I saw a whole bunch of family and friends I don’t get to see very often not long ago, and naturally many of them asked me what I’m taking for classes this summer. I learned pretty early in my MLS that most people expect you to say something about books and cataloging when they ask that question, but one of my two classes for the summer semester is actually the very non-stereotypical project management.
For those unfamiliar, when I use the term “project” I’m talking about a task that is separate from an organization’s normal workload, has a clear end-point, and is intended to finish within a set time frame and budget. Projects can sometimes produce a process or product that becomes a part of business as usual, but every day, normal work is not project work. To give a library example: interacting with patrons is normal work, but a book drive is project work. Project management is managing the people, resources, funding, schedules, and other details of a project to get it completed successfully. Sounds straightforward, although it almost never is. Timelines get broken, budgets are cut, and project requirements get changed, each requiring adjustments from the project manager.
Project management became a “thing” in the 1950’s when several government defense and research agencies (and their contractors) began using techniques like the Critical Path Method (CMP) and Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) to formalize the tasks and resources associated with large projects like missile creation or the Viking Mars Lander. When done properly, project management breaks down all the components of a project, plots them out by importance and order, and sets out clear-cut responsibilities for each part of the project. Nobody is left wondering who is doing A or when they should start B, because it’s all being managed and tweaked and kept in line by the project manager. You can also use techniques like resource loading to quantify exactly how much time and effort different tasks will require and who has the expertise to perform them, which can help prevent overwork before it happens and even fuel requests for more people or money. Many of the planning techniques used in project management are very heavy on statistics, which can be intimidating if you’re not mathematically inclined (like me), but there are computer programs available to do the number crunching for you. My course textbook (and project managers I work with) advocate Microsoft Project, but there are others.
Now, I’ve been doing project work about 20-30% of the time for about two years now, so I can’t say I was super psyched about the class. I’m not a PMP (I haven’t been on the job long enough to qualify for the exam) and I’m not the manager of the projects I do work on, but I figured I’d picked up most of what I needed to know about project management on the job. WRONG. I think I’ve found a new strategy or principle to apply to my portion of my day-job projects for every week of the course, and we have six more weeks to go. Not to delve too deeply into my day job, but in a project that repeats at different sites every year, I’m five months ahead of where I was this time last year. Above all else, I’m learning where to cut back and where to focus more energy, and how to do that focusing in a more efficient manner. Project management is an extremely valuable and fairly complex skill, and I was really surprised to see that a lot of MLS programs don’t require it as a core class.
This needs to change: librarians need project management skills. You might be wondering why success at work means I’m advocating for project management courses in MLS degrees when I’ve so often written about how little my day job has to do with library skills of any kind, but the great thing about project management is it’s flexible enough to work almost anywhere. And if you think about it, libraries do project work almost constantly. Book sales, pilots for new classes, fundraisers, major events, even some summer reading programs. They may not be the massive, international corporate efforts that project management literature typically deals with, but all are discrete chunks of work with a beginning and an end, and all are projects. The best part for new grads? Since they’re a separate task with a separate (thought often very small) budget, projects are something that you might be able to wrangle for yourself in a new job. By running them with actual project management skills instead of figuring it out while you go along, you’ll get better results and make yourself look better in the process, potentially landing you more projects and more opportunities to shine.
If you can’t get project management training through your program, there are professional development organizations that run training courses (they’re expensive though, maybe get your employer to pay for it). You could also do some self education. I’m finding the textbook for this class to be extremely useful and fairy easy to follow, it’s listed below if anyone is interested. So in short, take a project management class. It will build your resume, help you make your mark in your future career, and it might even make your day job easier!
 Being online-only, my program is almost totally prescribed. Project management was not one of the two classes I get to pick myself. But that’s another topic for another day.