To be or not to be? A library or an IT house or both?

At the National Library of Finland, re-envisioning its core roles led to interesting challenges for library management. Liisa Savolainen, Deputy Director, asked "To be or not to be? A library or an IT house or both?" when speaking in Dublin during an IFLA Satellite event sponsored by the Knowledge Management section and the Digital Humanities SIG. Spoiler alert: The answer is "both".

The National Library was founded in 1640. Its core roles are national collection and bibliography; research library for humanities; service centre for Finnish libraries with a focus on IT and infrastructure; and centre for library standards and identifiers. Its IT solutions include a discovery platform (Finna), a union catalogue (Melinda), open source software solutions, and a digitising unit that digitises 2 million pages per year.

Since 2017, the library has been moving towards more IT development as it added more digital services. Judging commercial solutions to be not sufficiently flexible, they opted for in-house, open source development. Today, 26% of the staff are IT developers, which has required a new paradigm of leadership. Management originally didn’t understand how to lead IT workers, so it’s been a learning process. Within the library, there are multiple cultures: IT working in groups versus academic librarians working alone; young men in IT versus female librarians; modern librarians versus traditional librarians; and text versus audio. What’s important is to develop a common language and integrate culturally. Recognize that different skills, when combined, lead to successful projects. The complexity of managing a culturally diverse workforce calls for a move from linear thinking to systems thinking.

Systems thinking involves understanding processes while also having a picture of the whole portfolio. Cross functional teamwork is critical, as is identifying the value being created for customers. In systems thinking, cause and effect are not closely related in time and space; the easy way out usually leads back in; small changes can product big results; there is no blame, no separate “other”, everyone is part of a single system.

A staff survey revealed a perceived lack of transparency. They felt it was important to know what other teams were doing and to have clear priorities. Staff were committed to the library and its mission and pleased about learning new skills. In fact, this was an incentive to retaining IT workers, since library salaries are lower than what they could earn elsewhere. But flexible working hours and a feeling they were doing something for the greater good was wonderfully motivating.

The library then implemented agile coaching to define value streams and examine the flow of information. Hurdles when facing complexity and striving for adaptive leadership include cognitive, behavioural, structure, relational, and emotional. Essential is trust so you don’t let people down. Adaptive leadership involves managing the whole system, conceptualizing the whole organization.

Answering her own question, Savolainen said the National Library is both library and IT house. In the future, it will develop further research services, build trust, and foster a creative environment. She wants the library to be ambitious and experimental. Librarians should be have the courage to do new things so they can serve society better.