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How to manage a successful corporate library – a guide for managers

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Gwenda Sippings


If you read the national news and listen to the soothsayers, you’ll rarely find much optimistic comment on successful library provision. But if you look at the professional literature and talk to the people in the information industry you’ll find that libraries are valued not only as part of our heritage, but as the engine rooms of many successful organizations. However you have to work hard to make libraries successful despite all the talk of knowledge economy and information society. It’s not enough to manage a collection or service and expect people to use it voluntarily any more. People have become familiar with doing research themselves and also expect not to have to leave their workstations to find the answers to their information needs. And workstations are less likely to be dedicated in the flexible work/hot desking environment, and with more mobile users on the front-line business.

The following life cycle of library management activities proposes some ways in which managers can run libraries to ensure relevance, resource and reward for all concerned. A modern library many be a physical space or a virtual information service, but the concepts discussed here can apply to either scenario.

Who is the library for?

The first and most important consideration is to establish who the library is there to support. The manager needs to assess the potential audience and the target audiences. They need to consider the number and skills of the users and any other sources of information they have access to within the establishments

How does the library meet user needs?

It’s crucial to make the library relevant to the organization, and to match services to the key objectives. Managers need to listen to the users and talk to non users to understand how services can be better used and to get a clear strategic direction for development of future services. They also need to recognize quick wins that will add value to a large audience. There needs to be a clear awareness of user behaviours and a willingness to develop services which they can access easily using preferred contact methods. Managers should also listen to their staff when considering user needs. People working in library services have clear evidence of what users ask for, and their responses to what is provided. Where there are stories of satisfied customers, there is scope to attract more business through marketing and promotion of those elements of the services

Has the library got the best people to run its services?

This is a tough area for managers to address. Competency frameworks and published surveys show demand for a wide skill set for people working in libraries. Employers not only want core knowledge of information management, but also people with sophisticated communication and relationship building skills. Managers may also have to consider the need to include business specialists working alongside information specialists in their teams, to ensure services develop aligned to work practices and user skills. There’s also an increasing interest in employing a mixture of permanent and contract staff to ensure the best skills are used for business and usual and new service developments. The manager also needs to take responsibility for motivating staff and encouraging their personal development.

Has the library got the best resources to meet user needs?

The manager needs to audit the resources offered to users and ensure they are still meeting needs appropriately. This may include consideration of the balance of printed and online resources and the licensing arrangements for centralized and user workstation access. A review of user involvement in resource selection may provide valuable information about how the service keeps its relevance to the business. Stories from staff and users can again provide evidence of what’s valued and what’s wished for. Managers should also look at opportunities for shared services, particularly in public sector organizations, to enable them to stretch budget further. They need to be able to construct powerful business cases to pitch for these budgets to provide and enhance services which can be seen to affect overall business performance positively.

How does the library network and promote its services?

The library needs to team up with other professional and support services in the organization in order to maximize its effectiveness. Where separate information technology and communications teams exist, it’s highly beneficial to establish close relationship and use knowledge management techniques to share expertise and develop joint services. The manager needs to know the key people in the business areas and to ensure they receive good services so that they can confidently champion the library and its role in organizational success. New managers need to listen to stories about initiatives that have and have not worked, so that they can concentrate on publicising existing services to a wider user group, and can put resource into developing properly researched new services. It’s also important to celebrate innovative services which prove successful and draw wider attention to them in external publicity and in industry award nominations.

How does the library measure its performance?

The manager doesn’t have to operate in isolation. By setting up a library governance group he/she can tap into business and support services expertise all with a view to championing the services and helping to define its strategic direction and priorities. Online surveys and post-action reviews can provide valuable feedback from users, and casual conversations and more formal discussions should not be undervalued as sources of useful comment. Front-line staff should make a point of finding out how their work was used in a wider business context, and what the overall outcome for the business was. Outcomes may include influencing new product development, attracting new clients or enabling greater revenue to be collected. Managers need to evaluate feedback and ensure that their performance is reported and recognized.

From this anticipated position of strength and acknowledge value of the library’s role, the manager needs to celebrate briefly with staff then to start the life cycle checklist again. Organizations change constantly and the library must do so too to retain its level of success in actual and perceived terms. It’s challenging and requires hard work and proactive interaction with the business, but the rewards are worthwhile for all concerned.

About the author

Gwenda Sippings is an independent consultant offering interim management and advice in the areas of knowledge appreciation and information management. A competent facilitator, she also offers coaching and mentoring services for information and knowledge workers and senior executives. She has worked at senior management levels in the public and private sectors. Her experience includes strategy and policy making, management of knowledge and information services and leadership of change. She is involved in a number of advisory committees. Gwenda has a Master of Librarianship from the University of Wales Aberystwyth, and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (FCLIP).She holds a certificate and foundation diploma in coaching. For more information visit: