21st Century Library Organization


For many decades SLIS have been teaching that the library organization is a basic form-follows-function, hierarchy style organization. One director supervises an appropriate number of assistant directors, depending on the size of the organization, or function managers, who oversee the “traditional” functions of a “library”.

These traditional functions include:
• Public service – circulation, adult services, youth services, programing, etc.
• Operations – cataloging, collection development, facilities, tech support, etc.
• Administration – accounting, human resources, policy, training, etc.
Many of these functional areas have supervisors/managers, depending on the size of the organization, and an appropriate number of staff “librarians”.


Virtually all library organizations are some derivative of this diagram.

Librarians fill many functional roles within the traditional organization, but the relevant question is – “What is the role of the librarian in a 21st Century Library?” As more technologies emerge, and more types of information demands emerge, the “librarian” role is transforming. Doesn’t this transformation require a new type of library organization?

Galbraith, J.R. (1971). “Matrix Organization Designs: How to combine functional and project forms” was a standard for matrix management and organization design back in the day. The basic distinction made by Galbraith was between “functional” and “product” design for an organization, on a continuum between the two pure forms, with “matrix” being the blended design in the middle.


Galbraith’s 1971 “matrix” design diagram.

The Embedded Librarian David Shumaker proposed that “… a matrixed organization in which librarians are matrixed, or embedded, where they are needed, is an organization that really brings information and knowledge to bear on critical elements of its work.”

I suspect that his proposal for embedded librarians is a matrix design limited to just the embedded librarians, but he makes a good case for the advantages of this type of organization.

There continue to be some tasks that are better performed centrally: these may range from basic document delivery work to negotiating and managing complex and expensive enterprise-wide content licenses. Keeping the embedded librarians connected to the central library service strengthens communication and collaboration between the two: the embedded librarians can refer some tasks to the central library, and also provide their insights to help inform service and resource decisions.

Finally, the embedded librarians are likely to use many of the same tools and encounter the same problems in their work. Clearly they constitute a community of practice, and they have their own knowledge sharing needs for professional tips, tricks, techniques, and problem solving. The central library connection facilitates communication and collaboration among them.

The major distinction between Shumaker’s proposal and Galbraith’s is that the two managers involved over the embedded librarian are not part of the same organization with a single conversion of authority over both at some point up the ladder. One traditional disadvantage of a matrix organization is a conflict of loyalty between line managers and project managers over the allocation of resources. With Shumaker’s proposal technically being more of a collaborative relationship than a true matrix, that weakness may be overcome.

I think Shumaker may have hit upon a new concept for the 21st Century Library organization that blends and combines whatever structures and lines of authority will actually work. What does your non-traditional library organization look like?

PS: Perfect segue – Galbraith has a new book (2008) entitled “Designing Matrix Organizations That Actually Work” in which he asserts that “organization structures do not fail, but management fails at implementing them correctly. This is why the idea that the matrix does not work still exists today, even among people who should know better. But the matrix has become a necessary form of organization in today’s business environment.”

3 Comments

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3 responses to “21st Century Library Organization

  1. Unfortunately, our library’s structure is more like the traditional flow-chart. Egos are getting in the way of a “matrix-like” structure. Guess we’ll be stuck in the darker ages a while longer.

  2. Kristen B.

    I hope that the libraries in my place could be able to catch the advancement of the libraries in the world. I wasn’t aware of such library organization. Maybe because I haven’t seen the detailed diagram like this. Perhaps with the modern technology such as kindle and electronic format books, libraries could be able to modernized as well as their library organizations.

    /Kristen B.

  3. I agree that egos are our worst enemy. Managers/directors may say one thing, but don’t practice them…..

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