Library leaders can handle the truth - why you should just ask your bosses what they really think of you

Michelle Breen reflects on The New Review of Academic Librarianship Conference 'Positioning the Academic Library within the Institution'.

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"Things have never moved so fast, and things will never again go so slow" 

This was one of the many memorable quotes in the day's opening address, given by Pat Loughrey, Warden of Goldsmiths College. As CEO he oversees academic and administrative activities at the college and he sees the leadership that the library brings, informed by our daily interactions with students, as being a distinguishing attribute of libraries in the campus infrastructure.

Pat remarked that it is known in many institutions that if you want to 'take the temperature' of the student body you just ask the library or the catering outlets. Pat also remarked that other support services on campus look to the library as a model for how to develop their service; anticipating student needs, acting on their feedback and moving away from the "we know what’s best" approach that might prevail in institutions that are in awe of their own history and foundations.

Library leaders and university people

A wider perspective than this can help library leaders – that’s all of us by the way – to become what Sarah Brown from the University of Queensland described as 'University people'. Sarah talked about the 'One UQ' philosophy, meaning that all of what they do is in support of the institution’s mission. Northumbria, led by Tony Woolley, aligns all of its library activities firmly with the KPIs as set out in the University’s strategic plan. It is to this set of KPIs that we can look to for guidance when we ask ourselves "what can I stop doing". Our library activities need to ALL be in some way connected to a University goal. If they’re not, should we be doing them at all? A compelling quote from the day was from John Cox's talk when he quoted a book (from 2005) that encouraged us to be 'University people first, Library or IT people second'.

Skill sets, competencies and versatility

Regina Everitt from University of East London described how she used the McKinsey 7S model to restructure her organisation. In ascertaining what skillset her teams had, Regina discovered that all had a common 'customer facing' outlook. Regina expanded on this so that the teams saw what they had in common and then worked to discover other common ground, "cross-identifying" so that they people could see that it was as valuable to be a service provider as to be a technical specialist.  One crucial thing that Regina found in her work was that our libraries need versatile people who can work outside their own specialty. Regina advocated getting teams talking to each other so that they can cross train but she emphasised the importance of and need for formal training also to help us develop the skills to support researchers as ably as we have been supporting students up to now.

Ruth Harrison, Head of Scholarly Communications Management, Library Services at Imperial College, London talked about changing the roles of the faculty librarians. Ruth’s article in the upcoming New Review of Academic Librarianship themed issue sets out the skills and competencies she thinks library staff need to have impact, citing excellent relationship management, good teaching skills, knowledge of Higher Ed and ability to converse with researchers about scholarly communication.

Developing roles and impact for subject librarians

We heard from Lijuan Xu from Lafayette College about their functionalist approach with liaison librarians while also maintaining a focus on student support. Ithaka S&R noted in 2017 how subject expertise is valued but that researchers expect 'sub-discipline' expertise also from the library. For example, if a music librarian can give assistance in a general sense about music can they provide it at the same level about performance? Is this a realistic expectation for ALL of a University’s sub-disciplines and are libraries on a hiding to nothing if they persist with 'subject' expertise?  The inter-team discussions that Lafayette library now has, with librarians from cataloguing or other areas also being involved in supporting researchers, creates positive collaborative opportunities whereby a researcher could be put in touch with a library staff member that may not have or ever held a subject role but has knowledge, interest or expertise in the area being asked about.

Sarah Brown from the University of Queensland described the hybrid model where subject librarians provide teaching, learning and research support. Training and placements, peer mentoring and the use of Performance and Development Reviews to identify training needs are all elements in the transformation of subject librarians to a more hybrid model at the University of Queensland. Sarah described the ways that the library facilitates knowledge transfer within their library team but emphasised that inter-team communication is vital to the continuing development of the individuals in the teams. Formal training is a must in the development of subject librarians if they are to support researchers; we cannot create experts overnight. The library at the University of Queensland through its very strong relationship with their campus research office will deliver digital skills to PhD students and early career researchers. This moves the library and its staff up the value chain in the university, delivering what is prioritised and needed in their University right now. I really like the UQ motto, 'One UQ' and I would say it is fundamental to the success of their inter-departmental collaboration.

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