Friday, November 13, 2009

Article Note: On New Library Professionals and Leadership

Citation for the article:

DeLong, Kathleen, "The Engagement of New Library Professionals in Leadership." The Journal of Academic Librarianship 35.5 (September 2009): 445-456

Read via ScienceDirect.

I was not particularly impressed with this article, and at times it seemed a bit too optimistic for me. For me, this probably goes along with some of the postings about lack of leadership in librarianship I have seen floating around the celebrity librarian blogs decrying the bad attitude if we don't have an interest in management (yes, there is a very clear difference between management and leadership). Jenica Rogers's post on "An attitude problem" is an example of the kind of post I have in mind, but not the only one. Anyhow, I have made some notes here and there on the leadership and management topic, mostly thinking out loud. But for me the bottom line is that I should be labeled as having a bad attitude because I have no interest in becoming a library manager. But that is another post for another time. At the end of the day, I just want to note this article to go with other things on the topic.

The article opens with the by now ubiquitous reference that massive retirements are going to occur in the profession (445). Since the evidence by now is pretty clear that such is not happening, that already lowers the credibility bar for me in terms of this article. Why do members of my profession insist on propagating that canard is beyond me.

The article draws on a small sampling of Canadian librarians (by that I mean, librarians practicing in Canadian libraries). Data was collected based on an Internet survey to a sample of 183 individuals members of the Canadian Library Association (CLA). That seems like a very small and self-selected sample. The authors do admit to this limitation and recognize that not all new professionals may be CLA members (449). The article proposes to look at how new librarians are engaged in leadership, how they define the concept of leadership, and how they perceive leadership practices in their workplaces (446). The author goes on then with the literature review, the method and research questions, findings and discussion.

There were some things that jumped at me from the article, so let me take a moment to make some notes:

  • A statement of the obvious: "It is important that the new professionals who are interested and willing to take up leadership opportunities be developed and nurtured in these roles, and that they are engaged in strategic thinking and planning necessary for organizations to thrive in a continuously changing work environment" (446). You don't say. And we accomplish this exactly how? Paying lip service and making new folks go and sit on committees that very often have little power or meaning in what they do is like your dad telling you that walking 20 miles in the snow back and forth is good for you because "it builds character."
  • DeLong points out that it can be difficult to replace lost leadership skills when someone retires (446). What I want to know is how about when you have significant turnover? What do you do when you have minimal institutional memory because people keep coming and going? And I will go on a limb and say it, but in some cases, that person retiring could actually be beneficial to the organization in terms of getting new and better leadership. Just because a person has been in a job for a long time, it does not automatically follow they are a leader. You can find a lot of deadwood in academia to name an example.
  • An unhealthy organization can often hinder any interest in leadership. Let's be honest: if a lot of what I have seen in terms of the managers above me is unhealthy and dysfunctional, I am not going to want to follow on those footsteps. DeLong in the literature review looks at the work of Nancy Cunningham in regards to healthy and unhealthy libraries. Cunningham's work is certainly worth reading if for no other reason than to do some reflection and self-assessment in relation to the workplace and your place in it.
  • And DeLong does bring up the question of leadership interest I state above: "The question that arises is why newer professionals should be willing to move into managerial or leadership positions given the examples of poor management and leadership they claim to see day to day" (447). I just don't make the claims. I have seen such bad examples. I just do not see this really addressed in the library literature (journals or blogs). Much of the attitude by celebrity bloggers and more reputable writers in the profession seems to be one of reminding the rest of us that it is our professional duty, that we should do it for the good of the organization, that it needs to be done, and that you have a bad attitude if you show no interest. Personally, I happen to be a very good reference and instruction librarian. I enjoy my work very much and want to keep on doing it. Someone else wants to run the place, I say let them. If they are any good, the place will likely thrive. If they are bad, with any luck, they will weed themselves out (yes, I am aware this is a bit of wishful thinking; bad leaders have a way of getting entrenched once they get to the top). The point is a pep talk is not going to motivate me. I want actions; words and another workshop are cheap (well, the idea of attending a workshop to inspire someone is cheap; actually attending the workshop can be quite pricey).
  • DeLong mentions that participating in task forces or committees as a way of decision-making is an engagement factor (447). To that, I will simply say that for it to work the decision-making process has to be meaningful, substantial and significant. Sitting on a committee or task force to simply compile another report with a bunch of materials that will end up on a binder or a CD someplace is not leadership. It's just something you do to pad your CV, or in the case of some of us, something your administrators make you do. If no action or change actually comes from said committee or task force all you did was engage in a time-wasting exercise.
  • This was pretty good summary of the obstacles potential leaders often face: "The strongest workplace barriers were perceived as lack of strategy for developing and training potential leaders, lack of resources for ideas and projects, an organizational structure (dispersal of authority, layers of management and supervisions) that discouraged the development of leaders, lack of a compensation and reward system that recognizes and rewards leadership; lack of a strategy for identifying potential leaders and lack of encouragement of those acting as leaders tied in last place for top five strongest barriers" (453). I have had a thought or two before about the idea of financial rewards and their glaring non-existence in our profession.

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