Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Booknote: Conflict Management for Libraries

Title: Conflict Management for Libraries: Strategies for a Positive, Productive Workplace
Authors: Jack G. Montgomery and Eleanor I. Cook
Publication Information: Chicago: ALA, 2005
ISBN: 0-8389-0890-X
207 pages
Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: Library science, librarianship, workplace issues, management

This is a book that many library managers and supervisors should read, but I get the feeling they won't. I am not saying they should read it because it is a great book, but they should read it to get a clue. Or rather get the start of a clue. While positive in outlook, I found the book's content at times simplistic and a little too idealistic. The book is divided into three parts: types of library conflict, a series of seventeen case studies, and managing conflict.

I found parts one and three useful for an overview of issues that can spark conflict at work and for some ideas on how to handle conflict. The second part, the case studies, was only so-so. Though the authors draw on actual surveys and narratives from library workers, some of these cases seem ridiculous, and yes, I know that truth can be stranger than fiction, but some of these seem almost like caricatures. On a brief aside, the proliferation of anonymous librarian blogs dedicated to telling horror stories, however, may confirm that some of the stories in the case studies may not seem as outlandish as one may think. At any rate, the case studies are analyzed by an outside consultant and an HR person, who represents the library "insider." The authors also provide their assessment of the case studies. It was these assessments that I found particularly useless because more often than not the suggested solution was to provide more training and more workshops. Most of the case studies are illustrations of poor communication, serious lacks of civility and respect, and managers who are either too incompetent, weak, or entrenched to do the supervisory job that they are paid to do. The result is very often finding ways to defuse conflict, and I do see this as a good thing to pursue, but this result is often in the sense of training rather than actually dealing with the situation. It's a bit too much diplomacy.

This is one of those books that confirms for me that I should never be a manager. Why? Because at times you have to confront, pure and simple. Disrespect, and more importantly, rudeness should not be tolerated from anyone, be they patron or library worker. Situations need to be difused, surgically if need be, with decisive action. Getting everyone together for yet another round of sensitivity training just does not cut it. The case of the librarian who is a Wiccan harassed by the zealous Christian coworker is a perfect example. The supervisor moved the young Wiccan girl out of public services because of a small pentagram necklace she wears that the zealot accidentally saw her wearing. Were it me, lawyers would have been called and complaints for harassment made instead of the weak response from the manager. The suggestions the authors give for appeasement are simply not good enough. And thus, I would never be a supervisor because intolerance of any kind coupled with harassment is something that I simply would not tolerate. Heads would roll if I was in charge, and the cops would have been called, since the girl did get her tires slashed in the library parking lot. Now, granted, the place is a small conservative community (or so they portray it), but if I were a reader from such a community, I would be wondering if a lawsuit was nearby. Let's just say whimpy appeasement, especially to intolerant people, does not do it for me. Overall, one must confront at times, and this book fails to remind supervisors of this. A useful lesson, but one that I knew from my days as a public school teacher, is to remember to document everything, and to treat everyone equally, fairly, and consistently. I did not need to read this book to know this.

Overall, the book is a pretty light read. The case studies may be the type of thing that LIS professors could inflict on students. I say inflict because I had such a professor who would inflict on us those case studies published in Library Journal every time she needed to kill time in management class; they were mostly busywork. If readers are totally ignorant about conflict management, then this book may provide a start. Those with experience on the topic, who have had a good share of sensitivity training, emotional intelligences training, conflict resolution (I've had all three at one point or another) and such can safely skip it. If not totally skipping it, reading the last part may be somewhat useful. The last part does have some useful assessment questions and a discussion of organizational culture. For some readers, it may be interesting to see where their institution falls on the organization culture scheme. The last chapter is on the topic of leadership. In a shell, leaders are willing to take risks (and they are able to acknowledge the possibility of failure and are able to learn from it), are self-aware, are interconnected, embrace diversity, and have a vision while managing realistically. Do note that these traits do not equal to a manager, but the very rare species of manager who is a leader is nice indeed. As for me, when it comes to leadership, I am reading Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, with a couple other things thrown in. On conflict management, I think there are other things out there.

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