Finding Library Futures, 5: “I Was Elected To Lead, Not To Read” – Thoughts On Library Leadership

Part 5 in my series on Finding Library Futures.

In my travels, I’ve met some incredible and inspiring library leaders. Managers and specialists delivering incredible stuff: people like Hamish Curry, the Melbournian library superhero who gets kids making Ned Kelly armour in his library, or Adrienne Hannan in the New Zealand capital Wellington, a children’s and youth specialist whose role outside traditional management structures gives her freedom and flexibility to innovate. But sometimes libraries’ own bureaucracy impedes them: sometimes, even when the media, local communities, and local politicians, too, are supporting libraries’ attempts to be audacious, internal process can be an obstacle. So – here’s three thoughts on a style of leadership which will let libraries be the sword-hand of literacy and the major cultural player they so clearly ought to be in the new Information Age.

1. Library leaders need to be librarians.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking my role out of existence – outsiders to library service have a value in stirring the pot, bringing in new ideas, cross-pollinating between librarianship, education, theatre, creative writing, marketing, etc – but I truly believe that the people at the head of a library organisation need to have walked the floor, stacked the shelves, held their own on a desk shift, and put contact plastic on a few books in their time. In fact, I would be overjoyed if a national library organisation was led by the kind of person who still did a desk shift once or twice a week, just to keep their oar in and remember what it’s like on the front lines.

2. Library leaders need to know a world outside libraries.
This builds on point 1. Sure, I hope library leaders will be people who know their profession inside and out – but it’s also true that many librarians benefit from skills and experience acquired in careers before they trained as librarians, or in parallel. That ranges from former educators and performers to museum staff, health, and retail professionals who I’ve seen embodying the values of audacity, responsiveness, and sound judgment which librarianship needs in a time of radical change.

I’m not saying that the best librarians have all come to the profession late; nor am I overly fond of the tendency for local government to combine managerial responsibilities for libraries, galleries, and “parks and recreation” in one bundle – but given the process-based nature of many library tasks such as cataloguing, it’s important to be led by someone who also knows a world beyond the library walls.

3. Library leaders need to be ready to fight.
Library managers need to show the qualities of audacity and sound judgment that allow them to take, and authorise staff to take, calculated risks.

There’s no denying that librarianship as a profession is at risk – from government cuts, and from ill-informed perspectives which equate libraries with bookshelves and assume that a digital age will render these shelfy institutions obsolete.

In such a moment of crisis, there are opportunities but also huge risks. Those who merely try to ‘hold the line’ by cleaving to traditional programmes and services are likely to see librarianship ebb away. We do need to go on the attack – and not just in fancy, high-profile libraries at the state and national level, but in every branch, big and small, across the land.

I’d even argue that those who spend too much time rethinking the library’s mission run the risk of rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. Libraries already have a great mandate for cultural services that are broad in scope, ambitious and challenging – it’s the Public Library Mission document created by UNESCO and IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations, back in 1994. I can’t emphasise enough how much this document already permits libraries worldwide to look at a life beyond shelves. It’s nearly twenty years old, yet remarkably broad, foresightful, and future-proofed.

Given all this, libraries should focus on getting on with doing their job well, instead of staring into their navels and questioning their own reason for being. Paramedic services improve, and prove their ongoing relevance, by focussing on saving more lives, not rethinking their “institutional brand” – librarians should hold a similar attitude.

Writing on Strategic Librarianship for this blog, Wellington’s Adrienne Hannan points out what all this should mean for the practice of library leadership:

Your libraries’ leaders should be setting the example. The traditional image of the officer with sword on horseback leading the charge from the front comes to mind (rather than the officer urging his soldiers forward by poking them in the backs with his sword).

In order for library leaders to effectively lead and set direction, they need to ensure they have a working understanding of the frontline environment. I believe it’s essential for leaders to spend time amongst the collections and customers and behind the library desks. Not only does this give them an understanding of the requirements of the frontline positions, but also allows them to demonstrate the standard required, or set the example.

Seeing your commanders and leaders working around the frontlines and demonstrating a high skill level and ability to do a soldier’s job is the most effective way in military to earn respect. The frontline is where your missions and objectives are achieved, so it makes sense for your leaders to be positioned there. The emphasis here is on leadership, rather than management.

I love Adrienne’s attitude. You should read the whole post to see how she translates military wisdom to the domain of libraries. And such a hands-on attitude makes me hopeful for libraries in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

I’m especially hopeful for LIANZA, the New Zealand national association, under its coming President Corin Haines, with whom I worked at Auckland Libraries. At the very least, we know that even in a senior management role he can be convinced to dress up and be a mad scientist during a teen zombie apocalypse in his city’s most deprived suburbs, or deploy his considerable singing talents in the house band at a Friday night library burlesque festival.

In Australia, the national library organisation ALIA has done work to make libraries future-facing, but the latest brief from its upcoming 2013 symposium has a slightly ominous focus on partnerships with “government, professional firms, technology giants, corporations, institutions and others”, as opposed to true grassroots activities that begin with the local user.

We’ve seen the dangers of an approach which focusses on pandering to the politicians and big interest groups who sit at the top table before. In the 2012 National Year of Reading, the Queensland Premier Campbell Newman was recruited as a “featured ambassador”, regurgitating platitudes about literacy and the enjoyment of books, only to then axe state literacy programming – as reported by Aussie author Nick Earls.

When Newman also cut specialist libraries, ALIA then found itself in the uncomfortable position of attacking a National Year of Reading Ambassador with its DUMB IDEA campaign. (In the recent Twitter discussion #ALIAFutures, I brought this issue up but ALIA, perhaps embarrassed, was rather selective in how the point was retweeted…)

Leaving these missteps aside, the whole notion of a National Year of Reading might be something of a mixed bag – a nice chance to pat ourselves on the back, an opportunity to attempt some library marketing on a national scale – but against these we must set the fact that if Britain’s 2008 National Year of Reading had been all that it was cracked up to be, UK libraries would not be in the dire state they now find themselves…I confess that I gave a long hard swallow when this month, ALIA started publically imagining a digital version of the National Year of Reading, especially when I saw them using terms like “grassroots” – my impression was that 2012’s Year of Reading was a centrally coordinated marketing scheme, rather than some kind of spontaneous Arab-Spring-of-Libraries?

My concern for the future of Australian public libraries, in particular, is this: it’s hard to imagine a library association that thinks in terms of “influential external stakeholders – government, professional firms, technology giants, corporations, institutions and others” making the kind of spirited defence of public library values that, for example, the American Library Association did while Congress was debating the US PATRIOT ACT a few years back.

Public libraries are born of the notion that every single member of society deserves free, high-quality access to knowledge and culture; they are for the 99% as well as the 1%, and I think their future has to be thought out from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

That’s why the three principles of library leadership listed above seem vital to me: career librarians, who understand the world beyond libraries, who are willing not just to wine and dine the “influential stakeholders” but get their hands dirty on the frontlines, might just be our best bet for a rich and lively 21st century librarianship.

It’s a season of change, of impending battle, but also real hope; buckle up and let’s see what’s coming.

For examples of the public library services we’ve been developing in libraries across Australia and New Zealand, check out the Finding Library Futures series on this blog.

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