Refresh, Recharge, Redirect: Library Director Kate McCaffrey on CPLA

Seasoned library administrators may question the need to go back to school. Why would someone with significant administrative experience need to learn what they’ve been doing for years? For Kate McCaffrey, long-time library administrator and current Director of the Northern Onondaga Public Library system, the answer to this question is simple: renewal. Having received her MLS when technology was just beginning to shape the library and tweeting was still for the birds, McCaffrey knew she could benefit her library system if she brushed up on her knowledge and refreshed her skill set to match a changing world. Armed with this determination, she set out on a journey to complete the Certified Public Library Administrator (CPLA) program.

Despite her advanced knowledge about administering a public library system, McCaffrey learned many new ways to improve her library. Through courses like Budget and Finance, Management of Technology, and Current Issues, McCaffrey learned from her lessons and from her classmates’ experiences, and she used this learning to develop new and exciting ways to lead her library.

LW: Why did you decide to enroll in this program?

KM: When my mother’s health was failing, I found that I could not travel to conferences, and I found I missed the stimulation of learning new things. My CPLA enrollment was in part a way to continue learning. Most people don’t go into librarianship thinking they want to become an administrator or a director, so there are whole skill sets that we don’t really think about until we suddenly need them. I became an administrator and was looking for a way to do a better job and fill in the gaps in my education.

LW: What were those gaps?

KM: Budget and finance were the most glaring ones. I had taken all kinds of workshops, but nothing that really taught me how to create a budget.  I don’t remember learning much about strategic planning, at least not in library school. I also wanted to learn more about managing buildings: dealing with vendors, dealing with people when you have a hole in your roof. As librarians, we aren’t necessarily prepared for those situations.

LW: Did the CPLA program help you bridge any of those gaps?

KM: It did. I took the Budget and Finance course very early in the program, and it was terrific. I would have even liked to have taken more courses in that area because it was very good and very helpful to me. The Management of Buildings and Facilities course provided me with lots of resources that I still reference. The Management of Technology course was invaluable as well.

LW: Given your administrative experience, was the program still useful to you?

KM: You get into a position where you are the boss and you are expected to know things. But truthfully you don’t always know them. It is helpful to go outside your organization and away from your  colleagues and be able to be a student. You can say “this is what I need to learn” about an area where you are expected to know things already.

LW: What were your classmates’ backgrounds in administration?

KM: There was a great range. I got the impression that several of them were quite young, and I really envied them learning this information at the beginning of their careers. I know if I was in a position of hiring or promoting them, I would be very impressed that they had completed this program.

Others classmates were like me: a little further along in their careers. There was a tremendous variety, and that was wonderful because people brought different things to discussions.

LW: What would you say to someone, like you, who is further along in their administrative career and is wondering if the program will be of any value to them?

KM: It is very appropriate, at a certain point in your life, to refresh and recharge. I got so many great ideas and heard about things that were happening in other libraries. I implemented a lot of new programs and services, and the CPLA program informed and influenced those new initiatives. I would encourage people to think about it is as a way to recharge and redirect and maybe even take on something different.

LW: What were some of the projects that developed from these courses?

KM: I was charged by my Board of Directors to conduct a staffing study. At the same time, I took a course taught by a woman who had published a book related to staffing studies. She let me alter the final assignment to fit my staffing study, and her feedback on my work was invaluable. I presented the study to my board, and we implemented the study’s recommendations. It was a really important piece that I had to complete, and the course was a great setting in which to complete it.

Also, the cost-benefit analysis skills I learned in the Budget and Finance course allowed me to demonstrate that a service our library offered wasn’t worth its expense.

Another project was that I had just created a new position at my library. During a personnel class we were assigned to write job descriptions. My group helped me prepare the best job description I’ve ever written. It was bold and creative, and I got the best response from applicants. I had so many great candidates, and a number of them said “I was so attracted by the description of this job!” I got a really great librarian out of it…

LW: How flexible is the program?

KM: It is very flexible. Due to my mother’s health issues, I had to take many of the classes online. I found the instructors let you tailor a course to reflect the projects demanded by your job. So often you could adapt a project just a little bit to meet the needs of something you are working on in your own library.

I took two synchronous courses which required you to log on to the online course at a certain time, but the rest of the courses you could go to in the middle of the night, which I think a lot of people did. You can get in a little bit of time before work or after work. It never felt unmanageable with a full-time job and family responsibilities.

LW: Do you have any advice for others taking or considering the program?

KM: Customize the class projects to fit current or planned projects at your library. None of the courses need to be hypothetical busy work. The program can be useful, relevant and have a direct payoff to your library.