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Library Leaders and Talent Management

The recent Ithaka S+R/Mellon publication on equity, diversity, and inclusion in ARL member libraries expanded coverage of these issues to include all library employees, rather than focusing exclusively on “professional” employees, uncovering patterns that are only visible when examining employees more broadly. My colleagues Liam Sweeney and Roger Schonfeld found that racial homogeneity increases with every step up the management ladder–from support staff, to professionals, to managers, to leaders–library employees become less racially diverse and increasingly white. While some individuals described the results as “sobering” or “depressing,” the results indicating a lack of diversity in these organizations should surprise no one who has been paying attention to these issues.

Beyond these descriptive statistics on library employees, the report provides especially illuminating findings from library directors on their perspectives on these issues, providing important indications about why these issues are so pervasive.

  • ARL directors often point to external barriers, especially geographic locale, as limiting diversity in the recruiting process.
  • Not only do ARL library directors at more racially homogenous libraries see their organizations as more equitable than the overall library community, but they do so by a larger margin than the more diverse institutions.
  • Roughly 89% of the library leaders who completed these surveys were white themselves.

In our US Library Survey, several patterns emerged that also touch on these topics. Library directors–at both doctoral universities and masters and baccalaureate institutions–strongly agreed that they have a good understanding of how employees feel about working in their libraries. But, even at the largest libraries with hundreds of employees, these directors most frequently employ informal tactics to assess morale. Are they fully aware of the dynamics inside their organizations?

In addition, many library directors agreed that retaining current high performers is a major challenge for their organizations. Among them, a sizable portion, especially at doctoral universities, identified external factors including personal reasons (such as an employee looking for a different community or locale, or relocating for the career of a spouse or partner) as major barriers to retaining employees. In fact, library directors indicated that these personal reasons were as much of a barrier as limited compensation or lack of opportunities for career advancement, and more of a barrier than an incompatibility with, for example, their supervisor or the organizational culture. Once again, there is a tendency to point to external factors rather than internal opportunities for strengthening retention.

As someone with background in both library assessment and human resources, these findings have left me reflecting on two major questions. First, what could library directors learn by taking a more systematic approach to gathering feedback from their employees, rather than largely relying on informal conversations, as has been identified as the main practice currently in place? The Library Loon shared some thoughts on this topic earlier this year, arguing that the reasons that library directors identified for why employees leave their organizations are really just “polite, socially-acceptable lies” often shared in exit interviews. Is there truth to this claim? It will depend to some degree on whether the organization really embraces candor and improvement–and in what form and by whom the exit interview is conducted. And, if library leaders are missing key dynamics among their employees, how can they gather a fuller picture from their employees to improve retention strategies? Leaders need strong feedback mechanisms in place for establishing the right policies for their organizations, not only on equity, diversity, and inclusion but on talent management broadly.

And, second, how might future Ithaka S+R research be more inclusive of perspectives outside of leadership positions? Even if library leaders started taking a more systematic approach to gathering feedback on employee engagement and organizational culture, there are limits to what can be learned at the level of a single institution. For example, library leaders would not be able to examine these issues in a way that would reveal some of the patterns that the Ithaka S+R report on ARL libraries was able to uncover at a broader level. If these issues were explored at a national level, we might be able to discern larger patterns from the employee perspective that could be more widely applicable to academic libraries nationally. Is there some way to balance strengthened local inquiry, along with an examination of systemic patterns, that would together allow libraries to improve their approaches to talent management and diversity?

We intend to continue studying these talent management and organizational culture issues within the academic library, and hope that our work leads to productive conversation within the community and provides evidence for decision-making for library leaders and managers. Your input, either here on this blog post or directly to me over email, will be greatly appreciated.

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