Library Management and Its Impact on Dysfunctional Staff

Evil reigns when good men fail to act.
– Edmund Burke

Library literature abounds with advice on handling the difficult library patron (Willis, 1999; Sarkodie-Mensah, 2002; Schott, 2009). Holt and Holt (2005) even recommend retaining counsel and using legal language when writing policies to control patron behavior. And yet, customers may account for fifteen minutes of unpleasantness on an irregular basis; a dysfunctional employee, by contrast, may be an eight hour daily nightmare.

Yet information on handling the difficult library employee is harder to find. Profession-specific literature usually addresses upper-level leadership and management. It provides little guidance for the mid-level practitioner, who is responsible for the day-to-day supervisory duties of line staff.

Could the shortcoming in the literature be attributed to the fact that MLS staff research only the areas in the profession perceived to be focal, optimistic or fixable? Employee dysfunction cannot be classified with the wave of a bar code scanner. The most difficult aspect of librarianship may not be the classification and categorization of information but instead the management of human resources.

During the recession, my institution – amazingly – expanded its hours of operation. While we did not lay off staff, we did freeze many positions. The expanded hours, coupled with a hiring freeze, have resulted in an increased reliance on student assistants and support staff. These circumstances (shift in the power base; undermining of management’s carrots and sticks) have led to poor staff behavior. These circumstances have also led to lower managerial morale; professional (MLS) staff are losing hope that disciplinary measures will effect change.

How, then, to prevent dysfunction from choking a library’s mission and draining the energy of its middle managers?

Establish Policy

One of the least attractive tendencies I have observed among librarians is an intolerance for conflict. Perhaps this intolerance stems from a culture of accommodation. Pollack (2008) identified this characteristic, which seems to transcend ethnicity, international boundaries and genres of libraries: “Librarians would rather be miserable and live with a difficult employee than face interpersonal conflict.”Imagine our state if this attribute was unchecked among our guardians (soldiers, police officers, educators, etc.).

Policies should clearly indicate the steps to take when an employee deviates from stated guidelines. But policy or not, prompt action is required when employees begin to negatively digress from the institution’s goal. Performance appraisals, if conducted properly, can mitigate dysfunctional behavior (Skinner and Green, 2010).

Dysfunctional behavior does not happen overnight. Assessment of staff should be an on-going process and feedback should be frequent. While acknowledging positive behaviors, less appropriate ones should be recorded, along with any mitigation measures employed such as one-on-one talks, coaching and counselling. In the event that these methods generate little or no changes in the individual then the matter should be referred to higher management, along with the dossier of strategies attempted or adopted.

Revisit the Recruitment Process

In spite of the global downturn, the quest for knowledge is forever expanding, and with it expands the need for libraries and librarians to be up to speed in terms of performance. This initiative should not be hampered by hiring, condoning, aiding and abetting disruptive staff or, as Ezell (2004) categorized, “dead woods”.  The engagement of staff, both paraprofessionals and professionals, is important. It might be helpful to examine how prior degrees and work experiences assist towards creating a well-rounded work or team environment.

Encourage Training and Self-Analysis

In his article, Germano (2010) nattily describes the various types of leadership styles and their potential influence on a company. The question is, are library managers astute enough to see themselves in these leadership models and institute changes within themselves for the good of the organization?

While it may be impossible to train managers to be leaders (McMenemy, 2008), librarians can be trained to become good managers. Training would bestow confidence in decision-making and the ability to engage in good human resource practices. Moreover it should reinforce the notion that it is perfectly acceptable to blend managerial styles to achieve specific objectives (Leonard and White, 2009). Self-examination, while an independent assessment, may be a bit more difficult since it requires the ability to check one’s own ego and possession of a significant level of maturity and self-awareness. This may be especially complex if a supervisor’s behavior contributes to the dysfunction.

Managing staff is a challenge. Managing dysfunctional and unproductive employees is downright unappealing. But as the largest financial outlay in most establishments, the human resources should be fruitfully engaged, especially in light of today’s harsh economic climate.


Ezell, Charlaine. 2004. “Dead Wood: Staff Who Won’t Work and Don’t Get Fired.” Library Worklife 1(7).

Flener, Jane G. 1975. “New Approaches to Personnel Management: Personalizing Management.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 1(1):17-20.

Germano, Michael A. 2010. “Leadership Style and Organizational Impact.” Library Worklife 7(6) (June).

Holt, Glen E., and Leslie E. Holt. 2005. “Setting and Applying Appropriate Rules Governing Patron Behaviour.” Public Library Quarterly 24(1).

Leonard, E., and H. White. 2009. “Managing with Integrity.” The Serials Librarian. 56:25-31.

McMenemy, David. 2008. ‘‘Or You Got It or You Ain’t’’: The Nature of Leadership in Libraries.” Library Review 57(4): 265-268.

Pollack, Miriam. 2008. “Cruel to be Kind.” American Libraries (October): 48-51.

Sarkodie-Mensah, Kwasi, ed. 2002. Helping the Difficult Library Patron: New Approaches to Examining and Resolving a Long-Standing and On-Going Problem. New York: The Haworth Press.

Schott, Michael C. 2009. “The Problem Patron in a Hospital Library.” Journal of Hospital Librarianship, 9(3) (July-Sept): 265-272.

Shorey, D. 2009. “It Takes Two: Negotiating the Dance of Management.” C&RL News 70(2): 114.

Skinner, J., and R. Green. 2010. “Making the Grade: The Elements of an Effective Performance Appraisal.” Library Worklife 7(6) (June).

Starbuck, W.H., and B.L.T Hedberg. 2001. “How Organizations Learn from Success and Failure.” In Handbook of organizational learning and knowledge, eds. M. Dierkes, A.B. Antal, J. Child and I. Nonaka, 327-350. New York: Oxford University Press.

Willis, Mark. 1999. Dealing with Difficult People in the Library. Chicago: American Library Association.