Working Knowledge

A Monthly Column about Life on the Job


By Mary Pergander
American Libraries Columnist

Mary Pergander is director of the Deerfield (Ill.) Public Library. Send comments or questions to

Column for April, 2008

Failure to Perform

What to do when a director isn’t directing

I received an e-mail from a library user on the East Coast who expressed concern about an incompetent public library director. The librarian had not implemented the most basic professional standards over a career spanning several decades. Although the library trustees were aware of the issues, they turned a blind eye for reasons of their own. The resident wondered how to bring about change.
    In another message, a former librarian in Chicago recalled the difficulties he experienced having a supervisor who was clearly working solely for personal reasons, unrelated to public service.
    How can we affect positive change? Although there are many resources available for managers regarding employee performance, I know of very few for staff or community members who perceive incompetence at the top levels of the library.

More than measurement
My friend Wayne often said, “What gets measured gets done.” However, it is insufficient to only have written standards, policies, or statistical reports, even if mandated at the state level. Performance quality goes beyond these. In the East Coast library referenced above, librarians know that a long-range plan exists; however, they have never seen it! Clearly, the documents have no relevance to the daily operations of that library.
    Consultant Miriam Pollack’s forthcoming AL article “Cruel to Be Kind: Why Do We Keep Unproductive Employees?” tackles the propensity of libraries to let incompetence run unchecked for years. While her focus is on managers who fail to correct these conditions, it must be even more frustrating for employees, who have no authority to address leadership problems. In attempting to intervene regarding performance issues at upper levels of the organization, employees often put themselves at risk.

Addressing failure
Ending someone’s employment is often devastating. At the same time, patrons (students, the public, teachers, and corporate users) have the right to expect excellent service within the available funding. Library leadership must address poor skills, lack of knowledge, or apathy even when exhibited by the director or other manager. It is wrong to allow the discomfort of dealing with these impediments to be of higher value than the needs of those we serve. To let the problems remain unchallenged until the employee decides to leave is negligent of our responsibilities to our patrons, our library, and our community.
    Please note I am not referring to age as the criteria for incompetence. Nor do I rule out changing a director’s job title or parameters so that they are more suited to his or her current interests or abilities. What I am addressing is the need for boards or other managers to deal with the failure of leaders to perform within the job description and standards for which they are paid.
    I welcome the opportunity to hear from those who believe otherwise. I will include representative examples in a future column. Contact me at


The Courageous Follower by Ira Chaleff provides some rudimentary and often gutsy steps for employees bringing issues into the open. In the public library arena, many of us know employees-turned-board members, or service-oriented patrons encouraged to serve on the library board. What tactics have you tried?

    (c) Copyright 2008 American Library Association