Long time attendees at NFAIS annual meetings will know that the Miles Conrad Memorial Lecture, given in honor of one of the founders of NFAIS, is the highest honor bestowed by the Federation. This year’s lecturer was Deanna Marcum, Managing Director of Ithaka S+R (http://www.sr.ithaka.org/), who was previously Associate Librarian for Library Services at the Library of Congress. She presented an outstanding and challenging lecture on the need for leadership changes in academic libraries in today’s digital age. The complete transcript of Marcum’s lecture is available on the NFAIS website at https://nfais.memberclicks.net/assets/docs/MilesConradLectures/2016_marcum.pdf.
Marcum said that the library used to be an end to itself, but now it needs to facilitate access to the full web of accessible resources. We have moved beyond simply providing support for searches and are educating students on web technologies. Automation has given us the tools to put resources in the hands of students, scholars, and the general public; all libraries are digital now, so they have become leaders in the digital revolution. But there is more to do; academic libraries must make dramatic changes, and a different kind of leadership is necessary, especially at the executive level.
According to Marcum, most academic library executives have at least one foot in the print world and have been trained to focus on local collections. However, a national and global mindset is essential, which requires a different kind of leadership. Leaders must have the capacity to channel the right knowledge to the right people at the right time. They must invest in services that users really want, instead of just making catalogs of their collections. Young librarians currently entering the profession are not interested in waiting several years to make a contribution; they want to make a difference immediately. Pairing them with people who know the print collection will help create new and innovative services.
Marcum applied 10 practices of digital leaders that were found in a study of successful digital organizations[i] to the library profession:
- Build a comprehensive digital strategy that can be shared repeatedly. Users need immediate access to electronic information.
- Embed digital literacy across the organization. Librarians must know as much about digital resources as they do about print ones.
- Renew a focus on business fundamentals. We must integrate digital and legacy resources to give currency to our mission.
- Embrace new rules of customer engagement. Users are now in control and can decide what is most important and how much it is worth. Many libraries have taken on aspects of cultural institutions and have made the library a welcoming place for students’ broad needs.
- Understand global differences in how people access and use the internet. We must provide services to a widely diverse population.
- Develop the organization’s data skills. Leaders must rely on data-driven decisions instead of past practices.
- Focus on the customer experience. Design services from the customer’s perspective; there is no “one size fits all”.
- Develop leaders with skill sets that bridge digital and traditional expertise. Invest the time to learn about digital technologies and the opportunities they present. Help staff on both sides of the digital divide see the value the other brings. New staff will be impatient with old rules.
- Pay attention to cultural fit when recruiting digital leaders. Minimize silos and focus on customers. Empower leaders who can advance digital objectives in an inspirational rather than a threatening way.
- Understand the motivations of top talent. Make it attractive to remain with the organization by making sure that there is excitement in the library.
Libraries are at a pivotal point now, and survival depends on becoming a node in a national and international ecosystem. Information needs are enormous and vast; digital technology has opened the doors for us.
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.