The staffing challenge – it’s not just new skill sets

At the last Association of Research Libraries (ARL) membership meeting (which means I’ve been carrying this thought around since mid-October, shame on me) I sat in on the Transforming Research Libraries Committee meeting chaired by my long-time friend, Carton Rogers. He precipitated what turned out to be a very engaged and frank discussion about the staffing challenges research libraries face while trying to navigate the increasingly urgent imperatives to transform their operations and renovate their portfolio of services.

He got things started by sharing an excerpt from an survey of ARL directors that asked what were the top three areas ARL should emphasize on behalf of members over the next three years. The first choice of 41.7% of the respondents was

Workforce needs of 21st century research libraries, including new roles for professionals.

A few of the committee members spoke to that issue and by the end of the discussion nearly every one in the room had shared their local challenges in this regard. People talked about inter-generational work issues, succession problems, and the obstacles to change posed by both union circumstances and librarians with faculty status. They wanted to have librarians engaged more directly in the research process and the outputs of their institutions but recognized that most of the current work force was not sufficiently versed in the research process or in the deliverables from that process to become effective support or service agents. All of these are real world management challenges that even with the best of will on the part of both management and staff seemed increasingly intractable.

In a follow-on conversation to the meeting I was reminded of a very good piece of research done by a group of ARL Research Library Leadership Fellows a few years ago that spoke directly to this problem. Krisellen Maloney, Kristin Antelman, Kenning Arlitsch and John Butler did a project whose results were first presented at the October 2008 ARL Membership meeting in a session titled “What are our future leaders thinking?” They later published the work in CR&L in a piece titled “Future Leaders’ Views on Organizational Culture“.

Their project surveyed 165 future leaders (see the article for their working definition) to assess whether there was a relationship between future library leaders’ satisfaction with their organizational cultures and their perception of their own effectiveness. As you might imagine the academic library profile is dominated by a Hierarchy culture and the preferred culture,as perceived by this population, is more flexible and externally oriented. The staff who are most likely to contribute to the reshaping and transforming of the academic library service portfolio feel thwarted and judge their efforts ineffective. The discussion and conclusions in the published article are worth your attention.

What library administrators identify as a staffing challenge is cast, in the most measured way, by the authors as a call for organizational cultural change. Moving from hierarchy to adhocracy – a culture of high flexibility and external focus – would liberate the motivated staff resources we already have and create an environment congenial to the people with the skill sets that the future library needs. Without minimizing the individual local management challenge it seems to me that we would do well to put in place an explicit program aimed at cultural change at the same time that we look to renew, realign and refresh library staff skill sets.

P.S. It was at their ARL presentation that I was first introduced to Prezi, the presentation software that is the anti-powerpoint, which has become my default environment for my presentations.

One Comment on “The staffing challenge – it’s not just new skill sets”

  1. Please don’t fall into the tired old stereotypes about older workers. Don’t assume you know what someone is or isn’t capable of until you give them a chance and offer retraining. Usually, in my experience, the older workers and support staff are so beyond tired of doing things the same old way for the last 15 years that they’re more than happy to implement new procedures and processes.

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