What does effective library leadership look like in the virtual age?

By: Sacha Billett , Mon Feb 14 2022
Sacha Billet

Author: Sacha Billett

At the Frankfurt Book Fair, a Springer Nature panel of librarians and leadership experts discussed how leadership skills are vital for libraries to survive and flourish. Below you’ll find their practical advice and insights into the positive impact of effective leadership practices. The ever increasing digitization of our world has already wrought significant changes in today’s academic libraries. And the Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated the pace. In the face of this change, strong leadership is vital. Yet, research for a recent whitepaper suggests leadership in academic libraries still needs to adapt.

So what does effective leadership look like? This was the question facing panelists Jane Harvell, Library Director at University of Sussex; Nancy Roberts, CEO, Management in Publishing; Ralf Schimmer from MPDL; and Stephen Pinfield from University of Sheffield.

Preparing for leadership

Resources are shrinking and libraries are often having to fight increasingly hard for their share. The panelists were asked how librarians can prepare themselves for leadership when resources for formal training are often scarce.

“I've found the most support from things like shadowing and mentoring, and those opportunities are quite often available within larger organizations. Even just watching other leaders – any leaders, they don't need to be in librarianship –  and listening and looking at how they work and how they operate.” – said Harvell.

There was agreement on this point from the other panelists. It was acknowledged that shadowing and mentoring can sometimes be harder to access in smaller organizations. However, panelists from the UK felt that professional bodies such as Research Libraries UK (RLUK) were effective at supporting librarians to access these experiences.


“I think we need to move away from this idea that leadership just applies to a few people at the top of an organization.” - Pinfield added.

The panel, and indeed people interviewed for the Academic Libraries and Leadership Skills whitepaper, agreed that leadership is important at every level in an organization. Encouraging people to take on leadership responsibilities will allow them to develop their leadership skills right from the beginning of their careers.

What makes a good leader through change?

Change, particularly the wholesale change entailed by increasing digitization, is challenging to navigate as a leader. Ensuring everyone in the organization understands and supports the change is vital. But what did the panel feel were the best ways to do this?

“We try to avoid top-down decisions as much as we can,” said Schimmer. “We try to have the team involved. It’s based on the idea of getting consensus early on because it's too late to address resistance when it's manifested, it has to be dealt with and addressed before the change begins.”

Harvell introduced the concept of the ‘servant leader’. She explained that when you're going through change, you need to put your staff first and listen to them, in order to guide them through the change process.

Leaders are made, not born

The idea of consultative, ‘servant’ leaders, led to a wider discussion about the stereotypical views of leadership. The panel were in agreement that leadership is something that can be learnt, rather than something innate.


“We often think of good leaders as big personalities – ‘born to lead’ type people,” said Pinfield. “Yet people with very different personality types can be excellent leaders and I think we need to stop thinking about leadership as just a set of traits.”

Indeed, Roberts expressed the view that believing certain traits make good leaders can be dangerous.

“It results in some leadership behaviors which are actually quite toxic,” she explained. “There might be things that many leaders have in common, such as good communication skills. But all of these things are competencies that can be learnt and developed.”

Recognize what you don’t know

The panel went on to discuss the idea that leaders need to recognize their own shortcomings and gaps in knowledge. No one can be omnipotent, and often, as a leader, your experience of the day-to-day running of certain areas of the organization could be outdated. The panel felt it was important that leaders recognize and place trust in the expertise of their staff. Empowering them to do their job and listening to their views on what’s needed.

The panel also discussed the importance of emotional intelligence (sometimes known as Emotional Quotient – EQ). This is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.

“Everything we've talked about really is underpinned by emotional intelligence,” said Roberts. “So understanding yourself, understanding those around you, and understanding social relationships where you work is really, really important.”

How can libraries build staff leadership?

A video of the panel discussion can be found alongside a new whitepaper that gives a clear picture of the current state of play for library leadership. It also contains resources and narrative from experts to help you develop your leadership skills and put theory into practice.

Academic Libraries and Leadership Skills

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Sacha Billet

Author: Sacha Billett

Sacha Billett is a Content Marketing Manager in the Institutional Marketing team, based in the Dordrecht office. Supporting the Sales and Account Development teams, she is enthusiastic about finding innovate ways to communicate with the library community.