How Hard Can It Be to Manage a Library?

August, 2017

For years, I knew from experience that managing a library was professionally challenging, yet I struggled to articulate this to others. Finally, in 2017, I wrote the following piece in an effort to clarify my thinking and help me to communicate with others.

More than ten years ago I attended a social event and struck up a conversation with someone that I didn’t know very well. At one point the man I was talking to asked what line of work I was in. When I shared that I held a managerial role at a university library, the conversation came to an uncomfortable end. I can only imagine what was running through my acquaintance’s mind. He had a lucrative job marketing health care products. Perhaps he conceived of librarianship as little more than the retail-styled transaction of checking out a book at a service desk. In any case, he was apparently unimpressed by my occupation.

So many years later, I’m still bothered by this exchange. Having managed various aspects of library operations since 1995, I can say without reservation that the work is surprisingly demanding. Outsiders are unlikely to appreciate the challenges entailed in running a library. In my judgment, effective library directors possess capabilities that can reasonably be applied to management in other industries, but recruiters might dismiss the relevance of their skills too readily.

In this post I aim to articulate just how complex library operations are, drawing on my experience at two libraries, and reporting figures from Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Library (JFL), where I’m currently employed. I frame the discussion in terms of target market, resources, finances, and services, and then follow up with implications for management.

A Diverse Target Market

Most libraries serve a diverse target market. This is certainly true of the JFL, where we seek to meet the needs of students, faculty members, community members, and alumni. Many of our users visit the library’s physical premises, but more access our services online—some at a considerable distance from campus. Additionally, the library serves users with a wide array of disciplinary interests.

JFL’s target market is not only highly segmented; it’s also very large, including more than 100,000 students. At any moment we might be called on to serve very different customers: undergraduate nursing students who need an inviting place to meet for group study; a military student who is struggling to meet his MBA program requirements; a communication professor who needs help collecting a substantial number of sources as she prepares a research publication; and a local family that relies on the library for homeschooling resources.

Rich, Multifaceted Resources

The JFL can leverage a diverse inventory of assets to meet customer needs. Information resources are extensive, including a local collection of 410,000 books and audio-visual media; 583,000 electronic books and media items that are accessible from dozens of partner companies’ platforms; content from 83,000 periodicals and newspapers published around the world; and much more. Buildings and equipment are likewise robust. A 170,000 square-foot facility provides seating for 2,600 users—an achievement that is possible because nearly 70% of the book collection is compacted in a robotic retrieval system rather than being displayed on open shelving. The library allocates space to different uses: individual and group activities; collaborative, quiet, and deep quiet study; and classes, meetings, and special events. Maximizing access to the library’s assets is a primary concern, but this is constrained by measures taken to provide a safe environment for users and mitigate unlawful use of intellectual property.

Two critical resources—software and employees—add value to information and physical facilities, thereby transforming them into usable services. One of the key functions of library software is discovery, changing the concept of finding a needle in a haystack from proverbial impossibility to at least partial reality. The JFL’s primary discovery tool, labeled as “Search Anything,” mediates access to 877 million distinct resources: journal and newspaper articles, electronic and print books, theses, dissertations, technical reports, and more. Human resources, consisting of some 170 full- and part-time employees, are selected and trained to exhibit two key traits: deep commitment to customer service and high intellectual aptitude. Approximately 30 JFL employees have earned at least once advanced degree.

Strained Finances

Delivering effective library services takes money. In 2016-17, the most recent fiscal year, the JFL expended $8.2 million. The amount of the spending doesn’t tell the full story. The library had more than 300 suppliers that year, and 16,000 distinct transactions posted to the ledger. The library relies on a complex supply chain as it seeks to deliver value to its users. The financial picture isn’t getting any simpler, either. Funding constraints and accountability measures are driving libraries to partner with publishers and other vendors in order to optimize investments—for example, by developing business models that allow purchase decisions to be based on solid evidence of customer demand. Developing and executing the JFL’s budget each year entails healthy doses of negotiation, data analysis, and policy compliance—conditions that I could scarcely have imagined when I first became a librarian.

An Evolving Array of Services

The JFL provides a wide variety of services to its users, so the library measures customer activity and resource consumption in a variety of ways. Measuring visits to the library building isn’t straightforward, as admission is as simple as walking through any of several entrances. A couple of methods are used to track in-person visits, leading to annual estimates that range upward from 600,000. Checkouts of print books and recorded media—historically, a critical measure of library service—have become less significant as digital information delivery has grown. The JFL recorded 86,000 circulations in 2016-17. Use of electronic books was several times higher. Similarly, demand for online journal and newspaper content was high, with 12.3 million articles being downloaded or viewed in 2016.

To a large extent, library customers can use spaces and access resources on a self-serve basis—that is, without interacting directly with library employees. However, the JFL does provide direct services, and not merely in the form of checking out books. For example, the library offers regular webinars to teach students about research. In 2016-17, 62 such events attracted 5,300 synchronous viewers. The most labor-intensive service that the library provides is research assistance. Users who need help with some aspect of library research seek and obtain help via the channel of their choice: chat, email, telephone, or face to face. In 2016-17, the JFL logged 12,500 such transactions. Perhaps more than any other direct service, research assistance embodies the library’s educational role. Users can formulate questions in any subject area, for a variety of academic and other purposes, based on varying degrees of personal understanding. Regardless of these variables, library employees are expected to provide timely and informative responses.

Implications for Management

The nature of library operations, as described above, has a significant impact on how libraries are managed. The fact that a library has multiple stakeholder groups and target markets means that it must seek balance between diverging interests. Making and communicating decisions can sometimes require political finesse. Additionally, libraries usually operate within the context of a larger institution or community. The realities of bureaucracy and accountability push library managers to comply with policies and procedures, and to gather and report evidence of organizational success. Unfortunately, library quality and value are not easily defined or measured.

In today’s environment, libraries have access to a wealth of management information. For example, in the JFL, planning and decision-making are based on data from surveys, focus groups, transactional systems, benchmarking sources, visual observation, usability studies, and expert advice—all filtered through the lens of managerial judgment.

Libraries are based on the logic that sharing access to resources within a community is inherently more efficient than the sum of actions taken through individual self-interest. Ironically, though, in the face of increasing evidence that libraries create value for their communities, many libraries face the reality of diminishing funding—losses that cannot always be mitigated through more judicious management.

In recent decades, technology has yielded major gains in the processing and delivery of information, putting more power in the hands of searchers and radically transforming the tasks that library employees perform. Nevertheless, it is important to note that library operations remain, to a large extent, inseparable from the people in the library who make the technology work. User needs are distinct and unpredictable enough to make it inefficient to codify all employee knowledge and create routines for all processes. As a result, library managers have a significant incentive to minimize employee attrition. With few extrinsic motivators at their disposal, they must avoid the tendency to seek productivity primarily through close supervision. Excellence in library service entails cultivating employees’ individual growth and shaping the organizational climate so that high performance emerges organically as a result.

Conclusion

The preceding paragraphs portray effective library managers as possessing a unique combination of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. They must clearly be passionate about serving their constituents—ideally, aligning closely with the community’s mission and values. They benefit from a variety of technical skills: traditionally, those associated with mediating access to information and educating end users, but increasingly, the ability to think strategically, manage financial resources, and make decisions supported by data. Finally, they must excel as leaders, eliciting cooperation from subordinates, peers, partners, and superiors.

In parting, I offer appeals to two distinct categories of readers:

  • If you enjoy the services of a well-run library, show your appreciation to its staff or management. Effective library services don’t happen by accident.
  • If you’re currently a library manager or aspire to become one, accept the fact that effective library leadership is both challenging and rewarding. Take responsibility to learn and grow so that you’re positioned to offer your best. Managing a library well isn’t easy.

Want to learn more about library management and related topics?

Click the buttons below to see relevant entries in my bibliography, SmithFile.