Wednesday 9 June 2021

Blogjune Day 9 - on library leadership

Back in April, I attended the ALIA Information Online In-Depth virtual event on Leadership. It was a stimulating session, that reminded me of a lot of the issues that we need to stay on top of in both the Australian library sector and the wider GLAMR sector.

One thing really struck me, during the first section featuring three leaders in the GLAMR sector, was that none of them were qualified professionals in their given field. David Fricker, Director-General of the National Archives of Australia, comes from a computer science background, Director of the Australian Museum comes from a marketing and communications background. Kate Torney, CEO State Library Victoria, comes from a journalism background. More notably, all of these leaders stepped into these roles without having previously work in the GLAMR sector. We've also seen similar trends in leadership appointments in some of our state and public libraries.

That's not to say that they are not capable leaders in each of their roles - they've all shown a long-standing track record of achievement, and as I've often said, a librarianship qualification is not the be-all and end-all of one's capbility to work in a library, nor should it be treated as a hurdle requirement to do so.

However, it does raise the question: is there a lack or reluctance of qualified librarians who are suitably experienced to step up into leadership positions in the Australian sector? Or is it just that leaders coming from other sectors are far more experienced and capable, and obvious choices when appointing leaders into these roles?

When I think back to some of the best and brightest emerging leaders that I'd met when I was starting out, 10-15 years ago, I'd say that at least half of those who I would have tipped as future library leaders have moved sectors or shifted roles, and no longer associate themselves with the library profession. Some have burnt out, or gone on to do bigger and better things in another sector that they find much more meaningful and rewarding.

There was a time when we used to look forward to that oft-predicted time when all the baby boomers would retire, opening up all kinds of leadership roles. In more recent years, many have bemoaned the lack of new leadership opportunities, due to a combination of said baby boomers delaying their retirement, and shrinking library staffing budgets.

But perhaps this isn't the biggest thing we need to worry about - the fact is that the cultural sector has always been a desirable and competitive option for employment, and there are many very capable professionals out there who are building up a track record of achievements, and would jump at the opportunity to take on the top job in a major library. And they're better at running libraries than the librarians.

So where does that leave the library and information profession?

My view: we need to adapt, and let the strengths of those who join us from beyond the sector be our strengths as a profession. We need to stop pigeon-holing ourselves and the people we work with, otherwise we limit our opportunities to grow professionally. We need to encourage our library professionals to get experience and build better skills outside the sector - experience and skills that they can hopefully bring back. And we need to be a sector that our past emerging leaders might want to come back to in the future.

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