Category Archives: Administration/Leadership

Use for postings that discuss the administrative aspects of academic librarianship, including managing and leading in the field.

Responding to Change

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Paul Courant, Dean of Libraries at the University of Michigan, and John Unsworth, vice provost for Library and Technology Services at Brandeis University, speak on The Hathi Trust, Google Books, and the Future of Research. The event was the part of the BNN Symposium on the Future of the Academy sponsored by the NorthEast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP), the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), and the Boston Library Consortium (BLC).

The theme of the day was institutional responses to technological change: how do we keep libraries relevant in supporting research? How can emerging technologies enable new kinds of research using traditional materials? How can we take advantage of changing technologies while preserving our values and services? This event was a great opportunity for thinking about these questions from a big-picture perspective.

Courant had a few central messages to his talk, which I summarize and comment on below. His words, paraphrased, are in italics, and my thoughts and questions follow.

  • Technology is a set of mechanisms that get you from input to output. Libraries produce value by making things reusable and sharing them; that’s a technology. We’re all using technology; there’s no such thing as a “technophobe.” Hardware and software, devices and databases, are all tools that function within this technology. Books are a technology: they move ideas along, from authorial input to reader output.
  • In a disrupted world, build things to see what works. Don’t wait for all the ducks to line up in a row. Dedicate time and energy for new initiatives, but don’t require that they be perfect, or have buy-in from an entire organization. Create and support spaces that enable experimental projects. (Is the Harvard Library Lab still operational? Are there others?) Learn from the things that don’t work.
  • The old system doesn’t tell you what to build. What do we do because we’ve always done it? Are there traditions (services, functions, processes) that we preserve for their own sake? What is worth preserving and what can we leave behind?
  • Look to purposes, not to things, although things can be the only way to some purposes. Is a traditional reference desk the only way to provide drop-in research help? What are other ways that we can provide time-of-need assistance? Must we be in the physical space of the library to provide this kind of help? Or does having a physical service desk in the centralized public space of the reading room encourage patrons to use librarians’ services? Does the presence of a reference desk enable user interactions that wouldn’t happen otherwise?
  • The library isn’t there for itself; it’s there to enable scholarship and learning. This is one of the “no-brainers” that I forget sometimes, especially with collection development. Creating an ideal collection with its own integrity can be very rewarding, but so can assembling connections to materials that enable and enrich research, teaching, and learning.
  • Preserve outcomes, not business models. Use the language of learning outcomes to help shape the direction of new projects. What do we want users to be able to do as a result of this service or product? What do users want to be able to do? How can we meet those needs using the resources we have?

Teaching Workload and New Librarians

The following story is true. However, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Meredith, an acquaintance of mine from library school, is an extraordinarily bright person with an amazing attitude. The moment I met her, I knew she would make an amazing librarian. Despite the small number of jobs available to academic librarians in this economy and despite being limited geographically, Meredith was hired fresh out of library school as a full-time adjunct instruction librarian at a medium-sized public university. In her first semester Meredith somehow taught over 40 instruction sessions, which included several two-week intensive information literacy course sequences for introductory general education courses.

On the Friday before spring semester classes began, Meredith was informed by her administrators that no temporary staff were to be hired to fill in for a librarian going on sabbatical. Instead, Meredith was now expected to take on 50% of her colleague’s workload, without any additions to her salary. Previously, Meredith had provided her superiors with a thorough account of her work hours—complete with professional standards from the ACRL Standards of Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators—in order to demonstrate that she had a full workload.  Despite this, they believed that she was under-worked and that this addition to her current duties would bring her up to full-time.

To make a long story short, Meredith decided to fight this by arguing that if she was forced to take on 50% more work, the quality of education that she provides would severely deteriorate. She told me, “I cannot roll over and become part of the cycle that is perpetuating the corporatization of higher education.” In the end, Meredith was able to prevent the increase to her workload.

This situation is the result of an unfortunate combination of massive budget cuts and administrators questioning the value of teaching information competency in higher education.  While Meredith’s situation is extreme, I have a feeling that her situation may not be an isolated incident. In this economic climate of dramatic budget cuts, librarians—particularly new, adjunct, and temporary librarians—are especially vulnerable. And the time available for some of us to provide effective instruction in information competency is getting compacted with additional duties and tasks.

I don’t want to make this a “librarians vs. them” kind of a thing because I realize there are a lot of complicated factors at play. But I would like to know: how do we successfully determine and prove what a feasible teaching workload is and how can new librarians like Meredith effectively share and demonstrate workload concerns with their administrators?

Do You Have The Tao In Your Toolkit?

In his blog post, The Tao of Librarianship, Andy Burkhardt reminds us how we can apply the ancient wisdom of Taoism to library policies and services. Burkhardt addresses library food policies, space design, planned abandonment of outdated formats and services, and adapting to change through the lens of Taoist philosophy, which he summarizes as, “instead of struggling against everything all the time, Taoism states that humans should try to see how things actually are and live in harmony with them.”

Another more colloquial way of stating this is the expression, “go with the flow.” Going with the flow is more commonly associated with surfers and hippies than librarians. Traditionally as a profession we tend toward rules, policies, standards. We prefer to “get things under (bibliographic) control.” A tweet at a program at ACRL 2011 put it this way: “Control freak streak runs in the profession. Sadly, yes. #lettinggo #acrl2011.”

Burkhardt is right to suggest that Taoist principles could help us more effectively deal with the change in our world and in our libraries. In addition to the areas that Andy brings up, Taoist ideas can also be useful when it comes to collaboration within and outside the academic library. In their ACRL 2011 program, Letting Go: Giving Up Control to Improve First-year Information Literacy Programs, librarians Meghan Sitar, Cindy Fisher, Michele Ostrow, of the University of Texas Libraries explain the difficulties they faced and the concepts they had to embrace in order to give up control and collaborate with other faculty and professionals on campus.

One of the more beautiful metaphors in Taoism is the admonition that we should be like water, fluid and responsive (Tao 8). Is your library frozen like a glacier or flowing like a mountain stream? Are you part of the ice jam or part of the break up? Have you come to terms with your inner control freak? As a profession, how can we become less controlling, and what should we let go? Can the principles of Taoism help us?

There are many translations of the Tao Te Ching. An interesting one is The Tao of Leadership by John Heider.

The What Versus The Why

When the topic of conversation turns to change, it’s not uncommon to hear an academic librarian say something along the lines of “before we change we need to really understand why we do what we do – what is it that defines what we are all about”. Others might describe that as having the ability to articulate the library’s core values. It might even be something found in a mission statement.

I recently heard a library presenter run through a list of these potential “why we do what we do” possibilities. For this presenter one emerged as the most clear rationale for the why of an academic library – or perhaps any library. The word used to describe the “why” was “connection” as in “we connect the user / client / customer / community member with information / content”. That was this presenter’s answer to the “why do we do what we do” question. I think there is much more to this than just connecting people with information, and that the act of “connection” is not actually a “why” but a “what” – and yes there is a distinction.

In a previous library position the actual mission statement, something along the lines of “This library exists to connect the students, faculty and staff with the information they need to succeed.” Not bad. But now I realize that this act of connection is not the “why” of an academic library. Rather, it is just one “what” of the many things we do for our communities. The “why” and the “what” are different. Let me explain using the Golden Circle framework advanced by Simon Sinek. The Golden Circle has three concentric circles. The farthest circle outward is the “what”, the middle circle is the “how” and the innermost circle is the “why”.

WHAT = the results we get
HOW = what we do in order to get the results (think process)
WHY = our beliefs, cause, purpose

Connecting people with information is a good thing, and an important function for any library. What makes it a “what” rather than a “why”, according to Sinek, is that it is a result – not a cause or purpose. Do you come to work everyday to make sure people connect with information? If that’s our cause or purpose, why should anyone care about academic libraries when they can get connected with information anywhere, at any time. The “how” of connecting people with information is all the things we do behind the scenes to make it work: developing budgets; having acquisitions workflows; processing materials; setting up loan policies. You get the idea. But it all starts with the “why – or rather it should start there. In his book Start With Why, Sinek provides examples of inspired leaders and organizations that succeeded where others failed because they had a much clearer vision of “why” and started their work by being able to understand and articulate first from the center of the Golden Circle.

According to Sinek, the absence of a “why” is a problem that often leaves us uninspired about our work. Most of us academic librarians understand the “what” and the “how”. The hard part is the “why”. We may have failed to spend time thinking about the “why”, and that is where we should begin. The “how” and the “what” should flow from the “why”. What would a “why” sound like for an academic library? Here’s a possibility: “We believe our library transforms its users from one state of knowledge to a higher state of knowledge.” How about: “We believe our library prepares community members to succeed as citizens, employees and scholars”. Those, to me, speak more to having a real purpose for why we should exist. Those statements are about believing that our work is going to make a difference – but only if we pursue our cause with great passion. It is not merely a result of our activity. It is a reason to perform the activity whether the result is connecting someone with a piece of information, helping them publish a scholarly article or getting a job.

I am still thinking about these ideas and what it means to develop a “why” statement or position for an academic library. If this post helps you to have a better sense of the difference between the “why”, “how” and “what” that is a start. Sinek’s web site has more information if you are interested in exploring this further, but feel free to share your “why” statement as a comment.

Why All The Fuss Over PhD Academic Librarians

While no one has called it Trzeciakgate yet, I can’t help but see some similarities between what’s happening now with his presentation at Penn State University and the whole Michael Gorman firestorm (then labeled “Gormangate”) of 2005. Are you too new to the profession to remember Gormangate? You can read all about it here. Suffice to say that he said a few things that were considered controversial (and just plain insulting), and quite a few librarians took it personally – and reacted swiftly and loudly. If you want to quickly catch up on who’s contributed to the Trzecial controversy as well as its origins, this post at Sense and Reference sums things up nicely. An alternate opinion was offered over at On Furlough. I guess we like to have a nice, juicy controversy every now and then – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

What’s brought about the attacks on what Trzeciak had to say? He stated that at McMaster, where he is the Dean, his plan is to limit the hiring of traditional MLS librarians while focusing more on hiring PhD subject specialists and information technology professionals. Claiming that you think PhDs can do library work better than professional librarians is apparently the library profession’s equivalent of grabbing the third rail. The reaction to Trzeciak’s vision is not unlike that of a politician who talks about cutting social security or Medicare. While the level of negativity was mildly disturbing to me, I did appreciate that many positive and encouraging themes and ideas about the value of academic librarians emerged from the conversation.

I guess what I found most surprising about all the hostility towards Trzeciak’s ideas is that a good part of what he said is hardly new, innovative or revolutionary. It appears that some academic librarians are unaware that CLIR has since 2006 offered a program that systematically creates positions in academic libraries – and not just ARLs – for PhD holders who have decided they want a career in a library. I reacted to this program here at ACRLog when it was first announced. It’s called the CLIR PostDoctoral Library Fellows Program, and it basically offer instant access to library positions for the Fellows – and it’s a highly competitive program. If you are a PhD who’s facing a depressed job market in your field, a career in academic libraries may look downright inviting.

So while Trzeciak is perhaps the first Library Dean who has publicly commented on the merits of this program and sees it as a potential blueprint for future staffing in academic libraries, he’s hardly the first one to hire non-MLS PhDs to take positions that MLS holders would have filled in the past. Looking back, some, not all of the CLIR Fellows go on to earn the MLS, and they’ve made good contributions to the library literature.

As Lane Wilkerson wrote in the post mentioned above:

So, Jeff Trzeciak, if you can find PhDs who would rather work in a library than as teaching faculty in their subject areas, more power to you. But, I doubt that’s going to be the future of librarianship.

Well guess what? Trzeciak doesn’t have to go very far to find those PhDs. With the support of the CLIR program, they’re lining up for jobs in our libraries – and getting them while MLS graduates sit on the sidelines. I don’t think it’s going to be THE future, but it’s going to be an unavoidable consequence of a future in which library deans will be looking for ways to incorporate new skill sets into their organizations. If you want to better understand why this happening, perhaps you ought to read Jim Neal’s article on “feral librarians” if you happened to miss it when first published in 2006. You can attack Trzeciak’s ideas if it makes you feel better, but he’s hardly the first to promote these them, and he won’t be the last.