What management skills do you need to run a library?

March 7, 2018
Clare Brown

Most professional jobs require at least an element of management, and being a librarian is no exception. Yet, according to Ken Haycock, very few students beginning Library and Information Science studies will say they want to be managers or leaders in the field. Although his post doesn't seem to be available anymore, he said:

Ask any beginning class of LIS students how many want to be managers and leaders in the field and you will be delighted if four or five respond affirmatively. This is largely a lack of interest coupled with a notion of managers being inherently evil. Alternately, and in my view even worse, some do not wish to admit publicly to ambition.

Then try to square this with the fact that graduates despair of a lack of management education and training and recognition that most professional jobs require at least some degree of management (not the least being self-management and self-awareness). On one executive board the joke was that in librarianship the “F-word” was “Finance”.

What’s more, many LIS graduates complain that they lacked training and education in management during their studies, while others say that management modules that were offered but they were not required. So what training would LIS students need to feel qualified to be library managers?

There are many different types of libraries, and management needs may be different for each. However, looking at personal accounts from working librarians such as those mentioned in Justin Hoenke's column, there seems to be some common threads. And as Warren Cheetham pointed out, leadership is a learned skill,

For a long time, I thought leadership skills were something you were born with. Some people were naturally inclined to become great leaders, and others weren’t. I was fortunate to undergo a formal leadership training course at work, which taught me that leadership involves a skill set and an attitude. The skills can be learnt and practiced, and the attitude is something to be consciously chosen. So I now believe that anyone can learn to be a leader (no matter what position they have in a team) and that leadership is a mindful choice.

These conversations can give us some insight into what core management skills are necessary for librarians. Though the size of your budget, staff, or user pool may be very different, you may find you use the same skills in your special library.

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It all begins with communication

Some argue that communication skills and the ability to delegate are more important characteristics for a manager to possess than experience, though experience is beneficial. After reading these personal accounts, I would say that communication was central to the library management role. 

Library managers are first and foremost communicators. Although there is no such thing as a 'typical day', for these managers most days "usually involve meetings, either to discuss projects, ideas, or challenges, or to pass on information, instruction, or training". Sarah Houghton confirms,"most days start with checking in on urgent email, social media communication, and voicemails". 

Promotion and advocacy are crucial

Library managers need to be able to promote themselves, the profession, and their services. Library managers often have to advocate hard for their library, especially during times of political upheaval. Part of advocating for the library successfully is resource management - learning to operate efficiently with fewer resources is crucial to success. Sarah continued

What you do every day at your job matters. Every interaction, every decision, every project you choose to do or not do. It’s easy to become complacent and fall into a routine. Don’t do it. Our work is revolution writ large. Continue that revolution in some small way every day, no matter what your job is. Question authority, say no to no, and keep our professional values in mind at all times. The community you serve depends on you.

Demonstrating and tracking success is another part of advocacy, and includes monitoring library statistics in addition to supervising the work of the staff. A library manager checks and supervises the work done by staff members, discusses progress or doubts, and solves any problems. Problem-solving involves regular meetings and consultations with other staff members.

Networking for professionals

An effective library manager has to have good networking skills. This is for the benefit of the library, your career, and your user base. Often, library managers are responsible for the high-level organising of library events, which can entail managing programmes and speakers, as well as delegating the day-to-day event work to staff. 

As a SCONUL report on library leadership stated, networking internally and externally and shadowing senior staff were considered to form important parts of necessary career and professional development. This was expressed as the development of personal and political alliances, including the advantage of having a senior champion.  

A true leader never stops learning

The other theme that came out of Justin's post was that of listening. Every library director here expressed ideas around empathy, understanding, support and inspiration. This can only come out of a leader who has made time for their own development. This is why the SCONUL report recommends mentoring and coaching for leaders. 

Mentoring and coaching were widely seen as invaluable to career and professional development, including after promotion to the most senior roles. Having supportive senior management is a distinct advantage. (p52)

And this is the result: "[she] is the type of person that tells it how it is—which is something I really value in a manager... She gives the right amount of support and guidance. She always has extremely helpful advice, and she knows how to direct you in finding your own answers to problems without solving it for you."

A blend of skills and experience

So how does that differ from the basic skills required for management in any field? There are many different lists of essential management skills out there, but one place to start is with four basic management skills a new manager has to master, from The Balance: the ability to plan, organise, direct, and control.

Plan: There are different levels and types of planning, but even though the type of planning will vary depending on the management task, it’s never a step you should skip.

Organise: All librarians need to have good organisational skills, but a manager doesn’t just need to be able to organise their own work - they need to be able to organise teams, tasks, and projects too.

Direct: Directing your team to do the task you’ve planned and organised should start with communicating the goal to the entire team. You’ll also need to ensure that everyone on the team knows their role, and has the resources to accomplish their part.

Control: If everything is going according to plan, you may just need to monitor. But more commonly, things don’t go to plan, and that’s where you may need to go back to the drawing board and make a new plan.

As we’ve seen, a suitable candidate for library management will have all these skills, and many more. Typically, a library manager will also have had between four and ten years of experience working as a librarian. Over this time, the librarian would have demonstrated an interest in their professional development, by doing things like attending conferences and workshops, and taking on some supervisory roles.

And a final note from Justin, "one of the trends that has come up in the 'future of libraries' discussion over the past few years is that we need fewer librarians and more people from other professions in libraries." For management and leadership issues, this is actually quite helpful. It helps drive and inspire us to think outside the box and take our management skills to the next level.

What do you think - are there other key skills library managers need to have? Does your special library require another subset of unique skills?

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