In which our hero attempts to serve as Library Oracle

An MLIS student I know recently asked me to provide a “brief but insightful” response to the following question:

“Emerging technologies and changing library services will require an almost continuous state of change in libraries and information centers. What are the implications for leadership in those organizations in terms of organizational structures, staffing, and managerial behavior?”

My first thought1 was “That’s a stupid question. Libraries have always dealt with change and good management/organization should be technologically agnostic.” My second thought was “She probably won’t appreciate that response as much as I do.” So, I got to thinking and decided to answer at slightly greater length and re-frame the question. I include my response, in full, below and invite comment, criticism or ridicule. The Library Oracle keeps regular business hours and inquiries to his person may be delivered by carrier pigeon, written longhand on a papyrus scroll or posted in the comments.

This is less a forecast for the future and more a statement of the current situation. Emerging technologies have always driven change and shaped library services. I think what this question is getting at is the acceleration of technology that requires more frequent change in response to what is possible for and expected of libraries.

The biggest challenge facing leadership based on the rapid acceleration of change is in determining what libraries as institutions will look like in the future. We need to set our institutional missions based on what technological change makes possible and how this affects what our community expects. If, in the next ten years, ebooks are the dominant form of content distribution, what do we do about buldings and services that are based around physical books? How will publisher control over e-content shape what we can and cannot do? What services do we provide that become obsolete when physical limitations on media go away? What new services can we provide absent these limitations? Is our relationship with the community primarily transactional (checking out items) or relational (a place to gather, share, learn, etc.)? These are all questions that are affected by the rapid change of technology and need answering. These are questions that will determine what people think of when they hear the word “library” ten years from now.

The answers to these questions will affect the what of staffing, organizational structure and managerial behavior but I’m not sure they have much to do with the how. The tools are going to be different but the core principles should look pretty familiar. You need to hire an adequate number of staff members who have the core competencies to fulfill the mission of the library. You need to manage that staff in a way that keeps them motivated and productive. The implications for leadership in this case is that you have to keep pace with the world around you and hire/manage accordingly. I don’t see this as being a fundamental change from previous decades.

Aside from a broader physical distribution of the workforce (telecommuting, distance learning centers, “virtual branches”) the organizational structure will still require leaders with vision, managers with people skills, and workers with technical proficiency. I don’t think technology is going to bring about some sort of mercenary/contractor workforce in libraries that removes the traditional hierarchy of an institution. The challenge for leaders during this decade, as ever, is to maintain the viability of the institution by enhancing the life of the community they serve. If libraries do indeed survive as institutions, the things that make institutions tick will still apply.

Both brief and insightful if you ask me.

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