11 June 2014

Building a career in project-focused librarianship

Being able to manage projects successfully is the reality of our work as librarians. [1]
Most of my library career has involved project work rather than operational service delivery, and I am pretty passionate about exposing students and new grads to the benefits of undertaking training and gaining experience in project management (PM). So last year I gave a presentation at the New Librarians Symposium 6 called Passionate about projects! Potential, pitfalls, and how to build a career in project-focused librarianship.

An analysis five years ago of digital library job vacancies advertised in College & Research Library News found that 20% of ads mentioned PM knowledge and skills and 10% asked for PM experience [1]; I would guess these skills would appear in even more job ads now. But there are other reasons to work on projects than employability. I included in my presentation some of the positives mentioned by some of my project-focused librarian buddies:

For me the best part of working on projects is the variety. You often get to work with people outside of your ‘normal’ work group...with people who are experts in that area. There is the potential to work at different places on similar types of projects, or within your  organisation in different work areas.

I am much tighter on monitoring, review of stages & lessons learnt. Project management teaches you to chunk things and review at every stage. It helps with clarity of thought, and has taught me how to do good documentation.

I've acquired a few unexpected skills that I'm very grateful for: I'm now very flexible when it comes to what I do and the areas I work in.  A new project will lead you in a new direction, inviting you to take up a challenge and learn a new set of skills while applying those skills you previously acquired.

I also asked my buddies to describe to me the kinds of skills, qualities and experiences they thought were essential for project-focused librarianship; the word cloud below was the result of this exercise.

Unfortunately, while these skills are in demand, many librarians become ‘accidental’ project managers assigned to lead library initiatives without any formal training [2]. I was extremely lucky as this was not my experience; I was sent on a 3-day PM course within a couple of weeks of starting my first post-MLIS role at the National Library of New Zealand, for which I will be forever grateful! While some of the things mentioned in the word cloud above can be gained through other aspects of library work, formal training can quickly provide a grounding in PM terminology and governance structures, as well as methodologies for planning, scheduling, budgeting and reporting that can be hard to just pick up on the job.

PM can sometimes be picked up as part of LIS education, often as an elective from another course. I've advised people before to not do project management as part of their studies, for a number of reasons:

  1. There are good post-qualification options available, and a good employer might pay for you to undertake something as part of your professional development.
  2. There are different methodologies out there and it's good to be familiar with the one your organisation works with. It is also good to attend PM training with other people from your organisation; after the course, everyone can 'speak the same language' and you can all reinforce what you have learned together. 
  3. Project management jargon, techniques and tools are best learned about at a time when you will be able to put them into practice straight away on one or more projects. 

PM training is readily available from a range of commercial providers: PRINCE2 and PMI/PMBOK (the two major project management methodologies) courses come in at around $750 for a fully online course up to ~$2000 for longer courses that can include an exam for certification. Nationally accredited study for a Cert IV in Project Management is also possible through many TAFEs and private providers. Depending on the size of your organisation, in-house courses might also be offered in project management. In terms of courses specifically for library professionals, in the past ALIA's program has contained a 1-day course for ~$550 for ALIA members but this does not seem to be currently on offer.

Of course, if you don't have access to formal training, there are other ways to build your knowledge on the job, the first one being to seek out opportunities to work on projects as a team member; you can learn a lot by observing how someone else manages a project you are involved in. Seeking a mentor with project experience is something that has been very helpful to me, particularly in thinking through some career planning issues relating to a preference for project work over the more traditional pathways that involve becoming a team leader/manager.

Overall, my message to the NLS6 delegates was to Just Do It! Project work is fun, challenging and career-enhancing; what have you got to lose?


[1] Wamsley, L. H. (2009). Controlling project chaos: Project management for library staff. PNLA Quarterly, 73(2), 5–27.

[2] Youngok Choi and Edie Rasmussen (2009). What Qualifications and Skills are Important for Digital Librarian Positions in Academic Libraries? A Job Advertisement Analysis, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 35. No. 5. pp. 457-467. DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2009.06.003 (subscription only)

[3] Revels, I. (2010). Managing digital projects: “Accidental” project managers can benefit from following these useful tips. American Libraries, 41(4), 48–50.