Collaboration, Empathy, & Change: Library Leadership in 2020

Collaboration, Empathy & Change: Perspectives on Leadership in Libraries and Archives in 2020

Last semester I taught a grad seminar on leadership and organizational theory in libraries and archives. As part of the course we worked together to create an open access book called Collaboration, Empathy & Change: Perspectives on Leadership in Libraries and Archives in 2020. You can download the book for free from SocArXiv. Below is the intro I wrote up for the book.

2020 was hard. It was hard in a lot of different ways at the same time. The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed nearly every aspect of our technical, social, and political systems and infrastructure. In this global context, people working in libraries, archives, and museums continue to struggle with how to take care of each other and persist in their work. Students aspiring for careers or for advancement in their careers transitioned to online courses. Through it all, we have faced major challenges in maintaining our health and well-being.

In that fraught context, the students in the organizational theory and leadership course I taught at the University of Maryland’s iSchool worked together to produce this book. Every student in the University of Maryland’s iSchool MLIS program is required to take Achieving Organizational Excellence, a course focused on “the principles, practices, and techniques required for effective leadership and management.” I’m really proud of the work that we did together over the semester. This book distills, documents, and communicates much of what we have learned together.

Context for this book

Each chapter of this book was written for the course in the Fall of 2020. With some support from me, each student connected with an individual working in a leadership role in an information organization relevant to their career interests. Each student interviewed their subject to learn about that person’s approach to leadership and organizations. Students then drew from those interviews to develop essays connecting their subject’s perspectives to literature on organizational theory and leadership. Inclusion of essays in this book was optional. Some students preferred not to publish their work here. Some interview subjects preferred that their perspectives not be widely shared. As a result, the scope of this book is intentionally non-comprehensive. This is not a survey of various areas and roles in the field. Instead, the book brings together voices and perspectives anchored in these particular students.

The book is itself part of the pedagogical approach of the course. It’s one thing to read about leadership and organizational theory. It’s another to see how ideas from books and journal articles connect to the real-world experiences of leaders in the field. It’s still a whole other level of learning to synthesize perspectives from leaders in the field with the literature and publish it. Library and archives practitioners working in the field wrote most of our course readings. A key part of joining that professional community of practice is developing the ability to contribute to the professional dialog in our scholarship and writing.

Overview of the book’s structure and contributions

The structure and content of the book emerges out of the career interests of the students and the ideas and perspectives of their interview subjects. To that end, I have organized the book primarily around the types of roles and organizations that individual interview subjects come from. The first section of the book includes a selection of essays on leadership in archives and special collections. The second section includes essays focused on senior leaders in academic libraries. The third section focuses on leaders in library organizations in the U.S. federal government. The fourth section focuses on work outside of libraries and archives, specifically in museums, humanities research centers, and corporations. The final section of the book offers two essays that more broadly explore issues on the need for libraries and archives to develop field-wide toward a more equitable future.

There are a range of crosscutting issues and themes that emerge in the book. First and foremost, the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic assert themselves throughout the text. Many of the interview subjects were in the midst of figuring out how to maintain and continue the operations of their organizations in the midst of a global crisis. To that end, the collection of essays in this book offers a unique opportunity to explore the more or less real-time processing and response to the challenges the pandemic presents.

The essays are also connected by consistent application of ideas and frameworks from Bolman and Deal’s book Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. Bolman and Deal’s perspectives are focused on developing and exploring four competing frames for thinking about leadership and organizations: a structural frame tied up in separation of duties and functions, a human resource frame focused on how to support people in organizations to flourish and grow, a political frame focused on how scarcity of resources produces the need to build coalitions, and a symbolic frame focused on the ways that symbols, values, rituals, and ceremonies create and sustain organizational cultures. Throughout the book, students apply and explore issues in how these frames work to approach the perspectives of their interview subjects. As a result, the book presents a sustained exploration of how these frames of leadership fit with the perspectives of leaders in the library and archives community at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century.

I’m deeply grateful for the time and care that the individuals profiled in this book took to share their ideas and perspectives with our class and now more broadly in this book. As you might imagine, the Fall of 2020 was a stressful time to be working in library and information organizations. In that context, it would have been entirely reasonable for leaders in the field not to be able to make time for talking with students about their careers or library and archives organizations. All of the individuals featured in the profiles in this book were willing to make time to talk with students and give feedback and input on their drafts. The wisdom and insights they shared with students are invaluable.

It’s been a pleasure to have the chance to develop this book and facilitate this dialog between leaders in the field and students working to start or advance their careers. I learned so much from the generous and thoughtful perspectives offered by interview subjects and drawn into focus by students in the course. I hope you will, too

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