Is agile project management right for your library?

March 14, 2018
Clare Brown

It’s impossible to talk about libraries these days without talking about change. As the needs of users change, and as technology changes, libraries must adapt in order to continue to serve their users and organisations well. So as libraries are asked to change quickly - and incorporate new technologies - some are turning to the software development world to adapt their methods of fast-paced working for the library.

Are we all agile now?

Software developers are perhaps best known for agile working. Generally, agile projects are defined by short bursts of work that are intended to produce a deliverable result - within 1-4 weeks. These bursts of work are usually called sprints.


Agile methodologies are defined processes that incorporate methods of defining and assigning work, as well as structured meetings. They include frequent iterative processes, clarifying the requirements of the project as it progresses - rather than attempting to establish the requirements in detail before the plan is initiated, as in traditional project management (also called “waterfall” methodology).

Agile methodology is a good option for any business environment that changes rapidly, but is also useful in environments where it is hard to nail down precise requirements without having something tangible in place. Agile methodology is also very user-focused - stories are written in terms of the user’s needs, and how the user behaves. A number of tools, like Trello, exist to facilitate the process.

"In software engineering, the agile methodology allows you to continuously deliver business value, immediately get feedback and adjust further steps accordingly. But agile practices and tools can easily be extrapolated to almost any non-tech project. Agile Manifesto states some great principles of empowering people and the new-age approach to management. Mature frameworks like Scrum provide great tools and techniques for every project where progress tracking, team collaboration, and transparency of processes are important." - Roman Sumnikov, Software Team Lead at Vable

There are various methodologies, but one of the best-known agile project management frameworks is Scrum, which is relatively rigid compared to other frameworks. Scrum is a term that came from rugby - it refers to when the players huddle together.

The three roles in Scrum are the ScrumMaster, the Product Owner, and the Team. The ScrumMaster is there to facilitate the process and help the team function by removing any obstacles, while the Product Owner has the final say about the product, and makes sure the team understands the vision. The Team is self-organising, and determines how to execute the vision the Product Owner communicates to them.

So what of the current manager? Agile teams work as a collective, without a traditional project leader - your manager’s duties would instead be spread out across the roles of Product Owner, ScrumMaster, and Team. Instead of acting as a traditional manager, the ScrumMaster would be there to help the team by removing obstacles in the way of the team’s tasks, and help prioritise the backlog.

Managers would need to learn to trust the agile team as a whole in order for agile methodology to work for the business - that means the manager must recognise that it is now the team’s responsibility to solve problems, not the manager’s.

Have you unpacked your Dilbertesque baggage?

Case Study: The Library at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden

All organisations have to remain agile, including libraries. Librarians need to ensure that the structure they work within doesn’t hold them back - that might mean redefining that structure. The Library at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden recognised that libraries are undergoing a great deal of changes - including new technologies and different user demands - and this makes them good candidates for developing agile processes. They adopted the principles of Scrum throughout the library after introducing Scrum to cross-disciplinary teams involving librarians and developers, working on projects like developing a new website.

The library staff at Chalmers felt that the greatest risk of implementing Scrum was that “we will continue to work as previously, that the change means no change in our operations and that the change won’t matter”. Libraries often experience “death by committee”, where the process of change is too slow because there is too much discussion and speculation - this overlaps with the waterfall development process. Agile processes are a reaction to the slowness of the old method.

Chalmers Library’s software development team included librarians in their projects so both developers and librarians could share knowledge and develop mutual understanding. Using cross-functional teams of librarians and developers led library senior management to discuss how to implement agile principles in the whole organisation.

We at Vable also use agile methodology - both in the product team and in the revenue development team. The process is slightly different due to the nature of each team’s work, and we too are going through the iterative process of seeing what frameworks will work best for us - and how we can work towards more similar processes across Vable as a whole.

Have you considered using agile project management at your organisation? Do you have a favourite framework? 

Download the white paper now and learn how to use current awareness technology to gain competitive advantage