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InfoIssues: Library Leadership

7 September 2006 by InfoIssues

Issue of the Month: September 2006

Issues in Leadership in Times of Transition

- Bonnie Allen, Dean of Libraries
(bonnie.allen@umontana.edu)

Libraries everywhere are in transition, but to what? Are libraries ultimately to be virtual collections of digitized books and articles that have been contextualized by content specialists, formerly known as librarians? Is librarianship to be a profession of contract negotiators specializing in brokering information on an “as needed” basis? There is little doubt that libraries are in transition from a paper-based, place-bound, person-to-person service to entities that lack those boundaries of space and time. Providing leadership during this transition is a very creative process and one that is open to risk taking and experimentation but can also feel like driving in the dark when decisions need to be made based upon faith that solutions will be found to the biggest problems.

To be sure, today’s libraries are very different from those of thirty years ago when our faculty and the majority of librarians were undergraduates. It is exciting to consider what might be a library in twenty years with increased collaboration among libraries and how greater access to information will evolve into new fields of inquiry. I believe that students and researchers will turn to libraries as a source of credible information as well as a means of managing information acquired from what will certainly be a global collection.

The transition has advanced new thinking regarding the nature of libraries. One is that no library will “have it all.” Although, some will come closer than others, but even the Harvards and Berkeleys of the library world do not believe that they will have the complete history of knowledge as they once achieved only fifty years ago. Information has exploded beyond any library’s financial and physical capability. But what is more important, technology now enables a collaborative collection with a capability of moving information rapidly, further reducing the need to collect it all. Because of the technical capabilities, the expectation that access to information in broadening quantity, depth and speed has surpassed expectations held in the paper world while increasing the complexities of achieving such access.

Leadership has always been about setting priorities to best address the institution’s goals, but library priority setting has become a vastly more complex enterprise than ever before. The complexities include legal unknowns, the need for cultural changes and skill in working in a far bigger circle of partners. Setting priorities driven by funding and capability have implications for the speed with which libraries provide information to its users. Speed in attaining information has such a high priority because it brings the institution researchers competitive advantage in research that gets grants. Time is money in research as much as other aspects of the business world.

One of the bigger problems library leadership faces is the ongoing availability of an archive of newly acquired digital collections that will be openly available in the future. Access to paper collections certainly was not without its barriers, but we established a common value system and a trust in our profession that secured collections for the future. A parallel discussion exists for the digitization of material held in library collections in paper form. These are valuable collections that have worth in current research and also represent a cultural history that must be preserved not only physically but in the education of our society. A great experiment is underway with the Google Project with five large libraries to digitize the portions of their collections that are now in public domain. It isn’t necessary or realistic for libraries to digitize their entire paper collections, but what should be digitized? Digitization of unique collections and melding them with other library collections to create a whole has emerged as a means of bringing collections from the dark and setting information in context.

While libraries are negotiating the digital world, we are dedicated more than ever to the development of critical thinking as well as technical skills in our students who will be wholly dependant upon the use of information available in such quantity.

In the end, future libraries are likely to fulfill their original mission—a source of information, entertainment and a place for community.

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