Thursday, May 25, 2017

Interview Post: Gillian Byrne

Staged Reenactment



Gillian Byrne

Current job?

Manager of the Toronto Reference Library, which is part of the Toronto Public Library system.

How long have you been in the field?

17 years as an academic librarian, 3 months as a public librarian.

How Do You Work?

What is your office/workspace like?

Pictures aren’t mandatory for this answer, right? [Editor’s Note: As you can see from above, I convinced the author to take a picture after all.] Piles of paper everywhere (and no, there’s no secret system where I know what’s in each pile). Not a lot of knick-knacks or personalization. I’d like to say that this is because I’ve just moved in, but in all honestly, I don’t pay a lot of attention to my work surroundings. I often don’t even notice that I’m working in the dark until someone comes to see me. If I have a computer and coffee, I’m usually good.

How do you organize your days?

My days organize me, really. Flexibility is a must. I keep a keen eye on deadlines, but don’t tend to block off time, use to-do lists, or in any traditional way optimize my efficiency. I do plan, but it tends to be opportunistic – “ooh look at that lovely free day I have next Tuesday, going to do all the things!”

What do you spend most of your time doing?

Sitting in meetings is an obvious answer, but what I do more than people generally realize is to, well, *think*. I spend a lot of time in my office or wandering around the building mulling over thorny problems/strategic approaches, etc. As a profession, I don’t know that we’ve built this into our work culture very well. Effectiveness is something more than busy-ness. And, in my experience, once I’ve thought a long time about something, I can move pretty fast.
What is a typical day like for you?
I’m three months into a new job, so that’s something I’m still figuring out. Over my career, I’ve been fond of getting an early start – that hour or so before anyone else is around is great for prepping for the day. From there I tend to mentally divide my days into “meeting days” – where 2 or more meetings are on the docket, and “free days” where I’m less scheduled. On meeting days my energies are devoted to preparing for meetings and following up after them. Days where I’m less structured I tend to look at my deadlines, then select the priority work that matches what I’d like to do. There’s always enough work, so for example, the days I’m feeling creative, I might work on long term planning, and the days I’ve feeling analytical I’ll work on policy development. That said, all of this will get quickly pushed aside when something comes up. And when you’re part of the team that runs the largest branch of the largest public library system in Canada, something always comes up!
What are you reading right now?
Confessions of a library worker: I go through phases where I just don’t read. I’ve got a bunch of articles on library space bookmarked for when I have the spare brainpower, and the new George Saunders novel on hold. It’ll right itself eventually.
What's the best professional advice you've ever received?
Something along the lines of “your enthusiasm is great, but can be exhausting”. I’m not a linear thinker and when I get ideas, I can’t always communicate them in a way that’s understandable to others. At my worst I’m tripping over words, jumping from one idea to the next, barely allowing people time to breathe. [Look up any of my recorded conference presentations. I’ll wait.] After hearing this early in my career I’ve focused hard on ensuring my communication skills are equal to my enthusiasm.

What have you found yourself doing at work that you never expected?

Oh gosh, these days everything! I find myself continually amazed at the breadth of work public library workers do for – and with - their communities. I’m getting involved in emergency planning as part of my job; it’s this entirely new and complex world I’m excited to explore.

Inside the Library Studio

What is your favorite word?

What is your least favorite word?

What profession other than your own would you love to attempt?
Professional wrestling (in an alternate universe where I wasn’t carrying all the injuries of my careless youth…and had some talent).

What profession would you never want to attempt?
Elementary school teacher. I can’t imagine having that much direct responsibility for children’s success, day in, day out. So much respect.

Everything Else

What superpower do you wish you had?
Patience. I was born without any and have managed to discipline myself into a little, but on my bad days I think I’m more likely to gain the power to fly than wait patiently.

What are you most proud of in your career?
Throughout my career, I’ve tried hard to be as transparent as possible as a manager. I think particularly in academic libraries, management is often seen as a black hole, or as oppositional to the work that goes on in libraries. It’s not always clear what management positions do, what the work is like, how decisions are made. So my proudest accomplishment is the people who have told me that they view library administration differently – or are even more interested in moving into management - because of something I’ve written or said (or ranted about). The thing about being a manager is that you’ll fail more than you succeed, most of the time. To be honest and open about that isn’t always easy, but so important.

If you're willing to share, tell about a mistake you made on the job.
My very first management job was as head of circulation. The staff were fantastic and open to doing new things. I had this half-baked idea about rearranging the reserve stacks and carelessly mentioned it a meeting. I thought I was throwing out ideas, staff heard a directive. The staff being their amazing selves, went out and did the move in like a day! It turned out to be a terrible idea. I immediately apologized and we talked about expectations and communications. It’s been the major lesson of my career – when initiatives fail, it’s almost always because we haven’t taken enough time to ensure everyone involved has a shared understanding of what’s going on.

When you aren't at work, what are you likely doing?
Exploring the many fine craft beers of Toronto and/or looking for neighbourhood cats to pet.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Oh gosh, so many people. Can I cheat and say I’d love to hear from an archivist or two, library workers in non-traditional roles, and librarians in their first couple of years on the job?

Gillian is on Twitter as @gillmbyrne.

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