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Managing in a digital age

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By Margaret Adolphus


One of the more exaggerated predictions about the Internet was that it would spell the end of libraries. This has proved unfounded, but there is no doubt that the impact of information and communication technology (ICT) is one of several factors which make any management job in a library challenging and one requiring flexibility. In fact, Castiglione (2007) has commented that while library management remained almost unchallenged throughout the twentieth century, new developments with ICT mean that change is happening very fast in the twenty-first. This article looks at the management skills required of libraries in the digital age, drawing mainly on articles in Emerald journals over the past four years.

Many authors report on the increase in management responsibilities faced by librarians. A Danish survey reported by Pers (2005) describes managers as being routinely involved in such managerial issues as strategic planning, benchmarking, image and branding, while Malham (2006) claims that in the increasingly corporate culture of Indian libraries, management skills are as important as professional ones.

The explosion of the Internet, which means that more and more information is available online, affects both the information that libraries store and the infrastructure needed to contain it: databases as well as paper books and journals, electronic networks as well as shelves. Then there is the related trend to disintermediation, with many believing that all knowledge is contained in Google, so libraries can be bypassed. Academic libraries have to cater for increasing numbers of students and researchers. Public libraries need to provide multimedia resources and Internet access as well as books, whilst in some countries (e.g. the UK and Denmark) they are linked in with other municipal services. Neither sector has seen an increase in funding to cope with these challenges.

Both technological and political change therefore fuels the need for good management skills, but what are these and at what level? Stephens and Hamblin quote the Information Services National Training Organisation’s list:

  • customer care;
  • leadership;
  • managing change;
  • negotiating; and
  • technology awareness.

Chan (2006) describes a competence system adopted by Canadian public libraries, and how these were defined as communication skills, interpersonal skills, customer service and analytical skills. Cullen (2004) describes research done on job adverts to ascertain requirements, and produces a list of skills of which the most important are administrative and organizational abilities, staff management and supervision, leadership and analytical skills/judgement. Most of the authors quoted cite leadership, flexibility and the management of change as the most important issue, crucially for senior librarians but also for anyone who is responsible for motivating staff.

What follows is an account of the managerial skills most commonly cited by authors. While Cullen (2004) differentiates between various levels of managers – those at first line level, who are involved in the creation of projects, the middle managers, whose work is still mainly about library processes, and senior managers, who are more involved at an organizational level – in general there is a tacit assumption that in a turbulent age all managers need to exert leadership skills.

Leadership and other interpersonal skills

Mullins and Lineham (2006) sum up the situation by saying that "now the spotlight is on leadership" which is the "Holy Grail of librarianship"; virtually all the authors quoted in this article believe that leadership is an important attribute, if not the most important, at least for senior managers (McKnight, 2007).

The UK Government-appointed Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership defines leadership skills as (2002, quoted from Cullen, 2004):

“… those skills which relate to: creating a sense of vision in a fast-changing environment; motivating teams of people and leading them through change; and being innovative in products and services and ways of working”.

Quite a few authors distinguish between management and leadership. The former is seen as oversight and administration – ensuring that library processes function efficiently – whereas the latter is about vision and managing change. Mullins and Lineham (2006) quote various authors in making the distinction:

"Kotter (1990), for example, suggests that the main function of management is the provision of organizational order and consistency, in contrast with the primary function of leadership, which he suggests is to produce change and movement. In essence, management is about seeking order and stability, while leadership seeks adaptive and constructive change. Management is typically associated with many specific functions, such as forecasting, planning, organizing, commanding, co-ordinating, controlling, and 'fire fighting'. … According to Bryson, 'Leadership differs from management in that management directs both human and non-human resources towards a goal, whereas leadership is concerned with creating a vision that people can aspire to' (1999, p. 169)".

However, the fact that the two can be distinguished does not mean that they are the province of distinctive levels of management: all managers should have leadership qualities (Mullins and Lineham, 2006).

McKnight (2007) takes a similar view of leadership as vision, motivation, direction, but adds the ability to make things happen, and to persevere, while Mullins and Lineham (2006) list prioritizing along with vision.

Motivation, coaching and cooperation

Motivation is key to getting a workforce to work to its maximum ability: a successful manager should understand what motivates their staff and use that to influence their behaviour (Jain, 2005). A library will thrive under a leadership that is democratic, that creates (McKnight, 2007) an empowered workforce, that is "transformational" and inspires individuals to transcend self-interested motives as their needs and those of the organization are aligned (Mullins and Lineham, 2007).

Coaching is particularly important to ensure that staff have the skills to enable them to cope with changes in their role (Ashcroft, 2004) and is also mentioned as part of leadership by Jain (2005), McKnight (2007), and Stephens and Hamblin (2006).

It is important to encourage cooperation in the workforce. Jain (2005), McKnight (2007), and Stephens and Hamblin (2006) stress team building and networking, and Chan (2006) describes how interpersonal skills – "relationships with others, including working cooperatively, sharing knowledge, and being respectful" – has become a core competence in some Canadian public libraries.

Managing diversity

Diversity in culture is common in both library staff and customers and the manager should be sensitive to cross-cultural issues. In fact, one benefit of the need to develop a whole range of management skills is that the librarian becomes highly employable, not only in his or her own country but abroad. McKnight (2007), who describes her experiences as an Australian taking a job in the UK, claims that the more senior you are in your profession, the more you require management expertise rather than professional knowledge. The latter is less context specific, and academic libraries the world over tend to experience the same problems of need for cultural change etc.

The overseas library manager will him or herself be from a different culture, and need to take this into account in managing the workforce; staff may, for example, expect a more formal style than you are used to (Jeffcoate, 2007).

Skills of negotiation, evaluation and analysis

Library managers require sound judgement in order to make wise decisions and weigh up often complex factors. Analysis, the ability to make decisions and know when to look for guidance, is listed as a core competence by Chan (2006). Evaluation in a more technical sense, of strategies, tactics, services, etc., is cited by Ashcroft (2004), who also mentions obtaining usage statistics of journals.

Budgeting and negotiation skills

Librarians need good financial skills in order to be able to cope with the costliness of resources and the uncertainties of funding. They need to be able to maximize revenue and minimize costs (McKnight, 2007). In an electronic age, purchasing is not a matter of choosing the right books for the subject, but rather of getting good value from bundled e-journal deals with relevant information at a reasonable price (Ashcroft, 2005).

Negotiation skills and influencing

Managing a library with any digital component involves negotiating over large databases and systems, and with colleagues over different ways of doing things, so McKnight (2007) and Stephens and Hamblin (2006) list ability to negotiate as a key skill.

Positive influencing skills are part of negotiating and Cervone (2005) provides useful advice here, helpfully pointing out that managing a digital project is as much about the personalities involved as it is about the technology. Particularly useful are his tips on dealing with resistance. If people ask for more time, ask them what are the issues that are making them hesitate. If they fail to see the need, point out what would happen if the need isn’t met. If they need more information, find out what they want and give it to them. If they appear to agree, but reluctantly, show them how the change will benefit them.

Communication, marketing and customer service

This particular cluster of attributes relates to the librarian’s ability to communicate with their key audiences, market their services and satisfy their customers.

Libraries these days are in a competitive situation with other information sources, and need to rely on a whole range of promotional and marketing methods (Ashcroft, 2004; Malhan, 2006). In an age of short-term contracts, promotion also needs to be applied to oneself (Ashcroft, 2004).

Libraries need to be customer-oriented, responding to customers’ needs, being polite and courteous and responsive to different cultures (Chan, 2006). Those entering the profession need to have customer care skills (Stephens and Hamblin, 2006).


Communication skills are also highly important, both in the general sense of active listening and giving feedback (to both customers and colleagues), as well as more specifically around that core skill of librarians: information. Staff should be knowledgeable about services and should feed back comments from customers (Ashcroft, 2004). User education is also key; users need educating about the technology but crucially about the resources themselves. Ashcroft (2004) points out that the librarian is now part of the teaching process; Malhan (2006) that:

"Quality filtering of enormous volume of information and trafficking the high quality information to work processes and information user communities of the university is in fact now a major challenge for university libraries".

Quality management

Quality is an issue which library managers need to be aware of – as do all managers – and Rowley (2005) provides useful guidance including a checklist of points. She suggests devising systems to provide evidence for the plethora of initiatives, as well as a recognition that quality extends beyond the organization to database suppliers and others who make up the information network which constitutes the service. While quality assurance is important to guarantee funding, quality enhancement is also important to ensure its effective use.

Getting the best out of the workforce

In the twenty-first century library, with its empowered workforce and need to maximize resources, all must work to their maximum ability. Many authors mention the concept of performance management, and Chan (2006) describes how rather than just confining it to the annual appraisal, some Canadian libraries are using it as a way of monitoring performance on a continual basis.

Performance management involves integrating individual and organizational goals, and providing any necessary training or coaching. It goes through a cycle of planning, when objectives are agreed, coaching in the necessary skills, with feedback, and review.

Another approach to the full utilization of staff, which is used quite commonly in US libraries, is that of self-managed teams. These teams – with a membership of 10-20 employees – work within a particular occupational area with a minimum of supervision, decide which work methods to use and train one another, with a team leader. (For example, at the University of Maryland, the teams group under information and research services, collection management, information literacy and access services.)


In this article we have described a number of management skills which the library manager needs in a rapidly changing environment. Perhaps the most important thing, however, is to be flexible, and to encourage flexibility in one’s staff. Change brings opportunity as well as threat, and will always provide challenges for those willing to take them on, and flexible enough to try out new things.


Ashcroft, L. (2004), "Developing competencies, critical analysis and personal transferable skills in future information professionals", Library Review, Vol. 53 No. 2, pp. 82-88.

Castiglione, J. (2007), "Self-managing work teams and their external leadership", Library Management, Vol. 28 Nos. 6/7, pp. 379-393.

Cervone, H.F. (2005), "Influencing: a critical skill for managing digital library project teams", OCLC Systems & Services: International digital library perspectives, Vol. 21 No. 2, pp. 105-109.

Chan, D.C. (2006), "Core competencies and performance management in Canadian public libraries", Library Management, Vol. 27 No. 3, pp. 144-153.

Cullen, J. (2004), "LIS labour market research: implications for management development", Library Management, Vol. 25 No. 3, pp. 138-145.

Jain, P. (2005), "Strategic human resource development in public libraries in Botswana", Library Management, Vol. 26 Nos. 6/7, pp. 336-350.

Jefcoate, G. (2007), "Managing libraries overseas: some challenges and opportunities", Library Management, Vol. 28 Nos. 4/5, pp. 207-212.

Malhan, I.V. (2006), "Developing corporate culture in the Indian university libraries", Library Management, Vol. 27 Nos. 6/7, pp. 486-493.

McKnight, S. (2007), "The expatriate library director", Library Management, Vol. 28 Nos. 4/5, pp. 231-241.

Mullins, J. and Lineham, M. (2006), "Are public libraries led or managed?", Library Review, Vol. 55 No. 4, pp. 237-248.

Pors, N.O. (2005), "Changing perceptions and attitudes among Danish library managers and directors", New Library World, Vol. 106 Nos. 3/4, 107-115.

Rowley, J. (2005), "Making sense of the quality maze: perspectives for public and academic libraries", Library Management, Vol. 26 Nos. 8/9, pp. 508-518.

Sidorko, P.E. (2007), "Fostering innovation in library management and leadership", Library Management, Vol. 28 Nos. 1/2, pp. 5-16.

Stephens, D. and Hamblin, Y. (2006), "Employability skills: are UK LIM departments meeting employment needs?", New Library World, Vol. 107 Nos. 5/6, pp. 218-227.