The Friday Follow-up: When a Library System Director Falls Short

Friday Follow-up:
a message from Brian M. Hildreth, STLS Executive Director
When a Library System Director Falls Short
I have always loved public speaking since receiving a narrator part in my second grade play. I truly enjoy it because it gives me a chance to vocalize my thoughts. It has taken me years to get slightly good at it, but there are times I fall flat. I never try to share images of myself. However, I particularly like this one because it symbolizes the role I play for our system. It has elements of all that I enjoy, believe in and fight for daily.
“I am okay with being vulnerable about my shortcomings. I have worked hard to be where I am today and I am confident ninety-seven percent of the time. But, there will be moments when a library system director just falls short.”

The moment was unreal and something I have never experienced before. It made me feel embarrassed, angry, sad and defeated. I spent the next twenty-four hours mentally demolishing myself for letting down my classmates, colleagues and instructor. It took a full weekend of connecting with my wife and daughters to remember life is much bigger than small failures and I should be grateful for such a humiliating moment.


The three of us stood in front of class prepared to deliver a presentation on community engagement. We intended to discuss concepts and ideas we work with regularly. This shouldn’t be difficult for me. I have been engaged with communities for more than fifteen years. I spend fifty plus hours a week thinking about libraries and talking about them publically whenever afforded the opportunity. Speaking from two slides for five minutes before twenty classmates should be a walk in the park. 
My co-presenters did fantastic! Their personalities shined through their words. Hope talked about proactive messaging and shedding a positive light on rural libraries. She was calm, articulate and mindful. Pauline spoke about reactive messaging using thoughtful and prescribed responses. Her style was professional, straight-forward and justifiably commanding.
It was my job to summarize their content and tie their ideas to the “big picture” of library advocacy. This is something I am charged with twelve months of the year.
I began to speak, but each word that came out of my mouth was in reverse order. My initial approach felt odd, so I slightly panicked. I tried to pull from techniques I have used in similar situations. However, I quickly lost sight of all that I was doing.
Circumstances got worse. When I realized my words made no sense, I apologized to my classmates and immediately asked permission to regroup. The awkwardness in the room was building! One classmate was kind enough to reduce the tension with an innocent joke. It was totally appropriate because most laughed. I wish I wasn’t flustered, so I could laugh with them.
Needless to say, all my knowledge, skills and abilities departed from me right there. Even my passion for libraries couldn’t save me. I couldn’t be the professional I aspire to everyday. I couldn’t stay strong. My mind kept telling me to fight, but everything else told me it was time to quit.


I make mistakes in my career. I am transparent about this more often than I should be. But, honestly, I have never felt more humble or human as a librarian than I did at last week’s humiliating failure.


Maybe I failed because it was my fourth presentation in the last ten days? (The other ones were successful). Perhaps I overthought the delivery? (My approach was forced and not natural). Possibly I need time off? (I was just telling colleagues my last vacation was in December). It was beyond my control regardless of what caused this to happen.


For anyone who reads my writings, you know I touch upon themes that impact us as library stakeholders. On the surface I might dialog about director and board communications, but what I want to convey is the importance of compassion, empathy and acceptance. When discussing the drive for sustainable funding, I hope trustees identify with responsibility, mindfulness and fearless advocacy.


My entries are about member libraries, our library system and the amazing people who make things happen for our communities. Conversely, this submission is mostly about me. I need this platform to embrace failure. The last thing my co-presenters said while consoling me was, “lean in.” I received this is as valuable advice.


There is plenty of literature and discourse that revolves around inevitable human failure. Winston Churchill’s words connect with me most, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: and it is the courage to continue that counts.”


Some might ask, “How does this apply to libraries and the work we do?” The answer should be clear. All things we do, or fail to do, are applicable to moving our profession forward. I am okay with being vulnerable about my shortcomings. I have worked hard to be where I am today and I am confident ninety-seven percent of the time. But, there will be moments when a library system director just falls short.


I know most members have had similar experiences. Truthfully, they suck! Nevertheless, let’s accept they are going to happen. If we can learn to forgive each other, and ourselves, public libraries will be in a much better place.


72 hours after last week’s failure I was in the board room of a local foundation. We were pitching a project, which is totally out of the realm of traditional library system services. We have no idea how it is going to turnout, but jumping back on the horse felt sweet. I have my classmates, colleagues and instructor to thank for it.


Next week I am on vacation, but I still look forward to writing about happenings at Scio Memorial Library in Allegany County. In the meantime, thank you for your continued support and many efforts! Have a great weekend, STLS.

Kindest Regards,
Brian Hildreth, Executive Director
Southern Tier Library System

Read past Friday Follow-ups: