Administrative and Management Skills

Managing from Afar

There are many facets to managing a Youth Services department in a public library. You have to think about your staff, patrons, programming, physical space, how you work with your colleagues and much more. And nothing challenges the way you approach those facets like a global pandemic.

I was out of town when things went from 0 to 100. I’m forever grateful to our amazing management team and the Youth Services staff for handling things while I was gone. I returned to a closed library and a completely different way of working. I felt very behind even though things had only gotten real a few days before I returned. It took quite a bit of catching up to get where we are now. My days used to be spent helping kids find books they love and creating a staff schedule.  Now they largely consist of screening story time videos and uploading them to our YouTube page, assuring staff things will be alright and rethinking collection development. So, how does one manage from afar?

Ah, afar. It sounds like a magical fairy tale land with unicorns and rainbows. It is actually your living room, with empty take out containers and possibly an annoyed cat. So, how does one do all of the intricate tasks involved with management from afar? First, with amazing colleagues. I’m very lucky to work with a management team who came up with some great work from home tasks before I was back in town. We understand that not all staff have the same technological capabilities at home so we included things like reading or listening to books and writing reviews. Other projects we assigned were evaluating a database or educational resource, cleaning out your Google Drive or email inbox, adapting your programs for virtual presentation and creating new booklists. We were even able to offer laptops to staff whose technology wasn’t up to date. Our management team is also a great support system, because we’re all learning this together.

Managing from a distance often utilizes a living room office, complete with snacks and a ukuele on the coffee table
My Office During Quarantine

We are still having staff work their full hours and the task isn’t just to keep them busy. We want their work to be meaningful, fulfilling and still align with our mission. We have to remember that we exist to serve the community. With every task I assign staff, I have to ask, “how does this serve our community?” Not all tasks will serve the community in the same way, but if reading widely while at home assists staff with their reader’s advisory skills, it’s meaningful work.

This is a time when we really have to consider our management style. We’ve all been to those conferences and webinars that say, “Manage everyone the same, it makes things fair.” We’ve also been to the ones that say you should manage each person differently based on their personality. Well, this is the time to manage everyone based on their personality. Some may need more specific work and regular check ins. Some may thrive if left to their own devices. Some may be somewhere in the middle. It’s harder to evaluate someone’s work from afar and you may not be able to just give someone a list of tasks and expect them to be finished. You may need to lay out clear steps for the work or create video tutorials.

It can be very difficult for staff who are so used to interacting with the public to be isolated. It’s important that we check in with our staff regularly. Some staff may do well in this type of work environment (okay, we all know that work environment now means the couch, in pajamas, with feline or canine coworkers, right?) and others may struggle. Some staff may prefer different kinds of communication. You may have a staff member who responds really well to email, but others who need that Zoom meeting or a text or phone call. I’ve scheduled weekly all department Zoom meetings, but also let staff know if they’d like one-on-one meetings, I’m available.

We’ve been working this way for about a month now and while we do feel like we are getting the hang of it, we have to consider how much longer we can go on this way. We’re librarians, we are incredibly good at adapting, but it will be challenging. Once we do return to our buildings, service is going to look very different. It’s hard to sit here and think about that now, but if we don’t, we’ll be in real trouble when we return. Start planning for what your department will do when you return. Will you continue virtual programs? Will you remove all toys from the department (I’m reminded of The Velveteen Rabbit)? Will you even allow patrons in the building?

And don’t forget about yourself. Compassion fatigue is real and while there are many others now experiencing it to a much higher degree, it can still affect us. It can be tough to watch your staff suffer, whether it’s their physical or mental health. What is the right thing to say? Well, as I was reminded by my director, we cannot give mental health advice. Which makes sense because we wouldn’t give medical advice on someone’s physical health. We have resources that we can direct staff to if they need them, but it still makes us feel helpless. It’s tough for me to say, “Check out this impersonal website” when someone comes to me with concerns about their mental health. This is what we’re missing without in-person interaction: the ability to comfort. I wouldn’t offer mental health advice in-person either, but there’s something about being in the same room with someone that makes things seem more sincere. So while you’re stressing out about how we stay relevant and how we can still be present for our staff, make sure to take some time for yourself. In our profession we often want to be all things to all people and we have to accept that we just can’t right now. However, as I’ve heard many a librarian say, our time is coming.

In conclusion, we’re all floundering and doing a lot of thinking on our feet. We’re starting things from scratch, there will be hiccups. All we can do is keep trying our best and remember our libraries’ missions. So for now, take your coworker on a walk or refill their food bowl, order a pizza and plot your next great Netflix binge.


Headshot of Rose Hopkins-LaRocco, guest blogger of Managing from Afar
Photo by William Hopkins

Today’s guest blogger is Rose Hopkins-LaRocco. Rose is the Children’s Services Director at La Grange Park Public Library in La Grange Park, IL. She received her MLIS from Dominican University. Rose can be reached at rose@lplibrary.org.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at alscblog@gmail.com.


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competency: Administrative and Management Skills.

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