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What’s Different about Digital Leadership?

Is leadership for a digital organization any different than any other kind of leadership? I think so, and that is the topic I chose to address when the National Federation of Advanced Information Systems (NFAIS) named me the 2016 Miles Conrad Memorial Lecturer last month. At this late stage in my career, I have the luxury of reflecting back on the growth and change I have seen in the library profession and thinking about why certain types of leadership have been successful in earlier times, but are not so useful in the digital era.

Highlights of the lecture I gave are included in my Issue Brief, and I hope you will take time to read it. I emphasize that all libraries are now digital, and I recognize that our previous concerns about building physical collections have been overtaken by ubiquitous access to information for everyone. Services are now far more important than any single legacy collection.

Library staffs are multi-generational. The longer-tenured staff gained great expertise in building local collections and providing bibliographic access to them. In the process, they often developed close working relationships with the faculty and students in their institutions. In the digital era, librarians have been able, finally, to deliver what they always hoped for—immediate and personal access to their users wherever they happen to be. So the recipients of their services are most often unknown individuals located in their offices, labs, or dorm rooms.

The newer staff, technically savvy and extraordinarily comfortable conversing through social media, rarely ever think in terms of physical book and journal collections. They are more interested in working in partnership with groups of students or faculty who are dealing with specific topics or research questions. How can the librarian who is part of the team help the others find those resources from anywhere in the world that will relate to the problem they are trying to solve? The library is the World Wide Web, not a physical location.

Leaders of academic libraries today have their feet in both worlds. They must find ways to both appreciate the multiple generations of staff in their organizations and to translate the interests of one group for the others. In my presentation, I reviewed the management literature about successful digital leaders and draw upon the work of Christopher Nadhern, Dana Wade, Jonathan Harper, and Grant Duncan, who articulated ten characteristics of successful digital leaders. I applied those attributes to digital libraries, and called for a new style of leadership for those organizations.

For too long, the “real” library and the digital library have been separate entities, each with its own type of operation and with quite different staffing. This model is not sustainable for financial and philosophical reasons. The digital library leader will be the successful bridge between them and will ultimately achieve integration of the two so that users have a seamless and easy way to discover the resources they need to do their work.

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