Column Description: Within academic libraries, administration and management can appear cold, calculated, and often comically complex. A good administrator, however, knows how to connect with faculty and staff, to set goals, and to foster a workplace environment that allows everyone to be successful. In other words, a good library administrator is an approachable administrator. The Approachable Admin offers tips, insights, and stories into one ARL library’s administration.

Every month, I host a writing group for library faculty and staff. I look forward to these meetings, as they offer a chance to see the creative process at work in a scholarly setting. We set and share goals; we block off time for writing; we gather on a Friday afternoon to check in with each other and offer feedback. It’s a wonderful space where conversation flows naturally, and often unpredictably, one of the great beauties of working for an academic institution. 

At our most recent meeting, the Dean of Libraries—a regular participant!—made an aside that left me thunderstruck. “The library is our lab,” she said, “and our programs are our experiments.” We don’t treat patrons as test subjects, of course, nor do we keep beakers filled with dangerous chemicals on the shelves. But we do share a mission with our colleagues in the natural sciences. Librarians conduct research. Librarians contribute to the production of new knowledge. 

From that perspective, it’s easy to see the library as a lab, an initiative as a hypothesis, a program as a test. Once you do that, you learn a radical, work-altering lesson: there is no failing. No, not every idea will take off and prove a rousing success. Some inevitably will founder. But there’s knowledge to gain from that, just as there is an insight to glean from an experiment that ends in a null result. The library and community are almost always better for the attempt than if it were never pursued. 

What does this mean for us administrators? It means we should trust our faculty when they pitch an idea. We should support their work, even if it doesn’t produce have an award-winning program. In a results-oriented environment, it’s easy to shut down anything that doesn’t promise a good deliverable. If that becomes our priority, though, how can we generate new knowledge? How can we advance the field if we are so focused on securing marginal wins at the expense of risking failure? 

The library is our lab. Indeed, and let the librarians be free to experiment. They won’t always go according to plan, but after all, that’s the virtue of the scientific enterprise

Tyler Norton (he/him) is the Assessment and Development Coordinator at the University at Albany Libraries. He holds a BA in History from UAlbany, as well as an MS in Education Administration and Policy Studies. His research focuses on library administration and leadership, mindfulness, and employee wellbeing.