Rethinking Leadership in Librarianship

Last fall, the Occupy Wall Street movement captured the attention of people across the nation, and amongst librarians, one particular image made the rounds, inciting chuckles as well as knowing nods. (See also two HLS posts from last fall: HackLibSchool on Occupy Wall St: How Do Libraries Fit In? and HackLibSchool on Occupy Wall St: Part II.)

marching librarian sign

Photo credit: Marion Siegel

You know things are messed up when librarians start marching.

The sign is humorous but also somewhat misleading because it suggests that librarians are generally complacent and lacking in activist or leadership qualities. The sign gets at the perennial issue of combatting stereotypes about librarians, but for this post, I want to go in a different direction…

I thought of this sign recently because I’ve been encountering discussions of leadership in all of my courses the last few weeks. While I believe in the importance of cultivating thoughtful leaders in the field, I also worry that librarians place a little too much faith in the idea of leaders. Also, U.S. society’s love of leaders seems to have created a situation in which everyone is a leader or should be striving to be a leader, making the concept of leadership somewhat vague.

I’m sure most of us have come across discussions of the difference between leaders and managers, and some of us probably have read about what makes good leaders–whether they are defined by inherent personality traits or by acquired behaviors. There is plenty of literature on those topics, but there is less discussion about what why leaders are so important.

Michael Luther picks up on R. David Lankes’s assertion that librarians have an obligation of leadership and asks, “Where does personality stop and duty start?” I think the question usefully points out that our need for charismatic leaders with great emotional intelligence may not always dovetail with what needs to be done. At what point do leaders get in the way of what needs to be done?

I wanted to raise some of these questions for discussion without discounting the importance of leadership. I want to acknowledge that there is plenty of great work being done by librarians to cultivate leaders, and at Hack Library School, we certainly have pointed out a number of opportunities for students to become leaders in their institutions and in larger organizations. A few months ago, for example, I wrote about the importance of getting involved in student governance for library students to be aware of issues and events in their program. Last fall, Turner Masland wrote about leadership in the field. In a guest post earlier this year, Anita R. Dryden discussed her experiences in ALA’s Emerging Leaders program in “Emerging Leaders and Professional Involvement.” And in another guest post, Jarrett Drake wrote about about the Spectrum Leadership Institute.

But there must be other ways of thinking about how we individually and collectively can shape the future of librarianship without recourse to the image of leaders.

How can library students and librarians shape the world of librarianship (and indeed the entire world beyond) without resorting to the idea of leadership?

11 replies

  1. Leadership can be an incredibly funny thing. Most people measure it by a tangible record of accomplishments and recognition. I think that is how leadership is traditionally thought of, and I thought of it that way for a long time. But after being an Resident Assistant, my undergrad university calls it “the most important leadership position on campus,” I re-shaped my thinking. Leadership can be about quiet examples, how many people positively are affected by you, how amazing people can be without you.

    If library students and librarians want to shape the world of librarianship, I really do think we have to remain leaders but we don’t need to keep with the traditional idea of leadership. We can be followers and quiet leaders. Choosing to be a follower, especially someone’s first follower, is an act of leadership*. Maybe we shape the world of librarianship by cultivating curiosity, supporting patrons or student’s ideas, teaching activism, by establishing independent traditions/programs/movements that can go on when we stop leading.

    *Totally stole that idea from this TED Video.


    • I like those thoughts on different forms of leadership. I guess one of my questions is about why the term LEADERSHIP is so important rather than other facets of being good librarians. If everyone is a leader, does that term carry any useful meaning at the end of the day? What is it that we’re really championing when we want all librarians to be leaders?

      From your thoughtful response, I would say that one quality we mean when we talk about leadership is something more like demonstrated expertise in the work we do. And another would be something like having a strong ethical sense that centers our practice and work.


  2. I think you and Lankes and others show an uncommon view of leadership if you seriously think “At what point do leaders get in the way of what needs to be done?” Leaders, by the very nature of leadership, do not get in the way. It’s impossible to get in anybody else’s way when you’re out in front LEADING.

    Having a difference of opinion about what needs to be done is simply that – a difference of opinion. If you have that difference of opinion with your boss, then your boss is the one with the authority to decide what needs to be done, and you have the obligation to follow.

    This whole notion of leading from behind has nothing to do with true leadership. It’s simply a description of lack-of-leadership. If librarians want to venture out and become social activists, that too has little to do with the need for true leadership within the profession.



    • I’m actually kind of disagreeing with Lankes’s claim that librarians have an obligation to leadership. I’m asking why we all must be leaders. It seems to me that part of what people are emphasizing with librarians, leadership, and advocacy is something more accurately described as a sense of democratic citizenship. That is, what we really want is for librarians to have an active voice in the running of their librarians and in their engagement with their local governing bodies.


      • Not all librarians must be leaders. That would make a very awkward and tense workplace. But, there do need to be leaders. Most often they emerge through the very qualities of leadership that make them recognized leaders. If there are NO leaders within the profession, it simply waunders aimlessly and follows after whatever trend comes along. Every profession must have leaders who understand all the things you mention, and have the ability and the vision to guide the profession in a direction that is not only beneficial for it, but relevant for those it serves.


  3. I think leadership is more about creative problem solving and visioning outside the box. It is not what we may have thought of it back in grade school, like president of the student council. I just finished a final paper on my personal theory on the future of cultural institutions. I emphasized that the future of such places is in the hands of emerging leaders. Most of us reading this are these emerging leaders. What other title would you prefer instead of leader?


    • I do think it’s useful that people are redefining leadership, but part of the issue for me is that it doesn’t really seem like we’re always (or even usually) talking about leadership at all, but something else that we should probably name more explicitly for clarity. Your definition, for example, might work for a term like “innovative thinker” (though I also have a problem with the overuse of the term “innovation”…. that’s a post for another day).

      I think at the end of the day, part of what I would like to see is a reclamation of terms like “intellectual,” “citizenship,” or even just “librarian.”


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