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Leading a Library Differently

Last week, I spoke about leading academic libraries through organizational change. I am grateful to Joni Blake and the Greater Western Libraries Association for inviting me to speak with a group of about 40 research library directors. I drew from my recent project on organizational structure in research libraries, emphasizing that the library’s shift away from general collections and towards distinctive collections and richer campus engagement is widely seen to require different leadership. The discussion was wide-ranging, but one participant asked a question about the implications of my findings for talent management and leadership development, a topic that I would like to reflect on a little further.

Especially in research libraries, hierarchical approaches to management meant that the scope of responsibilities expanded dramatically as one moved up. The department head might manage 5-10 people, the AUL might manage (directly and indirectly) 25-75 people, and then the university librarian might manage 100 or more people. In addition to people management, budget management grew commensurately as well. In a setting where acquiring and managing print collections was a substantial production operation, this kind of hierarchical understanding of management made good sense. Job requirements and professional development were to a real extent designed accordingly.

But, as many libraries have steadily retooled themselves from production operations for general collections to include substantial innovation for service development, their directors are increasingly interested in reshaping the role of the AUL. Instead of a high-level manager and administrator for a group of related departments, as in a production environment, the AUL role is being seen increasingly as a leader for the library as an organization, focusing on strategy and change management for the library as a whole. One director told me that the ideal AUL should be able to step into the library director role in a heartbeat, bringing with them at the point of hire the requisite political, organizational, and strategic skills.

Has the search process for library leadership caught up with the way directors describe the role to have changed? In my view, too often job postings and informal expectations for library leadership lag the descriptions I heard from directors about this revamped role. Compounding this concern, when a role is changing, a search committee chaired by someone other than the library director or a closely trusted associate may be ineffective.

This emerging role for the AUL, and indeed for the library director as well, suggests new approaches that should be considered for leadership development. Library management, including those hierarchical people management skills, is taught widely. In my view, one critical area where our needs for library leadership development is lacking is in the area of strategy. Some individuals have a natural aptitude for strategy. But no library school I am aware of, and few leadership programs, teach strategy in any sophisticated way. By strategy I am not talking about processes for strategic planning; these are widely taught and shared. Instead, I am speaking about building an organizational strategy in a competitive environment for academic information resources and support services.

Specifically, I see need for an array of leadership training: to teach aspiring leaders how to scan the overall environment dispassionately, review the competitive landscape objectively, assess the strategic directions of competitors generously, acknowledge both the capacities and limitations of the library realistically, and develop plans for the library accordingly. These skills, in addition to effective political and organizational skills, would seem to be at the heart of what is needed of library leadership on our current period of change.

Comments on: Leading a Library Differently

  1. In my research, I found the skills needed were dramatically higher between a career move of Dean/UL of small ARL to the largest ARLs (AAU) than the move from AD/AUL in a similar size library. I am so glad you focused on Organizational Structure in your interviews (with many of the same people) since I shifted my focus to Organizational Change. We both were surprised by the professional development needs/approaches.

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