Why Do Librarians Avoid Management?

social_enterprise-word-mapAsk any beginning class of LIS students how many want to be managers and leaders in the field and you will be delighted if four or five respond affirmatively. This is largely a lack of interest coupled with a notion of managers being inherently evil. Alternately, and in my view even worse, some do not wish to admit publicly to ambition.

Then try to square this with the fact that graduates despair of a lack of management education and training and recognition that most professional jobs require at least some degree of management (not the least being self-management and self-awareness). On one executive board the joke was that in librarianship the “F-word” was “Finance”.

Perhaps social enterprise helps to recognize these two contradictory elements of our profession.

Social Enterprise

Chi Onwurah, the UK shadow minister with responsibility for social enterprise, describes the concept as follows for the Guardian:

“Social enterprise is, at its heart, a collective enterprise for the benefit of a community. It can be the best of both worlds—economic and social force fusing the dynamism of market forces with the social responsibility of public service.

“It should be about redressing the balance of power between vested interests and citizens, delivering true localism, community resilience and assets, employee rights and security while enabling the participatory reform of both the public and private sectors.”

She says that “social enterprises can play their part in making society fairer, improving responsibility in the private sector and empowering community driven economic regeneration.”

If libraries are about enhancing community assets (e.g. literacy) as well as helping to overcome liabilities (e.g., school readiness), then the elements of management (developing capacity and capability while allocating resources appropriately and with accountability) can enhance social justice and mobility.

Somehow, we need to develop leaders from the get-go and enable them to exercise leadership throughout the organization and at all levels of their career. We need people who can speak of returns on investment rather than entitlements, public value as well as a public good, and push organizations and institutions to be ever more effective.

Perhaps a focus on social enterprise (as well as “intrapreneurship”) can bridge some of this gap.



About Ken Haycock

Ken Haycock is currently Research Professor of Management and Organization at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, where he coordinates graduate programs in Library and Information Management.

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13 Responses to Why Do Librarians Avoid Management?

  1. Cameron February 22, 2014 at 1:56 am #

    Not to sound like a broken record but, “We need people who can speak of returns on investment rather than entitlements.” ROI does not measure the same concept of “value” as an entitlement, though the for-profits would sure like librarians and their public to believe that it does. We’ve lost the language of the progressive ideology. Same library actions, different language to describes its value. Fortunately, the Guardian article is indicative of a resurgence of Progressivism, which will hopefully re-legitimate entitlements. Communities are ready to listen, we just need to define or re-find the concepts of value that allow us to legitimate library services in terms of a community unit-of-analysis versus an individual value. Once it’s defined, then measures can be developed.

    Great post, I’ve linked it to my Library Management class, so we’ll see what they think.

    • Robin Hartman February 23, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

      Quantifying value of a public good is a challenge. I agree that management skills are vital in librarianship but not every competent and valued librarian is going to be a successful business manager. Their value often depends on the community they serve – are they meeting the information and research needs of their constituents? The library manager should be able to recognize that value and articulate it for the community – even if the librarian doesn’t.

  2. Cameron March 2, 2014 at 2:57 am #

    An excellent point. That really does define the difference between a leading style of management versus an operational type management. I’ve come across a term I really like, “the library’s public.” I think it really cleanly captures our community. The Public, which is a community. I think it is from the progressive era, or slightly past. I’ll have to look it up : )

  3. Christina March 21, 2014 at 6:10 am #

    What fascinates me, and provides momentum for my own dissertation, is the conflation between management and leadership. They are not the same and the underlying assumptions about what it means to lead undermine its very nature. The result is stagnation and, I am discovering, a reproduction of what IS rather than, perhaps, what SHOULD BE.

    The slippery slope of tying leadership with management means that balancing budgets, finding efficiencies, and proving effectiveness become the only discourse. This is NOT innovative and is not likely to result in the development of a firm future for libraries. It is high time we practice what we preach…democratic ideals and values…to do this we must understand what participatory and democratic leadership can do for the field.

    Sadly, there is such a huge vacuum in reflexive practice in our field and so few places to find inspiration for its insertion. There are even fewer places to candidly and productively discuss the problems of management, leadership, values and practice for libraries. Language like “assets”, “measures” ,”productivity”, “capacity” are products of human capital theory and neoliberalism. Many drawn to the profession come into it with the hope of serving some greater purpose and the reductionist practices that often come with being a manager do not speak to the aspirations of new incumbents to the profession. There are some very good reasons why librarians fear the word “manage” and many have nothing to do with an unwillingness to “lead”.

    One does not have to be a manager to lead and some of the best managers do not lead libraries into the future… they allow others to do so.

    • Cameron Tuai March 26, 2014 at 7:54 pm #

      Agreed, the language of neo-liberalism permeates most if not all concepts managerial thought. I’m curious as to the tact or theoretical approach that you are taking/considering in addressing this issue in your dissertation?

      • Christina April 9, 2014 at 5:14 am #

        Bourdieu, possibly.

        • Cameron April 23, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

          Just came across this video of Bruno Latour, “The effects of capitalism.” For me Bourdieu, Latour, and for some reason Anthony Giddens seem to consistently pop up in my own studies concerning management, socio-technical theory and community informatics. As I am no a critical theorist, I admit little depth of knowledge concerning their writings, but offer them as theorists to keep an eye open for. I do know that Ron Day at Indiana is quite conversant in their thoughts so he may offer a lifeline if you’re really looking for some help. He’s a great guy so don’t be afraid to send him an email.

          Sounds like a great dissertation, and if I may offer a bit of a plug for organizational theory, have you considered institutional or structural contingency theory as possible framework?


  4. Karine Parry April 22, 2014 at 11:50 pm #

    This need to “define or re-find the concepts of value that allow us to legitimate library services in terms of a community unit-of analysis” is definitely a crucial consideration when discussing library management and why many librarians want to avoid the responsibility. Would value be placed on the ability of a library to remain in business, or the ability of a library to offer a needed service? I just had a discussion with an individual from the baby boomer generation that claimed she got so tired of spending time in the library (before computers and improved technology made access to information readily available) writing down notes, creating hundreds of notecards for her dissertation and collecting materials to support her arguments, that by the time her PhD was completed, she was glad to be free of the confines of the library. Today, Millennials are so interested in high-speed information and retrieving their sources quickly, that they may often forget the library offers a valuable service to help them. If the baby boomers were tired of libraries because of lesser technology options, and today’s Millennials are turning towards other sources to retrieve their information, the question of where libraries come into the picture really does raise a value question. Management in libraries today need to define this value line between service, access to information and value offered by their services. This responsibility does not always need to be just a managers responsibility though.

    Perhaps the notion of a library serving as a public good, there for the people, is where this disconnect or lack of motivation to take on a leadership role is rooted. Libraries and librarians are there for the people, to meet user/patron needs as they have questions and request service. They derive value out of being able to locate an item for a patron efficiently and knowledgeably; they derive value from being needed. Not by going out trying to convince people they are needed…Librarians are the faces for the resources they represent, because books and library materials cannot very well speak for themselves. When I think of a librarian, I think of a person who is simply there to speak on behalf of the books and show them where to find them. They are not there to advance the agendas of a book to people who may not be interested. Librarians role is to serve those who request the information. This is a service-driven objective, and a relationship that has had a long time to develop and establish, until now.

    As a manager, this responsibility requires active engagement with the public, the community and a more profit-driven interest in advancing the objectives of a library and seeking out support for their mission, vision and values. It requires that a librarian go looking for support, almost against their nature of simply serving as a needed information source when the general public needs it. A manager has other objectives in mind, including establishing a budget within available resources, assuring that programs can almost market to the interests of a community and assuring partnerships and relationships are maintained. By changing this focus that has been established for so long of providing a quiet service, to one that is more in the face of stakeholders, the community catches on that something has changed. Today this focus for management seems to be on assuring that public libraries, for example, maintain their place in the community; it is not necessarily just about providing a service that the public needs. In some respects, this change is unfortunate. In other respects, perhaps the change is needed for a generation that is forgetting the real value of information and losing their information literacy skills.

    Leadership can come from lower levels in the library organization. This may be another reason why many librarians do not want the main responsibility of management. They would rather lead quietly as needed, rather than being required to do so on an ongoing basis. I agree that at a root level, they do not want to “admit publicly to ambition” because doing so may challenge their principles and innate characteristics. Additionally, they may simply be unprepared or unable to manage as a result of the changed focus….Perhaps this is why many libraries are now bringing in managers with business backgrounds or from other disciplines, rather than simply MLIS degree-holding librarians. Unless a librarian wants to lead, they may not be right to do so. Some may lack the experience to take on management roles, regardless of the need. In this case, bringing in someone who wants to lead and who is capable of leading, is appropriate. The incentives, goals and motivations really need to be defined prior to really accepting and taking on a management role. Otherwise, demonstrating and practicing leadership could simply come from other levels of the organizational structure that do not hold the specialized title.

    Thank you,

    Karine Parry
    MMLIS Candidate 15′
    USC Marshall School of Business

  5. Cameron April 23, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

    A fascinating essay. I think you are spot on when you write about “…active engagement with the public, the community and a more profit-driven interest in advancing the objectives of a library…” Raber (1997) in his critique of the Public Library Inquiry, writes of the political nature of public libraries, and the need to prioritize resource allocations based upon the value that a particular marginalized community can bring to the library. The Jefferson County Public Library in Colorado is a great example of the type of innovative leadership that both yourself and Raber describe. For instance, I recently had an opportunity to talk to Tricia Lee, a branch manager in the JCPL system, and her vision and efforts to engage marginalized communities is very similar to your own thoughts on the future direction of public library services. Feel free to drop my name, if you want to contact her.

    One last thing about the earlier quote, I wonder if there is not a better phrase than “profit-driven” goal for advancing the objectives of the library. Profit-driven implies certain forms of measurements, which I have argued earlier as being at odds with measuring public library services. Currently, I am favoring the concept, and associated measures of “legitimacy” as a possible alternative. Does this fit your vision of value that is appropriate to public librarianship? Thanks for your thoughts, it’s good to know that USC is producing library leaders.


  6. Karine Parry April 24, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    Hi Cameron,

    Not sure exactly…I was more so just responding to why librarians are often avoiding management responsibilities and allowing the responsibility to be taken over by business MBA’s, and others with different backgrounds.

    Librarians are not suppose to be profit-driven. At a time when libraries are suffering though, they are almost being forced to become this way for survival purposes. At one time in our history, librarians were the gatekeepers of information and resources; the go-to professionals for researchers and professionals who needed information, trusted for their abilities to provide this service. Now, while they still hold this role, it is being challenged by other disciplines.

    USC’s business backed library science program offers its students a unique opportunity to incorporate business classes into a regular MLIS program, with an emphasis in management, perhaps because strong effective management is really needed in libraries today.

    It is interesting though because even in a program specifically tailored to prepare librarians for management roles, there are students here that are still reluctant to take on the role. In an effort to analyze why this is the case, I concluded it had something to do with experience level and the sheer weight of responsibility that comes along with effectively managing an organization that needs strong leadership and a profit-driven/community service driven objective. What if they cannot live up to the expectations and really lead effectively? Even aspiring librarians here recognize the difficulty and the political barriers they need to take into consideration, when making decisions that would ultimately improve their library organization. It is not just about offering a service to the public. It is also about gathering support so that libraries are able to offer this service to patrons, who now question how needed the service really is. There are so many variables to take into consideration. It is not just about the books anymore.

    Today’s libraries seem to need someone who advocates for their purposes. The quiet librarian waiting for patrons to ask for their help no longer seems to be enough. It is exhausting realizing and recognizing that a profession you feel you are appropriate for will require you to spend the best years of your professional life adapting to change, rather than just being what you are suppose to be.

    Karine Parry
    MMLIS Candidate 15′
    USC Marshall School of Business

  7. Cameron April 29, 2014 at 10:13 pm #

    Hi Karine,

    Legitimacy is a complex concept and requires some unpacking to associate it with the larger question of “… why librarians are often avoiding management responsibilities.” Sooo, in your second paragraph you state the Functions of libraries, “gatekeepers, go-to professionals for information…,” are being challenged by other disciplines, but note that the public library’s Goal concerning promotion of democracy, is not being challenged. The import of this distinction is that for-profit measures apply to achievement of for-profit Goals, whereas in libraries they simply measures the efficiency of our Functions and not our Goals. A significant problem for library managers. You are insightful in recognizing the library’s political nature in needing to gather support, but also note here the absence of a profit-driven measure of success. So how do politicians, libraries, and other public institutes measure success? Legitimacy.

    There is no denying that library students don’t enter the profession to be managers, but having graduated about 15 years ago, many of my classmates are now, however reluctantly moving into middle management library positions. The driving force is the realization that larger library ideals such as Open Access, Information Literacy, and other Intellectual Freedom concerns are more easily achieved from an organizational versus individual librarian perspective. You’re right that the lack of “experience” is a barrier to becoming a library manager, but we could accelerate the experience required for librarians to realize how management facilitates their ideals by (a) framing the library functions of acquiring, organizing and disseminating in terms of larger library goals; and necessarily (b) measuring the success of these actions in terms of legitimacy. This approach resolves the issue of thinking of library actions in terms of functions, with success defined in terms of for-profit measures. In other words, we need to avoid framing librarianship in terms of business like efficiency, which for librarians is inherently boring.

    Your analysis is accurate, and your vision is spot-on. My one recommendation is to go back and frame your previous posting’s assumptions in terms of the library’s goal of democracy as measured in terms of legitimacy. This perspective may give you some additional insights into the issues and possible solutions concerning library students and management.

    Last thoughts, I don’t think you need to advocate for the library’s “purpose”, after all who’s against democracy. Instead, you just need to advocates for how libraries facilitate this democratic purpose. You’re right, the quiet passive librarian is gone, if “she” every existed at all. In her stereotyped place is the exhilarating opportunity to lead a progressive effort to improve the lives of your community in a profession that you’ve have never felt more appropriately suited. It’s a grand time to be a library leader, don’t you think?


  8. christine June 20, 2014 at 3:41 am #

    Outsource Middle Management in libraries. Middle management in libraries is wasteful. Overpaid, useless, feckless, inefficient, and incompetent are only a few of the nicer words that come to mind. It’s already bad enough with so many who got bachelors degrees in non employable majors want to move over into Librarianship and then claim to be an “expert” on everything library related.