Stephen Abram: “Leadership and Librarians”…. reflection

Steven Abram (@sabram) is one of the gods of librarianship – well, I certainly think so.

One of those people has advocated for libraries at the highest levels, and who encourages librarians to think the unthinkable, and reconsider the skills that are necessary to take the profession forward in this rapidly changing environment. He gives me a good mental shake almost every time I read his blog (mind you, keeping up with it is challenge enough!).

I certainly received that mental shake from the entirety of his talk to the CILIP East of England audience on Monday 17th June.

If you like always doing what you’ve always done, stop reading now.

Almost the most useful thing of this overview will be the a link to Abram’s blog, the slide set from this CILIP EoE talk, and any YouTube video of him talking.

While the title of the talk was “leadership and librarians” the sum of the parts was greater than the whole – it was a series of reminders not to undervalue ourselves, or the special things that we can provide.
Just to ensure that we were immediately kicked out of a comfort zone, we were reminded of the following:

  • We don’t think like our users and while this can be a massive strength, it’s also one our limitations.
  • We suffer not just from a glass ceiling, but from placing ourselves in a glass box – we’re threatened from all sides, not just that we can’t move up into higher management or positions of “real” influence, but that our business is being encroached upon from all sides.

So we need to become better leaders – and, luckily, a leader can exist in any position in the hierarchy. This is because all leadership is about is seeing an improvement to be made – a desirable future state, sometimes before others, and actively seeking to achieve those improvements. Leadership is not about managing or supervising, however important these skills might be. So if you can succeed in making an improvement in your part of the library world (however global or local your sphere of influence) you’ve shown the first green shoots of leadership!

And just in case you’re thinking “I’m not a leader” this is the first of the lies that we tell ourselves, according to Abram – you can re-condition yourself to thinking that you are, and eventually you will start to behave like a leader, and the end result is that people will start to believe it too. Other lies include “I don’t do presentations” (well you’re going to have to if you want to instigate change and improvements); “people will notice my good work” (no, they won’t, not unless you tell them; and (my personal favourite!) “criticism is not the same as constructive criticism, critical thinking” – only seeing problems is not good enough – you must be able to suggest solutions, and then work towards achieving them.

So what can make a difference?

Passion and confidence are a good start. Risk taking, flexibility and being able to deal with ambiguity are pretty essential too. Developing influencing skills, in addition to marketing skills to get the change you want.

And what can get in our way?

Not taking the long view, being risk averse and fear of change are amongst the things that stop us achieving as much as we can do. I think that this applies in personal life as much as in any professional situation.

It reinforced the message from the marketing course that took place for East of England NHS librarians last year, that Abram advocated promoting the “experience” of the library, rather than the stuff in the library – the support, services and learning that can take place in the library, which is the valuable part.

I think one of the most powerful things Abram said during his incredibly energetic 90 minute talk was that we “should not undersell the professional skills” we’ve taken years to hone. People often thing they can learn to do a literature search in 30mins to an hour – don’t accept that – “could I learn to be a doctor/nurse/whatever in ½ hour? Give me an hour or 2 at least!” And that we should be proud of the “librarian magic” that we perform – eg. that we can find a full-text article so easily, when a library user can’t; that we can make literature searching seem so easy, to the extent that library users think it must be…

And we shouldn’t underestimate the psychological hurdle that some adults have to overcome to admit that they don’t know something – particularly when they’re very skilled at their own profession. When our library users admit that they need our help, we’re much more likely to have a constructive relationship based on respect and trust.

I would also recommend reading @niamhpage‘s  blog about the talk, and what she got from it.


4 Responses to Stephen Abram: “Leadership and Librarians”…. reflection

  1. Isla,

    Thank you so much for writing this up for those of us that didn’t make it in person.

    I’ve been thinking about leadership surprisingly often recently, which is very strange as I’d absolutely never thought of myself as a leadership type. Someone (wish I could remember who) said something on Twitter which, on one hand, seems pretty trite, but it really got me thinking. It was along the lines of “What if all the little girls who are told not to be bossy are instead encouraged to think of themselves as future leaders?”. As I was once the archetypical bossy little girl, who has spent no small effort trying to stop telling people what to do, this really make me take stock. Maybe wanting to tell people what to do *is* actually, after all, not a bad thing? Now I’m trying to work on ways of telling people in a grown up, influencing, sort of way, so posts of this kind are wonderfully interesting and useful.


  2. Thanks for the mention Isla! You’ve reminded me that I came away from that talk thinking I should have a look at how the library website can be made more about the experience…

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