Digital Leadership in Libraries

I have been meaning to write something about this topic for quite some time. In fact, I really want us to do something about this and do it now. As far as I can tell and feel, we are reaching a stage where there is a very shallow pool of digital leaders left in Libraries. We need to take some actions to resolve this situation but our actions at the moment are counter productive for development of digital leadership in Libraries for many reasons. Here is my viewpoint.

  1. While I am generalising here, most digital leaders in Libraries start their journey as a technical advocate, developer or professional. They are problem solvers who are brought up in an environment where every problem has a logical solution. They are in control of producing this solution themselves. They don’t have to depend on anyone else. For a technical person, there is a very unique and powerful sense of empowerment and satisfaction when an issue or a bug is resolved or when a new feature is deployed. You should never underestimate the power of this feeling. However, this environment doesn’t require them to develop skills in areas of negotiation, adjustments, give and take, strategy development or the ability to relate to management discussions. In fact, these things are a hurdle in the way of job satisfaction and productivity. This leads to a general lack of managerial and leadership skills (often masked as lack of social skills or emotional intelligence). You only need to google “Software developers and social skill issues” to see how big this topic is. This concept is further strengthened when you watch shows like Silicon Valley or Big Bang Theory. Not all developers have or need to have the skills a digital leader possesses. This, by default, limits the conversion of successful technical developers into successful digital leaders.
  2. If you are ambitious and a good technical developer, there will come a time when you would want to move up the chain. In Higher Education (HE), this means moving into a managerial role. Unfortunately, in HE’s Professional Services, there is no promotion scheme in place. You can’t get a higher graded job just because you are very good at what you do. Often such jobs need to be created. At the same time, you will also be conflicted by many other, more lucrative, options around you. You will be head hunted by large multi national companies who will offer you luxurious rent free five star apartments, SUVs, tax free salary, return flights, etc etc. If not them, local companies like BBC will be head hunting you. No developer really works in Higher Education for the money or the benefits. You work here because you are either: passionate about Higher Education; enjoy a relatively calm environment in comparison to private sector; enjoy a secure job and pension scheme; enjoy the variety of work; or a mixture of the above. HE managerial position also mean a requirement of managing people. The concept of being a technical lead or senior developer without line management responsibility is extremely rare in HE. If I have learnt one thing over time, developers would avoid line management responsibility like a plague. As a manager, I am respectful of this as I also believe in using the right people for the right job.
  3. I have also seen a lot of people move into consultancy from HE digital leadership. This can be for various reasons but this is such a common scenario that I have personally considered this at times. There could be many reasons behind this but from my viewpoint (after speaking to several people), here are the top three in my opinion:
  • Being under resourced. Especially with constant pressure to deliver more to the point where you stop being a leader and start being a developer again. This brings two scenarios: either you become so disheartened with management that you want to be your own boss; or you realise how much you enjoyed development work that you move back towards it, often taking a pay cut in the process to begin with.
  • Better options. Especially, better money with better control of your life. This becomes more important when you have kids or when you cross your 40s.
  • Being undervalued. HE environment can be quite tricky as the core function of the University is always along the lines of Research and Teaching. When University’s research income grows and the institution does brilliantly in NSS, people providing support for research and teaching will get thanks. How many times do you think the digital teams get a thank you for that? As a digital leader, it becomes even more important to have a thick skin and to keep your team informed on how their contributions are crucial to the success of the University.

As the pool of digital leaders in Libraries become shallower, institutions are limited in quality recruitment. All of us, as digital leaders in Libraries, have a resposibility to encourage others to come on board. Here are some ideas on how we can achieve that.

  1. We need to attract the best developers. A digital leader is useless without a good team. Why not provide a brand new beefed up MacBook Pro to your development team with multiple retina display screens, lots of relevant tools, Bose noise cancelling headphones, etc? Attract them towards the job, give them the best equipment and a great environment to work in. Yes, it is about £3k expenditure every 3-4 years, but in my opinion it is worth it. It is a lot better than what we have at the moment where developers often get a fixed desktop machine with multiple screens (if they are lucky) and after a lot of negotiation and wait with central purchasing departments. When I started my development job at Bodleian, I got an old borrowed computer for 2 months before my development machine finally arrived. For one of my own staff members at Lancaster, I had to take out a machine from one of our meeting rooms as a machine was not available at that time.
  2. We need to develop the developers pool into digital leaders. How many of us invest in our developers for coaching and leadership training, for management practices, for building their confidence and presentation skills? We will happily invest in them when it comes to buying relevant software or sending them to a developers event but it is all too short sighted in my opinion.
  3. We need to grow our existing digital leaders’ capabilities and skills. Here is an interesting question. How many Directors of Library Services do you think have a development/technical background? When compared against how many of them started as Academic Liaison Librarians or Research Support Librarians, you will be surprised at the extreme rarity of top level decision makers who understand where Digital Leaders come from. The only way to change this is to give existing digital leaders the relevant growth environment and empowerment for them to be the Directors and University Librarians of the future.

That is my viewpoint on the topic. I really wanted to say this out as I am concerned about what’s happening in digital leadership in Libraries. Libraries will continue to become more digital and if the right people are not there, our industry will become extremely commercially driven and for the worse in my opinion. Views and thoughts on this are much appreciated.

3 comments On Digital Leadership in Libraries

  • Hi Masud, Thank you for your article, which brings up a lot of interesting and important points. Although I am not a systems librarian or developer per se, I work in a very technology-driven area (research data management), so have observered some of these barriers to digital leadership first-hand. Particularly, the lack of autonomy (having to work within a particular managerial and/or technological infrastructural framework) and lack of resources and financial renumeration and career progression and promotion as issues. However, I also wonder also whether adequate technological skillsets and training are an issue as well. I think that many library science programmes are still overly ‘analog’ in that they do not provide adequate training in digital skills for future library workers, also, unless one is already working in systems, there is limited ‘on-the-job’ training for library workers. Last year, I took part in the Library Carpentry training programme held at City University which was a great opportunity to both learn and experiment with some basic coding, shell scripting and data cleaning using OpenRefine, all very useful skills which perhaps could be somehow taken on board in library science degree courses and/or provided as part of regular training and professional development when working in an HE Library environment. This would further digital leadership skills development within the library profession.

    • Excellent points Sarah and many thanks for your feedback. I can’t agree more on incorporation of these skills in Library courses. About two years ago, I wondered if I should embark on a PhD or a Librarianship course. After looking at the contents of the latter, I decided not to pursue that option. There is a lot to be desired for in the curriculum at the moment and the pace of progress is ridiculously slow. In terms of furthering digital leadership, I think we might have to adopt a multi tiered process. Firstly, we need to establish the base level digital skills and understanding in the Libraries to generate an appetite for digital leadership. This can be done by introducing skills development and courses like Library carpentry across the board. Secondly, this needs to be followed with further coaching and leadership training for people who show continued interest and ambition. In parallel to both of these, an environment of empowerment, reflection and progression needs to be established. For me, the first part is easier to accomplish than the second. Progression, culture change and environment for leadership are the most difficult ones to achieve in the current system.

  • Thanks for posting these thoughts, Masud. The picture you paint is very familiar, sadly. And I think your proposals for solving the issue are welcome and should be taken up by institutions across the land.

    I think many institutions lack any form of digital leadership when it comes to digital library development, or digital innovation more generally. This includes my own, where decisions are reactionary and any visionary or innovative thinking is discouraged. Even those who are equipped to provide leadership where there is none are disregarded or not given the opportunity – or perhaps the career path is, as you noted, non-existent..? I think there is also a problem with converged IT/IS/Library services. Digital innovation in the latter always seems to be deprioritised, not because it isn’t important, but because libraries often lack skilled digital strategists to fight for resources.

    More generally I find HE to be an increasingly dispiriting sector in which to work. Institutions increasingly favour short-term, hack-job solutions to problems, even if these solutions are not in the long-term interests of the institution. I also frequently encounter a “post-truth” attitude to digital innovation or development and an ideas vacuum. That is, staff or team members who are experts in what they do – and have expertise and ideas to share in order to ensure the best outcomes are reached for their institution – are simply sidelined and ignored, or maybe even perceived as trouble makers, because their proposals are more difficult or do not fit with pre-conceived (and uninformed) managerial intentions. It is actually reminiscent of Michael Gove’s pre-Brexit vote remark that “the people have heard enough of experts”. Why bother recruiting experts in anything if they are always going to be ignored all the time? It is their expertise and knowledge that provides competitive advantage!

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