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Meet the editor of... Library Management

An interview with: Steve O'Connor
Interview by: Margaret Adolphus

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Image: Photo Steve O'Connor.Steve O'Connor is university librarian, Pao Yue-kong Library, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). Previously he was with CAVAL Collaborative Solutions, an Australian not-for-profit company established to provide library services to libraries in Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Prior to that he was university librarian at University of Technology in Sydney (UTS). He is also an adviser to Emerald.

About the journal

Library Management (LM) contains peer reviewed articles aimed at academics and senior managers within the library and information services (LIS) discipline or profession. It tackles a wide range of general management issues such as strategic management, human resources, finance and performance measurement, as well as new technological developments and how to future-proof the profession. Articles are submitted from all over the world and cover a broad range of library sectors – public, academic, specialist and government.

The journal is highly popular: in 2009, there was an average of 12,523 downloads per month, the yearly total being 150,276. Library Management China (LMC) is published annually in simplified Chinese.


About the editor

How and when did you become editor of LM?

It was in 2003; I got an e-mail out of the blue from the previous editor who said she was retiring and asked if I would like to take over the journal. I thought about it for a couple of days and came to the conclusion that it would really interest me. And I've never regretted it, I've learnt so much, not only about our profession, but also about publishing.

You know how sometimes you wander along in life and and think you know what's going on, then you suddenly get a different perspective? Being editor of LM has certainly done that for me.

And it's given me a much wider circle of professional colleagues. Once I was in Oslo for the IFLA conference and this guy was sitting next to me at a bar. He said, "You don't know who I am do you?". It turned out that he was one of my editorial board! We had been e-mailing frequently and although I felt I knew him really well, I'd never seen his picture and didn't know he was going to be at the conference.

In addition to that, I find it really satisfying to be able to identify the potential for a good article and see it through review to the finishing line.

It's also meant I could start Library Management China, which was a real challenge as I didn't know the language much then. We just launched the second issue last week, which was very exciting.

You are originally from Australia, but are now working in Hong Kong. LM had a special issue devoted to managing across different cultures (Volume 28, Issue 4/5). How did you find the transition across cultures and continents?

I found it quite easy. My wife and I knew a lot of people from Hong Kong and got on with them very well, I have an interest in Chinese culture and history, and I'd worked in the Chinatown district of Sydney, so from a gastronomic perspective I was pretty much at home! I relished the prospect of living in a foreign culture and learning a new language, Putonghua, sometimes referred to as Mandarin, the common language of the Han Chinese. I haven't progressed enormously because in Hong Kong everyone speaks Cantonese or English, but I can introduce a small amount of Putonghua when giving talks or workshops on the mainland.

It was more of a culture shock to go from an expenditure based organization at UTS to an income based one at CAVAL, than it was to move countries. In a university library you get a budget and spend down to the last cent. Coming to Pao Yue-kong Library from an income-based organization, where you had to earn the money, made me extremely aware of where we could tighten our expenditure and where we could be more effective and efficient. I recommend that every librarian should be employed in a commercial or not-for-profit organization at some stage in their career because it gives you an entirely different perspective on things.

We started working together at PolyU right from the beginning, using scenario planning to map out a new future. There was a lot of hunger for that because the previous librarian had been in the post for 34 years and while the library was extremely well managed, people were looking to work out where they should be, as opposed to where they were currently.

It was a very good way of getting to know a lot of people very quickly, and I've got total respect for the professionalism of the staff here, they are very knowledgeable and extremely committed to their jobs.

Journal mission

LM provides articles of relevance to the management of libraries. How else would you describe your mission, for example what sorts of topics do you cover?

When I started I made it clear I was interested in the future, and that I would be encouraging authors to write about where we want and ought to be as a profession. And so the mission is about trying to position the profession not tomorrow, not the next day, not next year, but three to five years hence, and getting people to think about things that all too often get submerged by the pressures of budgets and other operational matters.

I'm also keen to build bridges between cultures. Library Management China is a very concrete example of the broader vision of trying to get LM into countries and cultures that we might not have been strong in before, and overcoming the barrier of language (I'm not competent in Putonghua and a lot of Chinese are not confident to publish in English). I'm also keen to get into countries where we have not been very strong, such as the US and India.

How do you see your position in relation to other journals such as the ALA's Library Administration and Management and Journal of Library Administration?

I don't like the term "administration", I think management should be about leading, whereas "administration" suggests keeping things ticking over. However, with regard to the ALA journal, I am very aware of the need to get into the US market. I have been chasing people for the editorial board and trying to attract good authors. We also have UK- and US-based associate editors who are doing their bit, for example building networks of new authors at conferences.

Otherwise, we have a wide geographical spread of authors: in 2009, we had contributions from the UK, Europe, Australasia, Singapore, China, India, the Far East, and Japan. And, in previous years, there have been authors from African countries as well.

LM is over 30 years old. What are some of the main changes that the journal has seen over that time span?

Perhaps the greatest change, brought about by digitization, is a sense of disembodiment. We publish nine issues a year with roughly five articles per issue; these used to be enclosed in a bound volume, but now they are also exist as digital objects stored on a database.

The general trend now is for libraries to take the digital and not the bound version, although US libraries still tend to take paper copies. So this means that we can get a sense of what people are reading through the download figures, and we know that the most popular LM downloads tend to be on staff management or change management. So how do you promote something that might be left field? RSS helps, but people are accessing our articles through the Emerald search engine; they are not flipping through the contents and being tempted by something that they might come across by chance.

So digitization empowers the user to search in a more targeted and deliberate way, but you lose the serendipity of browsing from a contents list. And what about the motivation for downloading a particular article? I try and push the idea of people doing research before they make decisions. But I get the impression that readers are downloading for immediate need rather than as a background to decision-making. I'm not sure about this, but it would be an interesting hypothesis to test. Making content discoverable is a real challenge.

Editorial policies and journal community

You have an almost equal readership from the public and academic sectors. Is it your policy to appeal equally to senior managers and LIS academics?

Yes, definitely. The two sides of the divide don't always talk and there are tensions – when I was at UTS there was a library school, and the school and the library always went their separate ways. But good outcomes can come out of tension. I see LM as creating a bridge between the academic researcher and the practitioner, rather than purely as an academic journal.

I try and get people from one side of the academic divide to write for the other side. For example, when I have authors who write in a very erudite fashion, I try to get them to consider what librarians, people actually working in the field, will get out of their article. People need to relate to what you are writing about, and be able, if they are working in a library, to implement it. On the other hand, if we didn't have library academics, it would be a very dull profession.

I am also lucky in having Ed Evans on my editorial board: Ed has worked on both sides of the divide and is also a prolific author. It's always interesting to get his views on these matters.

I am always interested in the way journals manage to balance being research based with also being relevant to practice; for some, it's a case of getting the research to percolate down through consultants, etc. as managers are often too busy to read the journals. Are library managers an exception, in that there is a real concern to find out about evidence-based practice? How else do you appeal to them?

I think that's true, and I've always held the view that practitioners should do research. The research may not be fancy funded projects, but should aim to help you reach an informed decision, one based on data you've collected and analysed.

Earlier in my career the major libraries would always employ research librarians to look into these things, but these positions are now all gone, and library managers now find themselves under so much pressure.

I try and read as much as I can and encourage my managers to do the same – although I don't think any of us read enough – and to base their recommendations on hard data as evidence.

Each issue of LM seems to carry a range of editorial material: book reviews, research articles, conceptual articles, and case studies. How do you decide the editorial mix, and is there anything you particularly look for?

To a certain extent, it just depends what comes in. However, I always like thought pieces because they get people to articulate their views and provide a different perspective. Case studies should be set in a wider concert rather than just about how someone did something well. I also like good solid research articles, but these tend to come out of academia rather than libraries, which is a shame.

No matter what type of article – and I always stress this when running author workshops – is that what you say should make a difference, and be something people want to read. If a study is too focused on a particular country or situation, then it will not appeal to our fairly sophisticated international audience.

You highlighted the Semantic Web – well before it was being widely talked about in the profession – in a 2005 special issue of Library Management (Vol. 26 Nos 4/5). In comparison, it was 2009 before the Online Information Conference and Exhibition considered that the Semantic Web had "come of age". Do you have special issues lined up which are similarly "prophetic"?

I'm planning one with Ed Evans on the future of academic libraries. To some extent it comes out of the conference we've just held here in Hong Kong, "Academic Librarians 2: Singing in the Rain". I'm trying to get leadership programmes started, but I'm finding it extremely difficult to get it to happen because it's not a three or four day course, it goes on for a year or two and involves mentoring and development and trying to create a whole new generation of managers. Ed's doing a fair bit of writing in this area and has a book coming out on the future of academic librarianship.

The Academic Librarians conference was highly successful; I invited the best speakers globally I could find, and most of them accepted because it was attractive to them to come to Hong Kong and to contribute with such a good collection of minds. Some of the papers will end up in the journal, and at the rate we are going we may well get two issues out of the conference.

Library Management China

Can you tell me about LMC?

We publish an issue a year, and each issue has about ten articles. Although in Chinese, which effectively limits it to the China market, it is totally international in that it belongs to Emerald, which is an international publisher. It has an editorial board and is double-blind peer reviewed.

Emerald has been very good about supporting the journal while we find a suitable business model, and although it refers to LMC as a supplement, I prefer the term "issue" as supplement means something different in the Chinese market.

In our first year, 2008, we had 25 submissions; the issue carried four from the international edition and five or six from Chinese authors. For the 2009 issue, we had about 120 proposals, so I only took one article from the international edition, while LM published some articles from LMC. For 2010, we plan to take some papers from the conference and ask the authors to publish in their native language, so the quality will go up even more.

There is a tendency for Chinese academic journals to publish "supplements" which carry "paid for" articles, although these are not peer reviewed. The South China Morning Post recently reported that in 2007, Chinese academic authors paid a total of 150 million RMB for placing their articles in these supplements; the figure rose to over one billion RMB in 2008.

However, Chinese (and indeed many throughout this region) academic authors are under great pressure to publish internationally, not least because of the link to promotion, so they will jump at the chance to publish in LMC.

And finally ...

There is a certain amount of gloom about whether or not librarians are meeting up to the challenges of the age, particularly those from the digital revolution. But it seems there is indication that they are coping pretty well: the physical library seems to be very healthy, with a lot of new builds (for example, information commons in academic libraries, brand new library buildings in Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh); librarians are reinventing themselves as knowledge managers; there is no dearth of digital tools and resources. What do you think?

Yes, all these things are important, but I think the jury's still out on what the profession will look like in two years' time.

In my opening address to the Academic Librarians conference, I said we should not be afraid of calling ourselves librarians: we may have different functions and be engaged in different disciplines, but we still have a university library and librarians, and it's a good profession. But we can't afford to stand still, we need to move on and reinvent ourselves.

Our roles are to ensure that the communities we serve are information literate and that the tools we provide are discoverable. Here at Pao Yue-kong Library we put 75 per cent of our annual budget into digital content, and that figure will rise, so our content will have very little tactility. How do you make these amazing resources available?

Librarians have a huge educative role in making people information literate: they need to become teachers. We have also created an e-learning librarian to further ensure that digital content is readily available for teaching and research. It's not just a case of making sure people can find things; they also need to be aware of the questions they should be asking. People often don't know what they don't know, and if you don't know the right questions to ask, you'll never find the right answer.

Librarians thus need to work closely with academics, delivering face-to-face sessions and making sure that content is available to students through formal e-learning programmes, delivered on virtual learning environments such as Moodle or WebCT. I prefer Moodle because it's open source: it is an environment where all digital content is openly available, not hidden behind proprietary walls.

And, discoverability is important too. We are still hanging on to our old integrated library systems, which are based on MARC data. We still use fixed subject terms from the Library of Congress subject headings list, but they are structured and don't respond well to the language used by the student. Nor are they as smart as Google searches. We need also to work on constructing the right tools, so we can make information available to our clientele in the most effective way possible.

Editor's note

Margaret Adolphus interviewed Steve O'Connor in March 2010.

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