Reflections on Leadership

In 1979, Wayne A. Wiegand assembled an advisory board and asked them to identify the most prominent academic library leaders for the previous half-century. They eventually agreed on fifteen librarians, whose biographies were published in 1983 as a chapbook entitled Leaders in American Academic Librarianship: 1925-1975.

The book serves as a great reminder that issues we’re tempted to think of as unique to us and our time period are often echoes of longstanding debates: libraries have always been underfunded; there was never a time when undergraduates knew how to use libraries or were information literate; nor was there ever a time in which faculty members truly appreciated our role in educating students. However, the fifteen librarian leaders excelled at working through these and other obstacles.

Here’s the complete list of leaders, their birth and death years, the years of their ALA and ACRL presidencies, and the year in which they were made ALA Honorary Members.


In addition to providing a historical context, this book also gives us an opportunity to reconsider history. Thirty-five years have passed since its publication, meaning it may now be appropriate to ask:

  • If Wiegand assembled an advisory board now, and looked at the same time period, who would make the cut? How have our criteria changed?
  • Who were the fifteen most notable leaders for the half-century spanning 1950-2000? How do their accomplishments compare to those of the leaders from a generation earlier?
  • Which leaders are making a good case for the half-century from 1975-2025? And for 2000-2050?

Leadership has become a recurrent theme here on ACRLog, one Steven Bell addressed directly on November 7 and November 26, and acknowledged indirectly in his superb autobiographical post on December 5. That last post, in particular, had an encouraging message, but on another level it was terrifying, because it was inspired by a librarian with a few years more experience than I have, someone whose work I admire. If that person feels less than secure, how should I feel?

I experienced that same “professional terror” when I read Meredith Farkas’s recent post, Darn that Dream. She’s only three years removed from library school, but has already published a book, teaches at San Jose State, writes and gives presentations all over the place, etc. I realize that Meredith is just one NexGen librarian getting discouraged from applying for one job at one university, but it was hard not to react to that post with fear and trembling. It only seems natural to get a sinking feeling when Movers & Shakers are uncertain about their decisions and prospects.

Reading about the librarians profiled in Leaders in American Academic Librarianship has been a useful way to counter that sort of emotional reaction. These librarians made incremental moves early in their careers, often in ways that seemed orthogonal to directing a major academic library. Their fifteen stories have some similarities, but also strong differences, suggesting that there is no correct or obvious path to becoming a leader. What they had in common was an ability to inspire people to believe in them, and when given an opportunity, their actions justified that belief. As long as we can do that—as individuals and as a profession—we’re bound to succeed.

11 thoughts on “Reflections on Leadership

  1. Damn, that’s a lotta guys, there. I’m not sure how I’d answer your interesting questions, but I hope it wouldn’t be with so lopsided a list.

    I’m beginning to think I just have an allergic reaction to the word “leader.” Is that really what we need these days? Ah, well, I’m an anarchist at heart, and we don’t like being led.

    As for the fear-and-trembling on the career path… I always take comfort in a line from Brian Friel’s most excellent play, Translations: “Confusion is not an ignoble condition.”

  2. Interesting post, Brett. You know, I’m not even sure what it means to be a leader anymore. I think it’s definitely changed over time, but I’d argue that we’d all have a difficult time coming up with a single definition of what a leader is. I guess I see a leader not as someone who controls or makes people follow them, but as someone who brings great ideas to the profession and who inspires and influences by the example of the good work they do. A leader is a trailblazer, but they don’t push people to follow them. People follow their lead because they are inspired by what the leader has done. To me, being a leader is all about good ideas, influence and hard work. Directors aren’t always leaders and leaders aren’t always directors.

    Don’t get any fear-and-trembling on my account. I’m extremely optimistic about my own career prospects and our profession. I know a lot of people who have or are considering leaving the field or going to work for a vendor and it’s not something that’s ever crossed my mind. Even when the work environment isn’t ideal, I think if you love the work you do, you love the patrons, and you love the profession it becomes much less of an issue. After coming from a career I didn’t find satisfying where I absolutely adored every boss I had, I realize (that or me at least) it’s far more important to love the work.

    I see a lot of amazing leaders coming up in this generation. I sometimes worry that bad work environments will drive many of them out of the profession or will make them lose their spark, but I think that anyone passionate enough about the profession will persevere. Few people don’t face challenges in their career.

  3. Leaving a legacy is certainly one reason, if not the main reason, that individuals will choose to take a position of leadership. At some level we might hope that our accomplishments might be worthy of recognition – such as being made an ALA Honorary Member. I’m not saying that we set out to win award or honors. They are nice byproducts of hard work and the appreciation of one’s peers. But as I pointed out to a colleague, I can think of quite a few librarians who have achieved incredible past recognition – our profession’s highest honors. Yet the newest generation of academic librarians would hardly recognize those names – and I’m talking about individuals not anywhere near as far removed from their golden age as those on your spreadsheet. So whatever we accomplish as librarians, as leaders or otherwise, our fame is likely to be fleeting. And I do hope we’ll continue our conversations about leadership.

  4. Definitely an interesting question – if only because both the diversity of our professional leadership has expanded so greatly in the intervening years and because we have become more nuanced in our identification of different types of leadership (not all of which is effectively articulated in studies like Hernon, Powell, & Young, 2003, and Hernon & Rossiter, 2006).

    Without naming names, we can imagine very different types of leaders – all important:

    1) people who have led successful and critically needed change at their institutions (often not without pain);

    2) people who are leaders at the state or regional level, but are not as widely known across the country;

    3) people who have spearheaded national efforts, e.g., on assessment of library services, scholarly communications, diversity;

    4) people who have led by example and inspired through their writing or through their efforts on the presentation circuit.

    Could an advisory panel be as effective in identifying the impact of a wide variety of leaders, and not just those who have the traditional markers of personal position and/or election to the head of one (or more) of our largest professional associations? Could they identify the people who have been leaders in the library world without serving in a traditional library role (the motive forces behind Ohiolink, for example, or SPARC)?

    Barbara asks if we need leaders, and I’ll come out and say “Heck, yes!” But, we also need to make certain that we’re effective at identifying (and distinguishing) between different kinds of leadership and valuing the importance of each.

    And, that makes for one complicated survey!

  5. Oddly enough, I was just polishing an essay “Who’s a leader?”–as part of a broader Cites & Insights essay about what I’m doing for the PALINET Leadership Network (http://pln.palinet.org).

    The essay’s actually up at PLN now and will appear in the January 2008 C&I (out January 1, 2008, barring disasters). I do think there’s a much wider variety of leaders than, oh, say, those suggested by that list. When I started the essay, I said “Well, I’ve never been a leader”–but, of course, I have.

    One commonality was so important that I repeat it twice, in boldface:

    If nobody follows you willingly, you’re not a leader.

    Beyond that…well, it’s hard to identify anyone in the library field who couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be a leader in some area of the personal or professional life.

  6. I think these are great comments, and it’s very cool to see some of my favorite writers commenting on this post. Naturally, I’m not going to comment on the 99.44% I agree with, but on the .56% that leaves me wanting more. I see a pattern here:

    • I’m not sure how I’d answer your interesting questions, but I hope it wouldn’t be with so lopsided a list.
    • I see a lot of amazing leaders coming up in this generation.
    • I can think of quite a few librarians who have achieved incredible past recognition—our profession’s highest honors. Yet the newest generation of academic librarians would hardly recognize those names—and I’m talking about individuals not anywhere near as far removed from their golden age as those on your spreadsheet.
    • I do think there’s a much wider variety of leaders than, oh, say, those suggested by that list.
    • Without naming names, we can imagine very different types of leaders – all important

    Won’t someone please name some names? Yes, you’ll probably overlook someone obvious and you’re also guaranteed to suggest a name that others wouldn’t have on their list. So what? Even anarchists name names.

    Why bother? Because the newest generation of academic librarians should recognize those names. Because the amazing leaders coming up in this generation deserve to have their achievements recognized. And, most importantly, because it advances the conversation. It’s much easier to critique Wiegand’s advisory panel’s list than to come up with a better one. It’s also much easier to talk about theoretical leadership roles and qualities until you try to match those roles and qualities with people who have made (or are making) contributions to the profession that you consider particularly notable.

    Anyone want to go first?

  7. My main problem with the whole leadership notion is that….

    it’s kind of the “great man of history” theory applied to the workplace: there are special, visionary people who can shift the sluggish masses through their imaginative, daring example (or whatever) – when, in fact, there are all kinds of people who make things work well in libraries and never get the credit for it because they’re not in a position of power or inclined to promote themselves or, in fact, may be more interested in the work they do than in building their careers. Too often people in libraries have to do that work in subversive ways because they are presumed to be drones who report to more important people who supposedly are paid to make the decisions but are mostly just paid more.

    But if you want me to name names, here are some people doing work that I respect, yet are not likely to wrap themselves in the mantle of leadership ….

    Kathleen de la Pena McCook aka aLibrarian at the Kitchen Table

    Shinjoung Yeo of Stanford University, who does cool things with outreach and copyright and Free Government Information

    Christine Pawley, who respects ordinary library users enough to do research on them and asks hard questions about information literacy

    And people like Tim Spaulding and Brewster Kahle and Ed Vielmetti and Lawrence Lessig who aren’t librarians but who are teaching us a thing or two about information and how to access it.

    And countless librarians and library workers whose names you’ll never know because they’re too busy making cool stuff happen in libraries every day.

  8. PS: I had a rant alert in that comment, but apparently it was read as bad html and was disappeared. Just consider that longish paragraph a self-acknowledged rant.

  9. It’s important to be aware of the “Great Man” trap, but I suspect that I’m not the only person who has a difficult time making sense of data and theories without an accompanying story. And, for me, the most interesting stories are about people.

    For instance, in my opinion, what makes Stephanie Nolen’s 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa so effective is that she seems to get all three elements right: the data seems comprehensive and accurate, the theories seem to explain the data, and the stories complement both. Most of the stories Nolen tells are about people whose work falls into Scott’s categories, several are more like Barbara’s subversives, and a few don’t fit either category. That feels like a good mix, because even stories about traditional leaders—e.g. Nelson Mandela or Robert B. Downs—are hard to tell accurately without also talking about the people whose work they are often given credit (or blame) for—their colleagues who may not be in a position of power or who are not inclined to promote themselves or build their own careers. These peoples’ contributions are undoubtedly important, but I’m more likely to learn about them if someone points me to Mandela or Downs than if I have to somehow learn about them without first researching the people who are traditionally thought of as leaders.

    Again, I’m new here. My goal is to become as literate as possible about the profession as quickly as possible. School was helpful, and my internship, jobs, and professional activities have been helpful as well. But I can’t help feeling like there are enormous gaps in my understanding of the profession, and our collective reticence when it comes to naming names and telling stories isn’t helping.

  10. Thanks for the book recommendation – I’m putting it on my “want to read” list.

    I totally agree about stories (heck, I wouldn’t be a writer otherwise); I guess my concern is twofold. One, there are many people whose stories don’t get told because they (for whatever reason) don’t have a platform for telling it or simply don’t have any motivation to tell it to us (maybe they don’t find the profession particularly receptive and would rather spend their time on more fruitful things?) and two, the people who confuse telling stories with advertising. Our world seems to have increasingly confused telling with selling and I see that often coming together in popular conceptions of “leadership.”

    But – to avoid being a complete grump – I’ll give you one definition of leader: someone who takes joy in the work they do, feels it’s important (without being self-important), wants to do it with other people they work with, and creates an environment in which trying things out, tackling issues, playing around, and being creative is just the way things are. Oh, and is tolerant and respectful but not at all afraid to say what they think because they’ve built a place where you can speak your mind – and even change your mind if the conversation leads them to new understsandings.

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