It is still unusual for librarians to go on to run universities or other major institutions.
Yet there are examples. In the UK, David Baker served as principal of what is now Plymouth Marjon University from 2003 to 2009. Alison Allden recently retired from a role as chief executive of the Higher Education Statistics Agency. So what are the key lessons for librarians who want to influence the strategic directions of their institutions and even move into senior management themselves?
Some of the answers can be found in a new report by Professor Baker and Ms Allden, which was launched by the Society of College, National and University Libraries (Sconul) last month as part of its Leading Libraries campaign, along with guidance on membership support, mentorship and leadership training. Leading Libraries: The View From Above is based on 12 in-depth interviews with vice-chancellors and “senior members of the executive of a range of [UK] universities”.
Although “the strategic leaders interviewed value the library and its leadership”, this was something of a mixed blessing. The library was “generally not a problem area”, but that also meant that it was “not seen as a strategic concern other than in terms of future resource requirements” – and “there was a lack of detailed awareness of the proactive contribution of library leadership to supporting and developing research strategy”.
So, what can librarians do if they want to be noticed and make a greater impact?
One of the keys is to think in terms of the whole institution. As the head of services in a Russell Group university put it: “An annual report that exhibits what the library has achieved, with quantified data that drives success, is good. But to acknowledge and communicate the impact that it has had across the university strategy is better.”
One respondent criticised the library in his or her own institution for “punching below its weight due to the focus of the previous librarian on getting the house in order, rather than promoting the library and gaining more strategic impact”. Another was disappointed that the response to a request to “consider how the library would respond to a 5 per cent budget cut” had focused on “identifying the services that won’t be delivered” rather than seeing it as “an opportunity to rethink service delivery”. A third pointed to at least one area where librarians have the best access to information crucial to wider corporate goals: “Understand how students work and share that intelligence. The library is in the unique position of having an ‘open contract’ with the student as an independent learner.”
Rightly or wrongly, many senior managers seemed to buy into traditional stereotypes about librarians, so it is up to librarians to prove them wrong.
They were urged to “put [their] head[s] above the parapet” and to “show passion and energy rather than the [stereotypical] retiring and quiet profile”. “You have to capitalise on opportunities,” added another respondent. “If you can’t employ that mindset, go back to cataloguing.”
Although the Sconul report pointed to “threats to the future of librarians within universities”, it also saw “significant opportunities for reinvention” and argued that there was no reason why librarians shouldn’t go on to positions such as registrar, provided that they are “prepared to take on non-library challenges and think of university-wide solutions”. A common route to promotion would be to “take on a broader portfolio, developing a good understanding of student needs, and demonstrating leadership through leading and managing change projects, and especially where there is innovation”.
Asked to summarise the core messages of their research, Sconul’s executive director Ann Rossiter encouraged librarians to “show how the library can help the university deliver on its core teaching and research missions. You’ll need to champion the library without being precious about it – understanding others’ objectives and perspectives and showing how the library can help them deliver. Librarians have the advantage of being information and data savvy, and you should grasp every opportunity to help the institution maximise the benefits of technology on behalf of its students and researchers.
“As the research says, the library should be at the centre of the ‘how to learn’ and ‘where to learn’. Finally, you will need to be able to show passion and energy, adapting in the face of change, capitalising on opportunities and winning your seat at the top table.”