Lead from Wherever You Are

Top librarians share their keys to successful careers

January 22, 2024

(From left) Cindy Hohl, Tamika Barnes, and Sonia Alcántara-Antoine speak with ALA Interim Executive Director during the closing session of the LibLearnX Conference January 22 in Baltimore.
(From left) Cindy Hohl, Tamika Barnes, and Sonia Alcántara-Antoine speak with ALA Interim Executive Director Leslie Burger during the closing session of the 2024 LibLearnX Conference January 22 in Baltimore.Photo: EPNAC

Being a library leader doesn’t always mean having an impressive title, big office, or the most advanced degrees, according to Sonia Alcántara-Antoine.

Anyone can lead from wherever they are, she says, by having influence and the ability to bring colleagues together.

“Management is making sure people do things the right way,” said Alcántara-Antoine, CEO of Baltimore County (Md.) Public Library. “Leadership is making sure they’re doing the right things.”

Alcántara-Antoine was one of three renowned figures in librarianship who closed out American Library Association’s (ALA) LibLearnX Conference January 22 in Baltimore with the panel discussion “Navigating Leadership: Perspectives on Purpose-Driven Careers.” The conversation, moderated by ALA Interim Executive Director Leslie Burger, also included Cindy Hohl, ALA president-elect and director of policy analysis and operational support at Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library, and Tamika Barnes, associate dean for Perimeter Library Services at Georgia State University Library in Atlanta.

“When we’re called to lead, we’re called to serve,” Hohl said. “And that’s an opportunity that each and every one of us can give to each other on a daily basis.”

When asked about how her view of leadership has evolved, Barnes discussed the challenges that come with making the tough decisions, particularly about big-picture items like budgets and staffing. But with that, Barnes said, she’s learned that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” and take time to consult frontline staffers.

“At first I thought I had to make all the decisions all the time for everyone,” said Barnes. “And that’s not the case.”

Librarianship is a second career for Hohl. A former marketing professional, she noted that it is important to seek purpose both professionally and personally, even if that includes venturing into new territory.

“At the end of the day, you can’t hate your work and feel that you’re a whole person,” Hohl said. “You have to bring your whole self to work, do that with intention, and be fearless in that approach.”

Alcántara-Antoine acknowledges that at the beginning of her career, she had severe imposter syndrome. As an Afro-Latina woman and first generation American, she once felt out of place in leadership spaces. It took the encouragement of mentors and other leaders of color around her to build the confidence to see the unique perspective she could bring to the table.

“While the system may not have been created for someone who looks like me, I’m here now, so what can I do? How do I use my voice? How do I bring my talents, my skillsets to the role? And how do I have an impact?” she said. “Once I got out of my own way … my career just shot up like a rocket ship.”


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