Rising from the trenches of failure: A TTW Guest Post by Cheryl May

To outsiders it may appear that I have risen very quickly to my current role as an administrative director in my academic library, but for me it has seemed a much slower process filled with many failures and personal lessons.  Some of these failures were visible to others, but many were only internally known.  In reading TTW Contributor Justin Hoenke’s Tales From the Library Trenches Part 4: Within You Without You article in the September 2017 issue of Information Today, I felt an instant connection to him, although I’ve never personally met Justin.  So much of this article resonates with me and I really appreciate the vulnerability Justin expresses about his “rockstar” focused period of time.

I fell into the muddy quicksand of believing that I was a library rock star between 2011 and 2013. I was more concerned with presenting at conferences and workshops, as well as diving into the wild, weird worlds that are library professional organizations and cliques. My focus changed from serving those who needed me to serving myself and the library profession. It was a terribly miserable experience, and I wish I could time travel and change almost everything that happened in those years. As a librarian, I was more interested in listening to what others had said about my past accomplishments, rather than focusing on what was in front of me and the nitty-gritty work that needed to be done. Awards and professional recognition are great, but once they start taking your attention away from the community you serve, you’ve lost your way, and it’s time to get it back. – Justin Hoenke, Executive Director of the Benson Memorial Library (Hoenke, 2017)

Failure Bows

There is something beautiful in taking a failure bow (what my former colleague and friend Sarah Faye Cohen frequently says and now a phrase I’ve adopted) as a leader to create space in your organization for growth.  We grow from our mistakes, and leaders showing this vulnerability to others allows others to recognize they are capable too of becoming a leader and challenges are what make you who you are now.  It is difficult to have this vulnerability when you are focused on becoming a rockstar, as Justin admits, and I can also admit to.

Failure Success Handwritten Notes
Failure leads to success

I often have moments when I get caught up in where my “rank” on my campus is and how close I am to the “top”.  Whenever I begin to have those moments, I like to think the universe sends me a reality check by placing me in uncomfortable situations where I feel very out of my comfort zone.  But there is a beauty in these moments because I feel vulnerable.  It is in these moments I am reminded of why I do what I do, and from that the library benefits as I turn my attention back to my staff and the library users.  These moments Justin shares in his article are what keep us grounded in the work we do as library directors.  I chose libraries because I love libraries as a user too.  While I felt I could be personally successful in a career in libraries, I am not here only for my own success, but for the success of every library staff member and library user I serve.  Justin includes a quote from TTW’s Michael Stephens on this balance between personal success and library success:


It’s a delicate balance between being engaged and visible in the community we serve and not letting it all go to our heads. I’ve long been of the mind to say ‘check your ego at the door.’ A director who also gets the spotlight in various circles near and far should be a constant cheerleader for the staff back home and for everyone who works in our field. Don’t be the library director that needs to hear how wonderful they are before they can engage. Be humble. Listen. The director who deals with every situation with an open mind and open heart is the one who leads—in every sense of the word. – Dr. Michael Stephens, Associate Professor in the School of Information at San Jose State University (Hoenke, 2017)

success is in our peoples successes

As library leaders, we must remember that the work we do is not our own, but a team effort.  When I come to work, I am not only leading my team, but they lead me.  My team may depend on me to provide them support around the things that are out of their own comfort zones (policy enforcement, employee relations, financial projections, etc.), but I depend on them to support the library users and our campus community directly.

A great library director has an open mind, a kind heart, and an ego in check. And directors must constantly remind themselves that their first priority is to do work that best benefits their community and their staffers. -Justin Hoenke, Executive Director of the Benson Memorial Library (Hoenke, 2017)

Teamwork is the key to success

My position doesn’t exist without my team, the library doesn’t serve users without my team, and if my focus strays from supporting them, we all suffer.  This is the one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in becoming a library leader and one that is valuable for all library leaders to heed.


Hoenke, J. (2017, September). Tales From the Library Trenches Part 4: Within You Without You. Information Today. 37(7), 1. Retrieved from http://www.infotoday.com/it/sep17/Hoenke–Tales-From-the-Library-Trenches-Part-4-Within-You-Without-You.shtml


Headshot of Cheryl May
Cheryl May

Cheryl May is the Director of Access, Operations, and Administrative Services at the Robert E. Kennedy Library at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and a graduate student at San Jose State University in the School of Information, where she is currently blogging about the Hyperlinked Library.  She lives in Baywood Park, CA with her husband, son, and numerous pets.  In her free time she reads anything she can get her hands on, hikes around SLO County, and gets crafty.  She is also passionate about health and wellness, and is a certified Les Mills BodyPump and BodyCombat group fitness instructor whom eats a plant-based diet.