PLA President Advocates Leadership

I contend that the greatest impediment to the future of public libraries is the growing number of library practitioners who lack community leadership skills. I fear that many key staff members in public libraries are reluctant to interact and work with local government administrators and other community leaders, at a time when it is absolutely crucial to relate how the library finds solutions to meet the needs and priorities of the communities we serve.

So wrote 2012–2013 PLA President Eva Poole in her first message as president – Leadership Skills More Crucial Than Ever – in the July/August 2012 issue of “Public Libraries”

…., we must remember that we share the same challenges and issues as those faced by our local government administrators. In a Public Management (PM) magazine article titled “Picturing It: The Year 2020,” local government administrators were asked to predict what their professional challenges would be in the year 2020. Their predictions were summarized as follows:
• Quality of life and a sense of place will be important to residents.
• IT developments will allow for greater productivity.
• Service delivery will be streamlined.
• Resident engagement will become the norm.
• Performance measurement and benchmarking will be emphasized.
• Teamwork and consensus building will be essential skills.
• Working effectively with diverse and aging populations will be a major skill.
• A commitment to sustainability will be standard.

Isn’t it ironic that what our local government administrators see for their future is the current reality for us as public library leaders? We can make a difference in the way public libraries are perceived by our local government administrators by becoming not only effective library leaders, but community leaders.

What seems ironic to me is that it has taken this long for our professional leaders to recognize what we in the field have been asserting for years. Local libraries don’t have time to wait for the slowly turning wheels of bureaucracy and committees and associations to turn around to recognizing the issues and addressing the solutions. We’ve begun to find our own solutions that those other “leaders” can look to as examples.

In 2006, PLA established a Leadership Development Task Force, chaired by past-PLA president Luis Herrera, to develop leaders for the profession and the association in response to the changing environment in which public libraries operate. We need leaders who embrace change and can implement a vision that will transform public libraries. The work of the task force, now chaired by Carolyn Anthony, continues. The task force has identified key elements of successful leadership for public libraries. A key observation is that to be an effective library leader, a person must be a community leader, engaged with the community and relating the library’s offerings to the needs and priorities of the community. Effective library leadership also involves partnerships with other agencies in the community. We continue to develop this leadership model and plan to launch it nationally.

SIX years for a “task force” to come up with a plan is not something to brag about, but I sincerely applaud President Poole for making leadership her number one priority.


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7 responses to “PLA President Advocates Leadership

  1. Dr. Matthews, I applaud PLA and its efforts to focus on leadership. I have been a part of the Leadership Development Task Force for the past three years. Prior to that I was instrumental in establishing the Urban Libraries Council’s (ULC) Executive Leadership Institute (ELI) program.

    The challenges of both efforts was/is finding the funding to support the establishment of the programs and to sustain them. In both cases, PLA and ULC, went outside the world of libraries to secure the best minds and approaches to leadership development – Adam Goodman and Gino Schnell, respectively. The ULC program resulted in a number of fellows moving from support management to Library Director positions in Seattle, Cleveland, Multnomah Co, St.Paul, Richland County SC – becoming true “urban players.” The ELI program is no longer active due to lack of sustainable funding.

    It has taken PLA six years to get to where it is because of limited available funding, diverse membership inititives and the bureaucracy of ALA. Continued funding will be an issue. The Gates Foundation and IMLS cannot fund all the critical needs of today’s libraries.

    Perhaps it is time for a joint masters degrees that blends information science with business and leadership courses taught by business schools and leadership programs as those same universities. We need to build leadership at all levels of library organizations.

    • Thanks so much for your perspective on the issue, as well as the background – also your efforts to help make some kind of leadership training program a reality. Frankly Laura, I can accept “diverse membership initiatives and the bureaucracy of ALA” as an understandable excuse for taking six years to develop THE librarian leadership program for the profession, but I have serious reservations about accepting lack of funding as an excuse for not promoting and supporting librarian leadership initiatives at a local level. Funding is not an obstacle for doing “something.” Granted the leadership something five years ago might not have been the “best minds and approaches to leadership development,” but one does not preclude the other. Our profession should have been doing librarian leadership development on a larger scale years ago, both in SLIS and in the field.

      There have been a number of local initiatives, like the Snowbird Institute sponsored by Salt Lake City Public Library and the Utah library community, but that was unfortunately short-lived. ILEAD from the Illinois State Library is growing strong and spreading to other states, and appears to be netting some excellent results, like the ones you noted.

      I also think it is more about lack of interest at the national level than about funding. I agree that SLIS should include more 21st Century thinking, leadership and business orientation – starting about 10 years ago. The combined master’s degree programs show some promise, but I’m still in favor of a bachelor’s degree as entry level to the profession, so that the master’s degree curriculum can be more leadership and business focused, rather than teaching fundamental library theory. An MLIS for entry level librarianship is totally 19th Century thinking.
      Changes in Our Librarian Education for the 21st Century – Revisited
      More Evidence FOR a Bachelor’s Degree in LIS

      • I don’t disagree with you at all. The concept of two levels of degrees – BA for practioner and MA for leadership/business/public administration – is something that makes sense in today’s increasingly complex and rapidly changing world in which the public library must exist in order to survive. The question is how long will it take academia to accept this and act upon it?

        I applaud everyone at the local, state and regional level who is addressing this in one form or another.

        • I agree that Bob recognizes the necessity for library leaders to be pro-active in finding their own local solutions. (He always states his point very well.) But, unfortunately, our profession is not abounding with thinkers and leaders.

          As far as how long it will take SLIS to recognize the necessity of changing the library science curriculum to be more appropriate for the 21st Century, I’m clueless. I’ve submitted course outlines to two SLIS for a course in 21st Century Librarianship, but heard nothing from either one. Since I’m not tuned in to academia, I have to wonder if anybody is even discussing the possibilities. Wouldn’t surprise me if it took another six years to see any change.

          Thanks to both of you for trying to further the discussion.

  2. Bob Farwell

    It really is not necessary for a library leader/advocate/proponent to wait for a call to arm from a national organization. A quick look around one’s region, or even one’s annual municipal allocation is reason enough to stimulate action. Over the past ten days I have read articles by Mark Lamster in Metropolis Magazine, Charles Petersen in N+1 and David Bell , The New Republic, that taken together provide sufficient raw material for action. These are not exceptional pearls of wisdom either. Similar conclusions can be drawn by reading broadly among blogs and professional literature. “Picturing It” is just as apt a description of what we need to address now as it is a prediction of the norm in 2020. A library, and specifically a public library that does not engage with municipal government in ways that prove its value to the common weal, does not reevaluate the ways in which it identifies and addresses local needs and eschews or ignores collaborations with other community organizations is in a terribly vulnerable position.

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