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IT leadership in libraries

April 15, 2016

“Clash of Cultures” – flickr, Walter A. Aue

At last week’s CNI Spring Membership in San Antonio, I had the pleasure of presenting an issues talk around the topic of IT leadership in libraries. To frame it somewhat provocatively, we titled it “From Invasive to Integrated: Information Technology and Library Leadership, Structure, and Culture” (slides). As Lisa outlines in her reflections on the session, this talk grew out of a Twitter conversation that I started by musing about what I see as chronic flaws in the management of IT in libraries. My own career has been one most often spent literally straddling the divide between the broader library culture and the library IT subculture (e.g.- Reference and Web Services Librarian), which has afforded me a unique perspective on how the borderlands between the two are shaped and navigated.

Frankly, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when we put in the proposal. We weren’t sure the topic would resonate with CNI and even make it on to the agenda. When it did, I was skeptical about attendance. I figured we would skew on the small CNI talk side–perhaps 15-20 people–and also had some concerns that someone might come who would say, bluntly, there’s no problem here, it’s been solved. In the event, neither of those fears panned out. We had about 60 people in the room, and clearly most were there because they, too, have concerns about these issues in their organizations and want to speak with others about how to move forward.

While we didn’t have much ability, as Lisa noted in her reflection, to take notes since the conversation flowed quickly and deftly and we were also a bit preoccupied (at least I was!) with the comments we were making ourselves, I did come away from the session with some impressions and thoughts I can outline here.

First, I was pleased and somewhat amazed that while we said at the outset that we wanted an informal session where people could comment as they pleased (as one often says at the outset of a talk to peers), in this case it actually happened. Long before we expected to have to facilitate a discussion into life, people began commenting, both to us and to each other. Seeing who was in the room–a fair number of senior administrators–this was particularly encouraging, because in the vacuum of a single institution it can be challenging, given the imperatives and demands of day-to-day work, to spark a meaningful conversation around organizational culture, let alone raise the issue of whither IT.

As Lisa noted, we had an interesting conversation emerge in the room around gender diversity in the IT realm in libraries and its lack of symmetry with the broader organization. This is one of my abiding professional concerns as I travel further down the administrative road. Recent experiences, such as reading Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture and listening to the excellent episodes emerging from Andromeda Yelton’s (Open paren podcast, have only heightened my sense that we still have a lot of work to do in libraries to open the doors of our tech shop to wonderful and diverse people who want to work in libraries where they feel comfortable and welcome. Anyone who thinks this is a solved problem or that it is a problem that will fix itself is deluding themselves and/or overly optimistic that libraries exist in some fantasy world where discrimination and various -isms dare not tread. As I said in the room, much of the problem stems from how we recruit people, starting with IT role job descriptions that are ridiculous in so many ways. Many of them literally scream “we want an IT guy,” emphasis on guy. (By the way, please consider expunging “IT guy” from your vocabulary permanently, if you haven’t already.)

Another colleague noted sagely that we need to note and respect that IT professionals have their own profession, as tautological as that sounds here. While I agree strongly that we need to recognize the specificity of IT roles and how they are addressed and remunerated in the broader economy (IT people are not interchangeable widgets), the notion of creating a parallel professional track in libraries unsettles me. I’m more interested in seeing how we can create pathways for IT staff to grow their careers and move into library management and administration, even expanding their sphere to areas that are not IT by even a broad definition. Part of what informs this issue is the unresolved issue of what constitutes an academic librarian. We still have many institutions adhering to the doctrinaire notion that the credential makes the librarian, while other institutions happily hire people sans credential into roles clearly labelled as capital-L Librarian roles, sometimes even as library administrators.

As mentioned above, I was particularly heartened by the number of senior library leaders in the room. In various venues, I’ve long lamented a general lack of knowledge around IT management and strategy in many library administrations and administrators. If one considers the dizzying array of highly complex and sophisticated IT projects running within or around libraries, we clearly need leadership that understands the complexities and context of this work, because it is the administration’s responsibility to properly fund, staff, reward, and promote the work. Many library leaders do understand, and their institutions flourish in these areas thanks to their sage and considered leadership. But this is far from universal, as one can learn if one speaks to library technology staff and hears their frustration at what they see as a disconnect between their work and their libraries’ strategies and culture.

Let’s continue this conversation at other events, in our organizations, and in our literature.


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