Library Leadership

ACRLog had a thought provoking post yesterday on creating library leaders for the future, asking what libraries are doing to create those leaders. A commenter wrote: “As a library administrator who tries to be intentional about nurturing the leadership skills of my staff, I have to admit that the thought of conflating “leadership” with “administration” gives me the willies.” I didn’t get the willies, but the post does tend to conflate administration with leadership. This conflation is evident in the following question: “Ask newer members of the profession if they plan to seek an administrative position and too often the answer is ‘no.’ Are there good models this profession could follow for developing its future leaders?”

I would have to agree with the commenter that leadership isn’t the same as administration. If it were, then all administrators would be leaders and all leaders administrators, which we know not to be the case. Library administrators might lead, but they can be just as effective in recognizing and supporting the talents of others and letting them lead change. According to my extensive research on leadership, one way to look at the difference between management and leadership is that “management involves power by position” while “leadership involves power by influence.” When position and influence coincide, one has a great manager, but there will always still be leaders who influence others regardless of their position, for both good and bad reasons. Scandalmongers and gossips might lead a library into decay. Creative innovators and collaborators might lead it into glory. But neither need to be administrators. I once had a terrible experience with an administrator who could neither administrate nor lead very well, and as I look around the profession these days, the people influencing how I think about libraries and where I think they should be going aren’t necessarily administrators, but frontline librarians trying to find new and creative ways to solve old problems.

Still, what struck me most about the post was the assertion that if we “ask newer members of the profession if they plan to seek an administrative position and too often the answer is ‘no.'” I don’t usually ask newer members of the profession this, but I can understand the “no.” I’m not sure if I’m a newer member of the profession anymore (I’ve been a librarian for 8 years, which seems long to me sometimes, but is considerably less than many of my colleagues), but I can speculate on some reasons why librarians wouldn’t want to be administrators.

First, job satisfaction. A lot of academic librarians like the academic part of academic librarianship. I like being involved, however tangentially, with the intellectual and scholarly life of the university. I like developing the collection as well as using it myself, and I like helping students use it as well. Last week I had a research consultation with a student I’ve worked with before, and at the end he said he thought I had a great job. I asked why, and he said because I got to learn so many different things especially during the research consultations, and he was right. In many ways I do have a great job, and one of the things I like most is the preparatory research before consultations, where I study whatever the students are working on so that I can give them the best help. I’m intellectually interested in philosophy and religion, and doing my job well means I read philosophy and religion books and articles, which I would be doing anyway.

Like a lot of people, I became a librarian after I’d done some other things. To give you an idea of the other things, I sold out to become a librarian. In library school, I talked to a lot of librarians and decided that initially at least the best library job for me would be a reference/bibliographer position working with philosophy and religion at a research university, preferably not at a state university because I wanted to avoid the tenure-track hoops I saw so many librarians going through (and have since seen so many old friends from library school go through). Two years out of library school, I had that job and liked it. If I moved into an administrative job, a lot of what I like doing would go away, and I’m not sure how I’d feel about that. Administrators should be there to support the work of others, not do that work, but I like doing the work. A professor who’d given up being a dean once told me he went back to being a professor because he wanted to be out doing the sorts of projects he was helping to support as a dean. There’s an administrative position open at a fine university nearby, a head of reference sort of position I’ve been tempted to apply for. I don’t know how competitive I would be, but I think I could be great at the job. But I hesitate because I like so much of what I do now, and I fear the loss of good things.

Another reason might be the expectations of libraries. I see a lot of job ads for department heads that expect the applicants to already have several years of supervisory experience before they consider the person qualified. I’ve talked to librarians frustrated by this old Catch-22. Many libraries seem unwilling to take a chance on someone who has the capacity for good management but not the experience. There seems to be the assumption that because someone has supervised before, that they must be good at it, and that unless they have supervised before they are a completely unknown quantity. I don’t know how accurate those assumptions are, but it seems to me that some libraries are better at rewarding degrees or experience than talent. Based on how many open administrative searches there seem to be right now in academic libraries, I think libraries are either going to have to change their expectations for some of these jobs. Notice I didn’t say “lower” their expectations. But for the reference librarian who wants to be a head of reference, how does that person break through the “supervisory experience required.” And at what point does one just give up seeking such jobs?

Some people might also want to avoid administrative positions because of the lack of financial incentive. Good managers aren’t compensated as well in libraries as they would be in the private sector. One might say that no academic librarians are compensated as well as they might be in the private sector, but that argument only goes so far. For example, I can’t do what I do with a large academic library. What I do isn’t just finding information, but has an integral relationship with information in specific fields communicated in specific ways that I also have an intellectual interest in. But management is a more universal trade. One can be a good administrator without knowing much about the specifics of much of the work. Good library directors don’t necessarily know how to catalog or answer reference questions or select materials any more. Management has some claim to being an art and science of its own. But out in the world good management is compensated, whereas in libraries one gets the burdens of administration without as many of the financial benefits. Some schools are worse than others, but not too long ago I talked to someone on a search committee for an AUL position at a university library in a major east coast city who said they planned to offer a salary in the mid-50s, which is the same or less than a lot of non-administrative academic librarians make already, especially on the east coast. That was an extreme, but I have noticed in those job ads that post salary ranges that the salaries for administrative positions aren’t significantly higher than the position just below it. For someone reluctant to apply for an administrative job, would the possibility of a few extra thousand a year (before taxes) be much of an incentive? Probably not. They’d have to want to be in charge.

But what makes people want to be in charge? If they’re good leaders already and they have power through influence, they might already be getting things done they want to get done. Why take on the hassle of performance reviews and solving people’s problems when one can instead work collaboratively and yet still somewhat independently to get things done?

Unfortunately, I suspect that the best reason might be because of already existing bad administrators, administrators who aren’t interested in recognizing their talented employees and supporting their efforts. I know some librarians who want to be in charge because they believe the people in charge at their libraries are just doing a terrible job, and they want to take over and set things right. Setting things right is a powerful incentive.

Finally, though, I wonder whether this is even a problem. If the management vacuum that seems to be emerging continues as more librarians retire, libraries will have to either flatten their organizations and promote creativity and initiative in their frontline staff, or they will have to take chances on people who might not have had the traditional preparation, but who still might make great department heads and directors. Or they may just promote incompetents, but let’s hope that doesn’t happen often.

There’s at least one other possibility as well, a faint hope or a daring dream. Libraries will always have leaders, but there may come a time when they have very few administrators. Thoreau wrote that that government is best which governs least, and concludes that if this is true then that government is best which governs not at all, and that when people are prepared for it, that will be the sort of government they will have. As power disperses and communication changes and librarians are more empowered because their jobs demand creativity and flexibility and initiative, less library administration might be not just a necessity brought on by circumstance, but a good thing. A library of motivated, dedicated librarians with creativity and initiative who lead and exert power through influence might need no administration at all.

2 thoughts on “Library Leadership

  1. The separation between administrators and “librarians who do things” is much less defined in a smaller organization. In a smaller organization, many of the “professional” level staff have some kind of management responsibility. This allows a person to see whether they like that sort of thing, or want to avoid having any more of it. Also, “assistant” administrators must continue to do work and function as part of the team, because there aren’t enough people to get everything done otherwise. When I moved from a larger (but still not large) library to a much smaller one, I often bemoaned the fact that nobody really had time to specialize and get really good at something and innovate. This is still the case, but I also really enjoy having a voice in setting priorities and directions, while still having my hand in doing the work. I think smaller libraries are a great place for people to build management skills, and also to try things out that in a larger place would be bogged down with getting approval or consensus. Maybe this is where the future leaders will come from?

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