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Project management for librarians

Projects and the librarian

What is a project?

A project is a planned undertaking which delivers a specific outcome using pre-defined and often specially allocated stocks of time, money, resources and equipment. The outcome may be a product or a service, and will require a business case to justify it.

Projects happen outside the normal operations of an organization and have specific start and end dates, and a unique end result. Success in delivery lies in the ability to produce the outcome to the agreed quality, within budget and within the agreed time-scale. In practice, however, there may need to be some trade-off between these three, for example if the deadline is tight and unmovable the budget may need to be increased to pay for extra resources, or some quality sacrificed.

Librarians and projects

Librarians in every sector are increasingly dealing with discrete projects, often with a large technological component, over and above the ongoing services they provide. Many of these projects involve digitizing all or part of the collection, and making services available to their users online. The move from print to digital has caused a huge sea change in the way librarians work: they are no longer custodians of knowledge and need more than ever to follow user requirements in a rapidly changing world.

For example, the British Library has an extensive ongoing digitization project, which includes such initiatives as the Researchers’ Information Centre, which facilitates collaboration between researchers, and the National Digital Library, which is about archiving digital content. In the Umeå region of northern Sweden, five municipalities have pooled their resources to create an integrated library system, enabling users to borrow from and return to different libraries, order from a combined collection of 25 libraries via the website,, and write book reviews and other content.

Many organizations conduct systematic reviews to make sure they meet user needs and keep ahead of the game. In many cases, they also need to improve their level of service on the same budget, or one that has not increased in proportion to service requirements:

  • Chia (2001) describes how the National Library Board (NLB) of Singapore conducted a study designed to create a service that was convenient, affordable and accessible to the people of that country. Partly as a result of new libraries placed in shopping malls for accessibility, visits had increased fivefold and loans had doubled. The budget had not increased by the same amount, so the NLB had to rethink its service paradigm and innovate out of a situation of over-crowded libraries and dissatisfied customers.
  • In 2004, the library of the University of Western Australia launched a strategic plan in an attempt to maintain and improve services during a period of rapid change. This involved breaking down silos in the library so that there were no artificial barriers, and providing training for staff, including a generic training programme for new recruits, so that much-needed new skills could be acquired rapidly (Kiel, 1007).
  • The objective of the Umeå library project was to improve service levels by creating a far larger and more accessible library system, by linking together all 25 libraries in the region, but without increasing costs.

As libraries undertake more and more projects, they need to become familiar with the tools, techniques and methods of project management.

The benefits of a project management approach

The main principle behind project management, whatever methodology is used, is that planning can help a project by clarifying the main objectives, matching resources to the achievement of those objectives, trying to predict and pre-empt the risks involved, and monitoring tasks on a daily basis. In all methodologies, the life cycle of the project is followed, starting with an idea for a particular product or service and ending with the implementation of the service or the delivery of the product. See Figure 1.


Image - Figure 1. The lifecycle of a project. Initiating -> Monitoring & controlling -> planning -> executing -> Closing.

Figure 1: The lifecycle of a project (© Manjeet Singh,


Project initiation

A business case will need to have been put for something that meets a genuine customer need, which should also look at what will happen if the case is not met. This should be reviewed, and the objectives refined. Risks will be identified, along with means of controlling them. The project team will be put together (the implementation team, not the project board which makes key decisions).

At the end of this stage, a document will be produced which defines the who, what, where and how of the project. It may have a specific name, such as "statement of work", or "project initiating document", depending on the methodology used.


The planning process involves determining the key tasks required to achieve the objectives, and putting them together to create a work plan or schedule. It is probably advisable not to plan far-off tasks in too much detail, but to think in terms of a number of project stages, often referred to as project milestones. During the operational stages of the project, the various milestones will be planned in greater detail. However it is important to determine the critical path, those activities which are dependent on one another.

Planning also involves allocating resources to the various tasks, be they people, equipment, facilities, outside suppliers, etc.

All this information is put together in a project plan, which is a major control document for the project, to be constantly referred to and updated.


This is the stage when operational work on the project starts. The project manager will need to brief the team and direct their activities so that the necessary objectives are met. The team may not report directly to the manager and some may even be more senior, but it is still important to keep up a good team spirit and get people to focus on the project and the tasks needed to complete it. Changes may be required for a whole variety of reasons even if the project’s original scope has been agreed – external circumstances may change or new opportunities arise – and it is the project manager’s job to look at the effect of the change on the plan, and obtain approval for varying the course.


The project manager will need to monitor the plan carefully, producing a more detailed workflow for each stage of the plan and ensuring that the necessary resources and equipment are in place. He or she will also need to report on progress, troubleshoot where necessary, and update the plan.

Project closure

This happens when the project output has been released, and involves checking that the customer is satisfied with the end product or service, and handing over to implementation. At this stage it’s important to review the project and look at the lessons learnt, which can be incorporated into future project planning.

The National Library Board (NLB) of Singapore has for some time worked in a project-centric way in order to achieve its objectives. Staff have adopted their own project management methodology and developed a manual to provide guidance on the recommended templates, standards and guidelines for defining, planning, executing, closing-out and reviewing projects. All professional staff are trained in this methodology, which is illustrated below (Figure 2).


Image - Figure 2:  Project management methodology of the National Library Board. 1. Define & organize the project. 2. Plan the project. 3. Track & manage the project. 4. Close-out & review.

Figure 2: Project management methodology of NLB (© National Library Board of Singapore)


Project management is used especially, but far from uniquely, for technology projects. A very high number of the latter fail: according to Tanner (2001), one-third of failures is attributable to poor planning, one-third to poor objectives, and one-third to poor communication. All these are project management issues: very few projects fail because of technological factors.

Other advantages of project management are that it provides:

  • a common language that everyone can understand, which is particularly convenient with multidisciplinary project teams;
  • more control when a lot of projects are being worked on together;
  • a system for allocating resources, without which people may not be available to work on the project, which slows down progress and makes implementation difficult;
  • clarity on the project’s scope, lack of which can make planning difficult and increase the risk of scope creep.


Kiel (2007) maintains that before the University of Western Australia Library introduced project management systems, projects were poorly scoped, had no clear direction, lacked resources for implementation, and were difficult to transfer to operation. Furthermore, there was no cross-project overview.

The NLB in Singapore introduced project management because it needed a "common language to regulate the myriad initiatives" (Chia, 2001) that it wanted to implement, that would be understood by its multidisciplinary staff. They undertake about 200 projects a year, and without this common language, things would be chaotic.

The University of Leeds Library has been using project management for some time now, because of the volume of projects and the need for managers to have an overview. They concluded that project management techniques were not only beneficial but necessary to demonstrate value for money, and to make sure that the customer was fully involved (Stanley et al., 2003).

Good practice in project management

Even without following specific methodologies, there are a number of principles of good project management:

Take care to define the project as clearly as possible: what exactly is to be achieved, and to what quality?

If there is a clear vision for the project, it will be easier to list tasks and check that there are the necessary resources to match the vision. Also, scope creep will be less likely, and if requirements do change, it will be easier to see the effect on the plan. Some projects prioritize effort in areas where results will be most beneficial.


  • The University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign had a project to barcode 8.5 million volumes in the library, due to a new integrated library system which circulated items by barcode number. They prioritized three million high-use volumes (Atkins, 2004).
  • When a project manager took over the Umeå library project, he felt that the aims were not sufficiently concrete, so gave them a thorough reassessment.

Invest in the planning process: this will minimize later implementation problems

Because it does not yield an output, it is tempting to rush through it, especially if there is a tight deadline. In particular, observe the following:

  • Plan key deliverables as "mini goals" or milestones – for example, all digital rights obtained, all objects prepared for digitization. This has the effect of creating "waymarks" along your project route, and providing a sense of achievement once passed.
  • Achieve a balance between planning and flexibility. The plan should not be so rigid that it’s not possible to respond and adapt to unanticipated events. On the other hand, avoid being too flexible and ad hoc decision making.


The Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS) implemented a project to digitize its stock of images (Fenton, 2007). One of the lessons learnt was that one-third of a project is concerned with planning, but this does not yield an output, so is often not understood.

A pilot, or feasibility study, in other words a smaller part of the whole, is a good way of testing out the larger project

This will help establish benchmarks on which to base projected costs and test operational strategies; it also strengthens the team’s confidence. Thus it can be a good risk management tool.

For example, the barcoding project at the University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign carried out a pilot on the History and Philosophy Library. This helped the team to test their procedures, streamline their processes, and benchmark how many items could be completed per hour. As a result, they were in a better position to take their manpower and costs projections to management (Atkins, 2004).

Sometimes, it is the project management system itself which is piloted. When the University of Leeds Library introduced Prince2, it selected a number of its current projects, for example the upgrade of the library desktop, some digitization work, the implementation of the university’s portal, and the online conversion of the library’s video (Stanley et al., 2003).

Foster teamwork

Find the most capable team members, and make sure that they have the necessary level of technical and organizational skills, as well as clear roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities.

A "lesson learnt" from the RSGS project was that project roles had been unclear, and this, together with volunteers working with professional staff, had caused problems (Fenton, 2007).

Find the right project manager

This person has a key role, and will be highly instrumental in ensuring successful project completion. A good project manager will have leadership and team-building skills, have a grasp of detail and the impact of elements on the project as a whole, while still being able to see the bigger picture, and will be politically savvy and a good negotiator, able to engage where necessary with senior management.

Involve key stakeholders from the start, and have an understanding of the organizational context in which the project is operating

This means:

  • Buy-in from senior management, who will champion the project and allocate resources.
  • Users of the project, as well as those involved in the project’s operational activities. According to Tanner (2001), interested parties include curators of various items, rights holders, those responsible for creating the metadata.
  • Others, who may be affected by resources being moved away from their area of operation.


The University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign had a project to move little used volumes to high density shelving in order to increase space for higher use volumes. The project manager "bought" good will by allowing departmental librarians to transfer 3,000 volumes, thus going some way to meet their space requirements.

Make use of project management software

Project management software – such as Microsoft Project – can help greatly with the task of creating a plan of the project workflow. It allows you to create tasks and subtasks and allocate resources to the tasks. It shows the interrelationship between tasks and their effect on the schedule, automatically rescheduling when an end date changes, as well as the critical path. Becoming reasonably proficient in such a system can make a real difference to the chore of project planning.


Image. Figure 3: Gantt chart for barcoding project for University of Illinois Library (Atkins, 2004).

Figure 3: Gantt chart for barcoding project for University of Illinois Library (Atkins, 2004)


Have good communication, between team members, with stakeholders and clients, and with senior management

The first will ensure that the team will know what to expect from one another, for example the person responsible for the digitization process knows how and when he or she will receive the items. The second will reassure the client that needs will be met. The third will enable management to know that things are going smoothly, and when their input is required.


At the University of Leeds Library, staff can make use of Virtual Knowledge Park, which enables document sharing and discussion. Templates for project management documents can be accessed, and each group member has their own folder to store project documents, enabling people to learn from each others’ completed reports.

Using Prince2 Methodology

So far, we have talked in general terms about good practice in project management, without highlighting any particular methodology. Prince (which stands for Projects IN Controlled Environments) is a system developed in the UK by the Central Computer and Telecoms Agency (now the Office of Government Commerce) and used widely in both the private and the public sector, in the UK and overseas. Prince2 was launched in 1992 based of the experience of many projects and in response to user requirements for more guidance on all types of projects, and has become an international standard for project management methodology. Although highly formalized, the system is scalable and flexible, so can be adapted to the requirements of the organization and the project.

Prince2 is a process-based approach to project management, and has eight core processes or management activities, as illustrated by Figure 4, below:


Image. Figure 4: Prince2 processes. Stages - Starting a project; Directing a project; Initiating a project; Managing stage boundaries; Controlling a stage; Managing product delivery; Closing a project; Planning. (From, © 2003-2005.

Figure 4: Prince2 processes (from, © 2003-2005)


The following is a very brief summary of these stages:

  1. Starting a project: at this stage, a business case is prepared, along with a project brief, giving a high level view of what is required and why.
  2. Directing a project: this is the work of the project board, which authorizes initiation, monitors progress, and approves any change or more resources. It consists of:
    • project sponsor who approves objectives, organization, resource allocation, and the start of the project,
    • project owner who has delegated authority, but is ultimately responsible for the success of the project,
    • project manager who has operational responsibility for the project, but who is not necessarily a subject matter expert,
    • senior users who represent the end user,
    • senior suppliers who represent the main disciplines or professional expertise involved in the creation of the end product.
  3. Initiating a project: this is when the project initiation document is filled in, which is an extensive defining document.
  4. Managing stage boundaries: projects are divided into a number of stages, at the end of each of which the board is reported to and key documents, such as the project plan, risk log and business case, are updated. It is expected that the board will manage by exception, in the event of major change, leaving the day-to-day running to the project manager.
  5. Controlling a stage: this is the core of the project manager’s activities on a project. He or she will review progress, troubleshoot, report on status, authorize work to be done, etc. The plan will be updated regularly.
  6. Managing product delivery: this is about ensuring that teams deliver the work as agreed with the project manager to the approved quality level.
  7. Closing a project: sometimes, a project may need to be closed prematurely, in which case, approval must be obtained from the project board. If the project has finished according to plan, then this stage is about ensuring customer acceptance, objectives met, operational arrangements in place including training, archiving files, and reviewing the management of the project.
  8. Planning: this is a repeatable process which covers stages 3-6.

Prince2 has a lot of procedures and paperwork, but the benefit of these is to provide a sharper focus. The business case, the risk log and the project itself are reviewed at key stages, changes are tracked, and the system itself can be geared to projects of differing size and complexity. The methodology is highly complex, and organizations who adopt it need to invest heavily in training; a course typically lasts five days.


University of Western Australia Library

In 2004, the University of Western Australia Library received funds to develop a learning resource system, or digital learning object repository, and Prince2 was introduced the following year. A survey was carried out on its success, and the vast majority of the respondents considered it as either successful (61 per cent) or very successful (25 per cent). People appreciated the planning documentation, the clear breakdown of tasks, the ability to track progress, the management by exception and the reporting system. Many also commented on the more cooperative working environment.

University of Leeds Library

The University of Leeds Library used formalized project management methodology for some years before introducing, as a pilot, Prince2 on a number of projects, in order to gain a better overview of the large volume of projects being conducted at any one time. Projects were grouped according to size, sensitivity, risk, resource requirements and time-scale. The method required the filling in of a number of key documents – the project mandate, the project brief, the business case, the risk log, the project definition report, the issues log, and the highlight report – so that Prince2 was not followed literally but adapted to suit the particular circumstances of the library. The project definition report contained all the information needed to direct and manage the project.

They found a number of advantages:

  • it built on current practice, which was to plan the project initiation stage very carefully;
  • it provided a formal structure, with a project owner, manager, etc., as well as early involvement of stakeholders;
  • there were formalized review points, which aided reporting and highlighted any areas for decision making, while communication channels were very clear;
  • project management templates were created which ensured a consistent approach, and which were given a consistent look and feel reflecting university branding;
  • the necessity of clear objectives helped to control scope creep;
  • it reduced the administrative burden, as although writing the project definition report was time-consuming, it became quicker with practice, and the need for note taking in meetings was reduced as actions were embedded within project documents.


We have looked in this article at the main principles and good practices of project management, both in its general and its more formal methodology, providing plenty of examples from libraries. Often, the requirements of project management can seem daunting, but there is no other way to implement the large number of (particularly technological) projects that most libraries are required to handle. Providing appropriate training is given, their introduction can pay dividends.


Atkins, S. (2004), "Projecting success: effective project management in academic libraries" [accessed March 19 2008].

Chia, C. (2001), "Transformation of libraries in Singapore", Library Review, Vol. 50 Nos. 7/8, pp. 343-348.

Fenton, C. (2007), "Finding the way: improving access to the collections of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society", Program,
Vol. 41 No. 4, pp. 353-364.

Kiel, R. (2007), "Project management and cultural change: a case study at the University of Western Australia library", paper presented at EDUCAUSE Australasia 2007, available at [accessed March 20th 2008].

Office of Government Commerce (2005), Managing Successful Projects with Prince2, The Stationery Office.

Stanley, T., Norton, F. and Dickson, B. (2003), "Library project management in a collaborative web-based working environment", The New Review of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 9 No. 1.

Tanner, S. (2001), "Librarians in the digital age: planning digitization projects", Program, Vol. 35 No. 4, pp. 327-337.