YA Strike Zone December 2017

The “Secret Sauce” of a YA Professional: The Job Description

Anthony Bernier

Are you curious if there’s a “secret sauce” for becoming a successful YA professional? Shouldn’t you be?

If there is a secret, it lies in the instrument called a “job description.” You either have one – one that defines, informs, guides, documents, and measures your contributions and growth or you don’t.

It’s that simple.

When I was a YA librarian, I lost two of three particular “battles” with my library because it didn’t understand what a job description was. In one skirmish, the highest-ranking administrator in the system arbitrarily and inappropriately reached down through several layers of managers and supervisors to summarily cancel a building’s grand opening program I’d already planned. In a second instance, a mid-level administrator attempted to thwart my design and implementation of a new YA space in the main library – even as I was working directly with the library’s top administrator! In a third instance, a branch manager attempted to block my ordering of a particular magazine – even after I’d systematically documented the preferences of local young adult library users.

Since my days as a YA librarian, I’ve continued to encounter discouraged, downtrodden, sometimes even defeated YA librarians suffering from aimlessness, or arbitrary or inappropriate supervisor demands, with no capacity to assess or document their own contributions.

Needless to say, people suffering under these conditions can’t demonstrate their value to young people, either.

Working without a Job Description 

Without an effective job description or work plan, a professional shrinks to a mere employee or worker; and a supervisor assumes the specter of a “boss.” In this scenario, too, a professional’s body of work shrivels to merely doing a job.

These distinctions are critical when demonstrating the library’s public value. A YA professional simply taking orders from a supervisor about how best to serve young adults shortchanges the public in two ways. First, the public is not getting the professional performance for which it pays taxes. Second, neither is the public getting the supervisor for which it also pays – because the supervisor is doing someone else’s job, and thus, not their own.

An employee does what a boss tells them to do. But YA professionals already possess specialized skills, focus, training, responsibilities, and ethical obligations – they don’t need a supervisor telling them what to do.

To be clear, a boss holds the authority to hire, fire, and assign tasks. Rarely does a library supervisor command such authority – especially to act unilaterally. In contrast, a supervisor’s job is to help develop a professional’s job description, support it, and then determine the degree to which a professional is delivering on it.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being an employee, having a boss or a job, but none of these properly constitute the professional role the public pays for and deserves. Nor does this utilize the value of a master’s degree.

More importantly still, beyond possessing skills and ethical obligations, a YA professional, by definition, is responsible for assembling a body of work in response to dynamic local needs and circumstances. This collected body of work, fueled by a master’s degree, constitutes a professional’s career.

There are, as we all know, general tasks librarians need to perform.  Ignoring the difference between employees and professionals, between supervisors and bosses, between a body of work and a job, reduces a professional’s interventions from the work of a career to merely obeying a boss on a job – a job others without a master’s degree might well be hired more economically to perform.

The New Appointment’s Job Description vs an Informed Job Description

What, then, is a successful “job description?”

One thing it’s not is a document commonly or casually at play upon gaining a new appointment. If that document delivers any meaning at all, likely it’s more about airy aspirations and unexamined legacy practices. Frequently, such a document remains vague about measures, unclear about the differences between authority and responsibility, disconnected from an institution’s mission, uninformed about professional YA standards, open to arbitrary interpretation, and is rarely re-visited or revised to comport with evolving circumstances, like one’s growing professional capacity. Most commonly, new job descriptions merely reproduce previous practice.

Initial job descriptions also rarely build-in sufficient time for a new professional to become aquatinted with the library’s community, user groups, supporters, challenges, a department’s history or political circumstances. Nor do initial documents commonly support the execution of a field scan or consider YA-specific approaches. All of these components should undergo revision and renewal during the first year’s performance evaluation.

After the first six months in a new position, however, and certainly upon successful completion of a first year, a new and different conversation should commence between an acclimated/oriented professional and a supervisor. That discussion should now take into account explicit connections to the host institution’s core mission and strategic plan, results of a YA services scan, alignment to YA-specific approaches, and the negotiation of a new work plan containing specific, detailed, proportionate, and measurable impacts and outcomes upon which both the professional and supervisor agree.

YALSA offers standards and guidelines for YA specialist librarians that can sometimes help inform negotiations between a YA professional and a supervisor. But these merely aspirational documents, unfortunately, come in undifferentiated lists, do not prioritize these committee-recommended wishes, offer no sense of proportionality (everything appears equally important), and, of course, none of these pie-in-the-sky lists are supported by real-world evidence.

But an effective job description does for time what a budget does for money. It acknowledges the value of a professional’s time over the course of a year, allocates and aligns it according to agreed-upon criteria, and offers the opportunity to document, measure, and evaluate degrees of achieving them.

Once completed, a true professional should be supported in the exercise of the skills and ingenuity required to achieve the goals articulated in the job description. It’s a formal record – formal so that success can be documented and serve as a foundation for future success. While, of course, periodic check-ins can be useful, no major changes or additions should occur (including the over-used “other duties and responsibilities as needed”–common under poor management). Supporting this focus better ensures that both the professional and a supervisor can rely upon their mutually-set goals and agreed-upon expectations. Once completed, it’s the supervisor’s role to support the professional and then get out of the way so they can perform their duties.

Without that support, without a functioning job description, you’re only an employee obeying a boss on a job. You’re wasting the time, money, and energy you devoted to your master’s degree. The public isn’t receiving the value for which it is paying. Young adults are being deprived of the professional attention they deserve.

I happened to win the battle for a new YA space in the main library–the institution is now properly proud of its Teen’Scape department. After some conflict, the young adults in the branch did get the magazines they wanted. These accomplishments were only possible because they were supported by a professional job description.

That’s the “secret sauce.” And it is just as simple as that.

Anthony Bernier is full Professor at San Jose State University’s School of Information where he teaches, conducts research, and publishes on the administration of equitable services with young people. A fourteen-year YA specialist librarian and veteran administrator, he is a former chair of YALSA’s New Directions Task Force, served a four-year term on ALA’s Committee on Accreditation (COA), and published a Festschrift honoring VOYA co-founder Dorothy M. Broderick. He lives in Oakland, California, and rides a BMW R1150RT.




Leave a Reply