Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;  
Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Kathleen Miller, Florida Gulf Coast University;
Steven J. Bell
, Temple University; Larry Hardesty, Winona State University; Mark Tucker, Abilene Christian University
Vol. 28, No. 1            printable version (pdf)            Hiring a New Director (pdf)   home September 2007

Off to a Good Start:
Foundations for Strong CAO—Library Director Relationships

by Larry Hardesty, Tom Kirk, and Mignon Adams

The challenge of recruiting and keeping a capable library director has become formidable at all types of academic institutions. There have been numerous retirements from the academic library profession in recent years, many job opportunities for librarians elsewhere, and a lack of interest in leadership positions by many early and mid-career librarians. Hiring the wrong person or not supporting the right person can be costly to an institution, not only in out-of-pocket costs and staff time, but more importantly, in the interruption of the momentum of the library’s program and contribution to the institution.

Furthermore, since, according to a recent CUPA-HR survey of 1,110 institutions, the median year of services for a chief academic officer (CAO) at a single institution is only three years, a new library director also may report to a relatively new CAO.1 Such a situation can create a real challenge in establishing a successful working relationship between the two administrators.

Thus we offer this article and these recommendations to senior administrators, particularly to CAOs to whom library directors typically report, in assisting library directors to be successful in their first year . . . and beyond. These recommendations may be more relevant to smaller academic institutions since they are based on discussions, reports, and e-mails involving more than 300 college librarians and from various communications and interviews with CAOs at predominantly smaller institutions.2 Nevertheless, we believe that many of the principles discussed apply to larger university settings as well.

Is There a Problem?

 Directing an academic library involves unique challenges. Other than the president and chief academic officer of the institution, few positions serve as many constituencies, e.g. faculty, students, administrators, staff, alumni, community members, friends of the libraries, donors, consortia, and federal and state agencies. These various groups often have substantial and divergent expectations. In addition, the library director position can be quite isolated with no natural support group in place on campus.

For the beleaguered CAO busily trying to put out the proverbial fires of academia, he or she might ask, “Is there a problem?” Compared to the challenges of changing enrollments, finite budgets, full schedules, demanding faculty, and complaining students, the library seldom creates a crisis or threatens a coup. In short, in the words of one CAO, “to put it bluntly, our jobs are not on the line because of the library,” and there are many events in the daily life of CAOs that could do that. Often CAOs are understandably willing to let what appears to be a sleeping dog continue to lie.

Almost 40 years ago, Robert Munn, then acting provost and dean of the graduate school in West Virginia University, described such an attitude as “benign neglect.”3 Munn succinctly observed, “The most accurate answer to the question ‘what do academic administrators think about the library,’ is that they don’t think very much about it at all.”4 This characterization of academic administrators became part of the conventional wisdom for succeeding generations of academic librarians.

Twenty years later Larry Hardesty found that CAOs did consider the library important but expressed support mainly through the budgetary process.5 The “benign neglect” that Munn identified appeared to be alive and well, and, of course, not “benign.” The library can and does play an important role in the larger goals of the institution. Therefore, the CAO must communicate clearly his/her vision of the academic program to the library director so the library director can determine unambiguously how the library can support the program and the CAO’s goals.

Without intentional support beyond the budgetary process, library directors may well be left to their own devices in attempting to understand the decision-making process of the institution, the budgetary cycle, the organizational culture, personnel issues, and the criteria under which the director will be evaluated.

The director’s success lies very much in his/her understanding of these essential parts of the job. What then can the CAO and library director do to establish a successful relationship?

External Reviews

Establishing a successful relationship can begin even prior to employing a new library director by conducting an external review of the library. An external review can identify issues and challenges the library will face in the next several years and can help identify the skill sets to seek in a new director. The resulting reports not only help new library directors and CAOs identify priorities for the first year, but they also help avoid surprises which can be detrimental to both parties. Both the CAO and the new director can begin the relationship with the same assumptions of problems so that neither feels blindsided when these problems need to be addressed.

First-year Plans

The first year may well be spent on small changes and perhaps changes made very apparent by an external review as the library director develops expertise about the inner workings of the library and the institution—and developing the beginnings of a strategic plan. The CAO can be very helpful with even modest resources in facilitating “small victories” (extended hours, acquiring a long-desired electronic resource or more computers for the library) that create a positive environment on campus and in the library about change in the library.

“The library can and does play an important role in the larger goals of the institution. Therefore, the CAO must communicate clearly his/her vision of the academic program to the library director so the library director can determine unambiguously how the library can support the program and the CAO’s goals.”

Working Relationships

Once on board, the CAO and library director should immediately begin establishing a good working relationship. CAOs, as with library directors, will vary in their preference of working style. Some will want detailed information ahead of discussions; others will want discussions and then detailed information left with them for later reflection. Still others will only want something brief on paper. There are numerous, and quite appropriate, methods of operation, but problems arise when a library director and CAO do not share an understanding of the preferred method.

Such instances—unanswered emails, “lost” documents, unread information sent before a meeting—can result in misunderstandings and frustrations. Both library directors and CAOs can exhibit such behavior. Unfortunately, neither may fully recognize characteristics about him/herself that would really help each other communicate. Perhaps the best tact is simply for the CAO and library director to have a conversation from time to time to articulate preferred working relationship styles and communication preferences.

Library directors also need to recognize the demands on the time of CAOs. It may be very productive for both parties if the library director were to occasionally ask the CAO “How can I can make your job easier?” Administrators probably do not get asked that question very often!


Many of the ways a CAO can support the library director fall under the general category of communications. Most library directors want a reliable flow of communication and consultation but this can sometimes be a struggle. New directors may not know the processes and procedures expected for decision-making when it involves administrators. Formal orientations for new administrators can be very helpful; however, much of the information needed in understanding an institution lies outside any formal organizational charts and position descriptions.

How then can a CAO help a new library director understand how an institution “works”? Communication is the key. This occurs best when there are regular, in-person, meetings, either formal or informal. Some CAOs may see scheduling meetings as micro-managing, but perceptive CAOs understand their importance. Some CAOs meet weekly with their new library directors, and, as the directors become more acclimated, the meetings often drop to monthly. One library director reported that during her first year as director, the CAO met with all the librarians. She said “It was his intent to smooth out the transition and help me with any issues that came up. We did some really good work that year in terms of setting the library off in a new direction.”

Such meetings give the library director an opportunity to obtain a broad sense of the CAO’s priorities for the institution, to learn the CAO’s view of the library and to learn how the strategic plan of the library fits into and supports the strategic plan for the institution. They also help the library director understand how decisions get made and how best to navigate successfully through what can appear to the novice as an irrational process.

These meetings are not just for the success of the library director. Another long-time CAO observed, “[If] you don’t meet with the librarian weekly, you forget that you have a library—until some huge problem comes up.” One CAO found that the regular meetings were “even more important in my development and understanding of our library and colleges libraries in general.” In essence, neither the library director nor the CAO wants surprises or secrets. Regular communication helps to keep each other informed and helps to avoid misundstandings. Once a relationship has been established, the library director and CAO often find that telephone and e-mail communication can deal with matters as effectively and more efficiently than with face-to-face meetings.

There is also the need to know the ‘rules’ for making appointments and for mutual understanding of the appropriate form of communication to be used for different kinds of decisions and time frames of decision-making.

The library director should meet with individual Deans or Chairs in the first few months as these are individuals who can help the new library director develop a better understanding of how the CAO operates, makes decisions, and prefers to communicate. The Deans have been there before and, as fellow administrators, can provide more helpful advice than faculty members.


While the new library director needs the help of the CAO to learn about the institution, the CAO needs the new director to educate him or her about libraries and librarianship. In good relationships, both parties learn from each other. For example, a typical CAO has often risen through the ranks of an academic department and understands those quite well. Running a library has some aspects similar to leading an academic department, but in others ways it is quite different.

In addition, a CAO’s memory of the library formed in graduate school days may be quite different from current reality. Librarianship has reinvented itself over the past 20 years and librarians are an essential part of the teaching mission. If the CAO does not understand information literacy, the expertise required to manage electronic products, or the skills needed by library paraprofessionals, he or she needs to listen carefully to the new director.

CAOs’ Council/Deans’ Council

While the name may vary from institution to institution, usually the CAO has an inner circle of advisors. A CAO may well conclude that the issues discussed may be of little importance to the library. Such meetings, however, provide library directors insights into priorities of the institutions and its mode of operation. Often revisions in the curriculum and budget adjustments are first discussed in these meetings, and they provide an important early alert to the library director. One library director not on such a council reported, “It’s been very frustrating to find out what is important on campus without the venues for direct communication.” Another one said that for several weeks he spent money he didn’t have because he had not been present at the council where a huge budget cut was announced and no one thought to tell him about it.

The Budget Process

As might be expected, first-year library directors often mention challenges in understanding the budget. New directors need to develop an understanding of several aspects of the budget. There are the technical matters, such as the level of detail, the accuracy of the specific expenses, and the annual budget cycle. More important is simply how to get the needed budgetary support.

Library directors must be proactive and get to know the institution’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO). One experienced library director observed, “It took me several years to learn that I needed to make my case outside of the structured budget request process.” Some library directors recommend at least annual meetings with the CFO to get a clearer understanding of the institution’s budget process. Others will say it should be considerably more often. Either way, these meetings can benefit both parties.

Important as the CFO is in the budgetary process, the library director also needs to keep in mind the importance of working with the CAO to foster a shared sense of significance regarding budgetary support for the library. This could mean preparing an annual initiatives budget that would include equipment, software, and personnel.


The budget officer is not the only important person with whom the new library director should be encouraged to form alliances. In fact, one never knows what connections will be important. One library director reported that the director of human relations proved invaluable in guiding her through all the procedural and legal issues involving personnel problems during her first year. Yet another reported that she got some of her best support and collegial relationship from the head of the institution’s instructional technology unit. While it is the responsibility of the library director to seek out alliances and to make friendships, the CAO can both facilitate the process and remove roadblocks.


As mentioned earlier, the library director often feels isolated, not unlike how a CAO may feel. While library directors have peer directors at similar institutions with whom they can discuss broader library issues, having a mentor on campus with whom they can discuss how the institution works is an interesting idea mentioned by one college library director. She reported, “In my first year, one of the most helpful things my campus did was to assign me a mentor from the senior faculty. This was someone from outside the ‘authority’ lines who saw her role as orienting me to campus. I could ask her questions (and vent about campus peculiarities) with less concern for repercussions.” Even at a small campus, a mentoring relationship can be established successfully only with considerable sensitivities. Perhaps the mentor can be a successful administrator or a well-respected senior faculty member who is viewed as “above the fray.”

Mentoring relationships are possible outside of the campus. For example, each year about 15 first-year college library directors participate in the College Library Directors’ Mentor Program. They value the opportunity having an experienced library director to discuss problems with and ask questions of. Many CAOs at small colleges encourage directors to join this program or to form alliances with other directors in the region.

Professional Development

Several library directors reported on the importance of support from the CAO for professional development, particularly through providing travel funds and participation in programs such as the College Library Directors’ Mentor Program, the ACRL/Harvard Leadership Institute, and the Snowbird Leadership Institute. One library director, who had been appointed internally, reported receiving funding from his CAO to tour other libraries and talk with library directors prior to his being appointed as permanent library director.


Most institutions have a formal system of evaluation, usually done at the end of the year. However, a library director should not be in the dark for a full year before knowing what his/her boss is thinking. Thus, frequent conversations between the CAO and the library director about plans and actions are essential.

The feedback and evaluation process needs to be more than the cursory “You’re doing a great job” or “Of course I think you are doing well. I have given you everything you have asked for, haven’t I?” While positive, the brevity and ambiguity of such evaluations can leave many directors feeling uneasy.

The criteria for evaluation also leave some library directors on edge. One CAO responded, “I get a sense from talking with people and from watching what happens in the library and from eavesdropping on student comments and on faculty comments and just again from wandering around, and I factor that in a great deal. In the end, I make judgments based on my instincts.” While this may be one candid and probably realistic description, CAOs must be careful that such informal information gathering does not result in evaluations based on inconsequential or atypical data.


Mostly, library directors want clear communications and candor, whether it is about fund-raising responsibilities, personnel issues, or preferred communication styles. They want inclusion in the information loop and help in understanding the formal and informal decision-making process and both the stated and unstated priorities of the institution. Even the strongest relationships can deteriorate when communications are irregular and ambiguous, and only about problems. In 1982, William Moffett described the characteristics librarians would like to have in their institutional colleagues: “candor, decisiveness, a clear sense of priorities, balanced judgment, fair-mindedness, self-confidence, receptivity, responsiveness, human warmth.”6 These continue to be desirable attributes that no doubt both library directors and CAOs seek in each other in defining their working relations, in supporting each other, and in helping ensure the success of each other.Larry Hardesty  thought he was retired, but is now Interim University Librarian at Winona State University (ebony51@Frontiernet.net). Mignon Adams, retired Library Director at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, has returned as Interim Chair of the Humanities Department  (m.adams@usip.edu). Tom Kirk is the Library Director and Coordinator of Information Services at Earlham College and is not retired (kirkto@earlham.edu).

A checklist of points to keep in mind when hiring a new director by Tom Kirk


1College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, “CUPA-HR Salary Survey” (February 26, 2007): http://www.higheredjobs.com/salary/PressReleases/4.pdf (accessed August 7, 2007).

2Many of the library director comments come from participants in the College Library Directors’ Mentor program (directed by the authors). Over 200 first-year college library directors have participated in the program during the past 15 years. Another 100 experienced college library directors have served as mentors (for additional information see http://tinyurl.com/pt2ky). Most of the CAO comments came from interviews in a study of CAOs at small colleges by one of the authors. See Larry Hardesty, “The Bottomless Pit Revisited,” College & Research Libraries 52 (May 1991): 219-229.

3Robert E. Munn, “The Bottomless Pit, or the Academic Library as Viewed from the Administration Building,” College & Research Libraries 28: 51-54 (January 1968). Reprinted as a “Classic Reprint” in College & Research Libraries 50 (November 1989): 635-637.

4Munn, “The Bottomless Pit,” p. 636

5Hardesty, “The Bottomless Pit Revisited,” p. 219-229.

6William A. Moffett, “Don’t Shelve Your College Librarian,” Educational Record 63 (Summer 1982): 46





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last modified: September 2007


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