Leadership requires patience. Some things will take years to unfold. That’s the job. If you’re good at it, and circumstances allow, you’ll see your strategy work out. For more than a decade, I have kept watch for opportunities to make my staff positions less precarious. Fortunately, it’s been working out.
For context, I manage a variety of information professionals. We don’t all work in the library domain and so our operational demands vary. But most are long-serving (20-30 years) and full-time.
I’m not sure how well this reflects the law library profession. I took a quick look at the AALL careers page and there were 25 positions, most of which were permanent and full-time. I’ve been managing library teams for over 20 years and have had the opportunity to fill about 10 positions. None were new, all were replacements for a previously-filled position. A couple were part-time.
It’s my perception that the number of law library positions has plateaued, even if the access to legal information world continues to grow. That’s not a value judgment. There appear to be fewer roles, a diminished demand for library people, a softened support for funding collections. It may mean that attracting the people we need to re-fill our positions becomes harder if we can’t make those positions secure.
We are obviously limited by our resources. We cannot hire all the staff we need nor purchase all the information access we think is necessary unless other resources like time, funding, and existing staff make it possible. So we make choices about the resources we do have available.
I went out for coffee with some new career information professionals, pre-pandemic. It was my invitation, although I wouldn’t consider myself their mentor. Both had been information professionals for under 5 years and I wanted to get a sense of what their challenges were. More directly, I asked them how I would create positions that would attract people new to the information profession and having a potential interest in jobs in a law library context.
My takeaways from the conversation, overlaid with some broader supposition:
- many law library jobs are physically located in metropolitan areas, where the cost of living (especially housing, in Canada) can create financial limitations on what roles can be considered
- new professionals understood the reality of salaries, but a salary that meant they could hold just one position (not juggle part-time or contract roles) was important
- new professionals were entering the profession through temporary placements, often contracts, and might spend the first few years in one year or shorter placements
It’s hard to know what other people’s experiences are. My first professional job was a full-time academic law library role. So I haven’t lived this longer arc of short stints before landing at a full time role. I was glad to have confirmation – no light bulb moment – that money and stability were important, perhaps more so than ever.
Your options may be limited because your resources are. It can depend on whether your organization is head count driven or strictly money driven. In the former, you might be allocated 5 people, but not necessarily five full time equivalents (FTE). In the latter, you might be allocated enough salary dollars for 5 FTEs but have 7 people, because you have 4 full-time and two part-time.
This can play out in many ways. For example, you may have a retirement. Not all FTEs are paid the same salary since they may have different roles or seniority. This retirement may free up 100% of one FTE but only 75% of a higher-skilled or more senior role. Depending on your context, a head count replacement would mean the same skill set or a part-time alternative. In a money driven context, you might be able to have a couple of part-time options as an alternative to a straight replacement.
These replacements are the most common opportunity to make a change. In two situations, I had people who were in part-time roles. My goal was to convert those into full-time roles. Not out of some need to be empire building, but because the need was there (usage data) and the larger strategy of ensuring a stable team. That sounds like I mean horses, but you get my drift.
One law library rule of thumb is that you will answer more reference questions with more people. That seems obvious but when you have vacancies and your reference stats drop, the historical view of that data may be that you weren’t busy.
The second of these became full-time this year. It has been a multi-year process and involved losing one staff person, proving the need. That’s not ideal but the person went to a position that met her requirements. It can be harder to point to a position where a person stays. From an organizational perspective, everything is fine. You shouldn’t desire churn in your teams but sometimes it can help.
Another angle was to focus on the cost. If you’re bringing a $50,000 FTE role up from part-time, you’re not adding $50,000 to the budget. You’re adding $50,000 less whatever you’re already paying. At some point, particularly outside a commercial setting like a law firm, a $25,000 increase on a multi-million dollar budget (city, courts, non-profit) is relatively inconsequential.
I don’t endorse succession planning but another good argument is team resilience. Information teams are often small, and if you have a senior person who might leave, having stability below that person can give that team resilience. You may not promote that person, but they could assume an acting role, would ensure organizational knowledge is retained, etc. If you experience churn below a senior staff person, that person’s departure can create a huge hole in your operations.
The Grant-Funded Role
A different situation occurred when one of our team was funded through an ad hoc process. The role had been created with a grant and, for reasons to complicated to explain, how continued for nearly a decade as grant funded. If you have a role like that, you should give it a second look.
If the role is performing a specific function, and that function would only exist with the grant, then I’d probably leave it alone. I mean, grant money is usually an opportunity to expand your service delivery. Grant-funded roles should live to meet the grant’s purpose.
But if the role is a core operational role (reference librarian, for example), then I think you need to try to bring that role into operational dollars. Otherwise you’re essentially giving the person a one-year repeating contract, with no guarantee that the role will extend into the next year. You owe it to your staff to do better.
It’s like book borrowing. The rule of thumb I’ve always heard is that if you ILL a book 3 times in a year, you should buy it for your collection. Treat your staff better than your books.
The reason you need a long-term horizon on this is that resource limitation. Some years are up and some are down, and you need to target your expansions in an up year. This is particularly true if you are in a money-driven organization. The decision-makers may only see the money increase.
In a head count organization, it can actually be a bit easier because this person is already counted as part of the organization. Salary budgets tend to grow year to year anyway, due to cost of living and other increases. So additional salary dollars may not stand out as much when they are added to an overall salary budget.
This is another thing to consider. When you are looking at your budget, consider the organizational context. One of my team budgets amounts to 0.005% of the corporate budget. It may feel like a lot when you want to bring a person to full-time – to convert a contract or part-time role – but it may amount to a rounding error in the bigger scheme of things.
Fortunately, we were working in a head count organization and the financial conditions were optimal. We highlighted that the person was doing core work, the precariousness of relying on grant funding for operations, and secured the funding shift. It was fortunate, because conditions changed a couple years later and the grant funder cut many of its grants, including others at our organization.
If we want to attract people and retain them, one way we can do it is by creating roles that are stable. I’m going to steer away from part-time and contract work and focus on creating only full-time roles. This may mean accelerating hiring to fill newly empty positions, rather than hiring a contractor to back-fill. It may mean asking earlier for the dollars to create that full-time position.
And, most probably, like many things a law library director does, it may mean biding your time until the context is optimal. It’s a tricky balance, though, with people. While time passes, the people in the role may move on. We lose expertise and have to train anew. People in full time roles may be burdened because they’re, in fact, understaffed. The earlier you can plan and make changes, the better.