members, conflict management is a skill necessary to ensure the overall wellbeing of your library.

Mastering the skills of conflict management may often come through experiences or, as Sarah refers to them, as battle wounds and scars. Use your experiences as a director to fine tune how you manage conflict and find your initial preparation through discussions with those around you who are conflict management “experts.” What tips can you steal from these conversations? What questions can you ask?

Think of conflict-laden scenarios that may need settling once you become a director, and run these scenarios by other directors who have dealt with them before. You’ll figure out your own resolution processes with experience, but it never hurts to know what you’re getting into. In fact, it’ll most likely help.

Take a look at these resources to discover how you can master the skill of conflict management:

Conflict Resolution: Resolving Conflict Rationally and Effectively

5 Keys of Dealing with Workplace Conflict

Career Journal: How Leaders Can Manage Conflicts at Work

Managing Stress and Conflict in Libraries (book)

Conflict Management for Libraries: Strategies for a Positive, Productive Workplace (book)


2. Familiarity with legal issues.

“This was something that I was sorely lacking in when I started and, by trial and fire, have gained some skills and knowledge through very real-life experiences. This can be understanding the limitations on the presence of service dogs in a public facility or knowing what you’re legally able to do in a public forum.”

Sarah’s main piece of advice is to have a good relationship with whomever your legal counsel is. Different jurisdictions deal with legal advice differently and it’s important to understand how this works within your jurisdiction. What is your legal representation, and where can you turn to for help?

Although your legal counsel will always be an excellent resource for you, it may also be worthwhile to turn to your local law library. “Use a librarian as a librarian!” says Sarah. Always strive to take advantage of the free resources available to you.

Like any position that serves the public, library directors must also be prepared for lawsuits. Although books and the internet may provide you with insight as to how to deal with this situation, the best preparation may come from witnessing a case yourself—most courts are open to the public and, although the case you observe may differ from any you might find yourself in, seeing the environment firsthand may alleviate any anxiety you might feel if and when the time comes.

What might it feel like to be a defendant? How is the court room set up? What could you learn by witnessing a courtroom procedure in person?

“Just being comfortable with that space can really help,” says Sarah.

To understand where your library stands legally, ask yourself: what are the key local laws that impact my library? What about federal laws? Use the following resources to further your legal research for your library:

25 Important Legal Issues Every Librarian Should Research

Copyright Issues for Libraries

Overcoming the legal hurdles surrounding digitization

Five Common Legal Issues Faced By Businesses

Top Tips for Avoiding Legal Trouble With Employees


Interested in listening to Sarah’s entire webinar? Click here.

To discover what you need to know about partner relationships, facilities management, and reading a budget, read Part 2


Liz Van Halsema
Marketing Content Writer