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.)
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?