25 April 2019

Libraries, leadership, and overvaluing expertise

I am not usually a big reader of the business self-help books that pop up in airport bookshops. However, I took notice when a colleague recommended How Women Rise, because I respect her and trust her judgement and because her career path is one that represents a possible direction for my own. I've now borrowed this from my public library service twice and recommended it myself to some co-workers, so I thought it would be good to blog some reflections. 


Cover of How Women Rise by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith
I'm not going to review the book as a whole or go through the whole list of self-limiting behaviours that the authors observe through their executive coaching practices as being more prevalent amongst women. It's useful to point out up front that Helgeson and Goldsmith are aware of the many structural barriers to women achieving their full potential in the mostly-corporate environments from which they draw the book's case studies. However, they see themselves addressing a different set of challenges, which they argue are more within women's immediate control. If you can take this approach at face value you will probably find yourself able to get something useful out of this book. For a more #critlib view you will probably want to bypass their sidestepping of these structural issues and read something else entirely!

The one habit (#3) that jumped out at me from my own career and observing others in libraries is overvaluing expertise:
Trying to master every detail of your job in order to become an expert is a great strategy for keeping the job you have.... you put enormous effort into learning every aspect of your job and assuring your work is letter-perfect. This feels proactive, but it can set you up to remain on an endless treadmill, constantly setting a higher bar for yourself as you seek to always go the extra mile.... 
Of course, we're not advocating sloppy performance. And we know that skill and knowledge are required for success. But if you want to rise in your field or your organization, expertise will only take you so far. That's because the top jobs always require managing and leading people who have expertise, not providing expertise yourself. (86)
The authors discuss the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and the way that mastery of a work area provides both the satisfaction of knowing you are doing something really well (intrinsic) and a pathway to having your contributions recognised by others (extrinsic). This is good up to a point, but can become a problem for women who want to move into leadership positions for three reasons:
  • Learning every aspect of your job to the highest level uses up mental bandwidth that could be shared across other equally important areas
  • Doing your current job to perfection only demonstrates that you're great at the job you're in now, not the jobs that you may want to move to in future
  • Your expertise makes you indispensable to your boss, who may then have an interest in keeping you where you are. 
Meanwhile, the authors argue, male colleagues are likely to be focused on doing their jobs well enough, while still leaving time to build the relationships and organisational / industry visibility that will help them progress their careers. 

The authors also describe four types of power that we can have within organisations. Expertise is only one of these, the others being connections/relationships, personal authority, and positional power (i.e. where we stand in the organisational hierarchy). These are complementary and ideally would be in balance because "cultivating expertise at the expense of other kinds of power will not position you as a leader" (93). 

(I might digress slightly to say that the word power is a bit fraught for me. I think it has some poor connotations for lots of people, probably because we have all at some point in our careers been on the receiving end of someone else wielding power - probably positional power - over us in a negative way. The authors' definition of power in this book is a bit different. They describe it as "influence potential" and argue that "if you want to influence the world in a positive way... you have to have power" (95). It is hard to summarise this, but I think they see power as the ability to articulate your goals - both for your organisation and yourself - and work purposefully towards them, which is definitely a bit more palatable a concept.)

So, how does the overvaluing of expertise play out in libraries? I have seen this in my own career and in various positions and workplaces in a range of ways, including:
  • Reinforcement of rigid distinctions between 'professional' and 'para-professional' roles, and between different types of professional roles (e.g. front-of-house vs back-of-house)
  • Suspicion of team leaders and managers who have not 'risen through the ranks' by developing a deeper and deeper technical understanding of the area they are responsible for
  • Locating specialist expertise in one role that is essential for the organisation strategically but a dead-end in terms of career progression for the person in it - this is particularly obvious in emerging areas (research data management, I am looking at you) but also seems to apply to other types of roles (e.g. see this blog post about e-resources management)
  • Length of service as a proxy measure for ability - a sense of entitlement to higher positions by virtue of having the most years of experience
  • Pressure on students and early career librarians to specialise in a sub-discipline (cataloguing & acquisitions, liaison, public programming) and/or commit to a sector (schools, public, academic, special)
  • Negative attitudes towards those who 'jump around' (including envy of the career progression that can result for those prepared to take the very real risks associated with these leaps)
  • In recruitment and development, weighting library experience over generic transferable skills such as customer service, communication, teamwork, advocacy, IT skills, and problem solving, even when the generic skills are more important to being successful in the position
  • Lack of awareness that many skills needed for management positions cannot be easily gained alongside mastery of a work area or function, unless specific attention is paid to them as development goals (e.g. recruitment, health and safety, financial management, vendor management)
  • Consolidation and validation of expertise-based silos / team structures at the expense of cross-disciplinary groupings. 
I don't have any firm thoughts right now on what this means for us at a sector or organisational level, but it's definitely made me think about my own views on expertise (my own, as well as that of others). By highlighting this as a potential issue to be aware of, this book has definitely helped me make sense of some challenges I have had transitioning into a more senior role and given me some food for thought about how I can ensure I don't close down opportunities for myself and others in future. 

Further reading

Helgesen, Sally, and Marshall Goldsmith. 2018. How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back. Penguin Random House.





10 March 2019

Reflections on ALIA QLD Springfield Library tour (public and academic)

Yesterday I went on a library tour jointly organised by the ALIA QLD and ALIA QLD Library Technicians groups. The tour took in two libraries, the Ipswich Libraries Springfield Central branch (public) and the University of Southern Queensland Springfield campus library.

It was a great day out, and I learned a lot by observing what was happening at these two very different libraries. Thanks to the ALIA organisers for pulling this event together and arranging car-pooling and to the two libraries for hosting our group.

Tour attendees at Springfield Central Library (top - with our host Tonille second from left) and at the USQ Springfield Library (bottom, with our host Clare second from left).

About Springfield

I had never been to Springfield before going on the tour. The suburb has an interesting history, being a newer development that is part of Greater Springfield, Australia's largest privately-owned master-planned city.

The demographics of Springfield are quite different compared to Queensland and Australia. Springfield has a much lower median age, a lower tertiary participation rate, a much higher proportion of residents with two parents born overseas, a higher proportion of full-time employees and stay-at-home parents, a much higher household income, higher levels of home ownership, and a much lower proportion of families without children. (Interestingly, I saw billboards for at least two retirement communities being developed in the area, so things could change quite dramatically in the future with an influx of retirees.)

You can read more about Springfield on Wikipedia and on the Queensland Places website.

Ipswich Libraries Springfield Central branch

The Springfield Central Library is located in a brand new building at the Orion Springfield Central shopping centre. Our tour guide was Tonille, one of Ipswich Libraries Customer Service Officers. 

As a new build, Springfield Central provided a testbed for a lot of innovative technology, collection management, spaces and services. The library has been hugely successful and within just a few months of opening had contributed to increases in membership, visits and loans for Ipswich Libraries

One of the most interesting parts of the tour for me was to see what RFID tagging of the collection was enabling. In the picture below (moving clockwise from bottom-left), you can see:
  1. A pretty standard RFID-based self-checkout machine.
  2. Tonille demonstrating the use of the 24-hour pickup lockers. These are similar to Australia Post's parcel lockers and are located in the shopping centre carpark, enabling people to pick up their library holds out-of-hours.
  3. Returns shelves. Users simply pop the books back on the shelves and voila!, they are automatically checked in. (Brisbane City Libraries also have these at my local branch - they are great).
  4. AMy - the Automated Materials Handling machine. As books are dropped in the returns chute, they go up a conveyor belt, are automatically checked back in, are sorted automatically into a range of bins, depending on where they need to go next (back on the shelves or off to another library if a library user has placed a hold). 

Springfield Central has also done some interesting things with organisation and display of their collection. Matt Pascoe presented on Springfield's use of retail techniques in their "market place" at the Asia-Pacific Library and Information Conference (APLIC) last year, and I highly recommend looking at Matt's presentation to get a sense of just how successful this has been. 

In the picture below (moving clockwise from top-left, and then to the centre), you can see:
  1. bookshop-style display in the market place of a genre (science-fiction)
  2. more organisation by genre in the classics section
  3. subject-based signage (with matching spine labels) for children's non-fiction
  4. general non-fiction divided into large subject areas, then Dewey-fied within that
  5. current magazine and newspaper display
  6. broader view of part of the market place
  7. bookshop-style display of staff member's selections (these and other sections in the market place have a backup list of titles so that these sections can be quickly restocked to always look full and inviting)
  8. picture book storage - no organisation at all in this particular unit
  9. signage (with matching spine labels) for the general fiction collection, which is broken into genres, then alphabetised by author name within genres. 

In terms of spaces, my overall impression was that the library was bright and cheery, and that a lot of effort had gone into zoning the library for its multiple uses. There were group and individual booths suitable for both collaboration and quiet study, bookable meeting rooms (with integrated large screens), and larger event spaces that were made more flexible through the use of sliding doors. In the picture below (clockwise from top), you can see:
  1. Group study spaces. Eating and drinking is allowed but users (particularly teenagers!) are strongly encouraged to do the right thing and ensure that rubbish is placed in bins. During our visit we saw two security guards interacting with teenagers in the library's spaces in a firm but non-intimidating way. (In one case two teens were being supervised by a security guard as they cleaned up the lift after a glitter confetti explosion!) 
  2. Entry with service desks. Things to note include that these desks are height-adjustable and also the neat cable management solutions (cables are grouped together within flexible snake-like pipes that go up into the ceiling rather than into walls or floors). 
  3. Individual study booth in a quieter area of the library. 

Two things that I could not get photos of were the children's space (which was packed out for an informal storytime) and the excellent facility for changing nappies, breastfeeding (bar fridge and microwave included), and providing a time-out space for kids who may be having a meltdown.

In the picture below (clockwise from top), you can see:

  1. Our host Tonille, inserted into an augmented reality (AR) video where she was shooting alien spacecraft. The real Tonille was actually standing in front of a green wall on the other side of the room!
  2. Signage setting expectations about noise associated with a public event. 
  3. One of the two 3D printers located in the makerspace. These are free to use for library members over 13 years old and you can book a 45-minute slot with a "makerspace champion". 
  4. Staff member's desk with all the 3D printed objects awaiting collection. 
  5. Promotional poster for a ukelele workshop run by a local musician. This event was on while we were in the library and by the end of 2 hours the group was performing a rendition of "Stand by Me"!
  6. The Library is one of several sites for community immunisations - I don't recall ever having seen this in a library before and thought what a great idea it was to join up libraries and health providers to offer this essential service for kids in a familiar and less clinical environment. 


I was super-impressed with this public library! Although not everything I saw would translate into an academic library environment, I took away lots of ideas to discuss with colleagues.

University of Southern Queensland Springfield Library

At USQ, we were kindly shown around by Clare Thorpe, the Associate Director (Library Experience).

Clare explained that there has been a library at Springfield since the campus was established in 2006 and that the current library space had been refurbished under a year ago.

Interestingly, although three quarters of USQ's enrolments are for online study, many students live within 100 km of one of the campuses so there is still demand for study space. Clare noted that the majority of USQ Springfield students are not school-leavers, but tend to be more mature people balancing a range of work, family, and study commitments.

In the picture below (clockwise from top), you can see:

  1. A large multi-purpose area. The refurbishment focused on making spaces as flexible as possible, with furniture able to be moved as needed and removed easily for events. Note also the full-height windows. These replaced much narrower windows, letting in more light and integrating the indoor and outdoor spaces in keeping with the Queensland lifestyle and USQ Library's overall ethos of openness and transparency. 
  2. The Library now includes spaces for the secure display of objects from the USQ Art Collection. 
  3. Clare let us in on this excellent library refurbishment hack! By simply placing new wooden end-panels at the end of their existing stacks, they were able to completely refresh the look of the collection spaces without replacing the shelving.
  4. The Library is open 24/7 (with the exception of the collection area, which is locked when the library is unstaffed). The space includes this full kitchen area with sink, microwaves, and waste disposal. Clare noted there had been no issues with students having food in the space. 
  5. The refurbishment included a new entrance with pod-style service desks. USQ does not operate a combined library-IT service model but the library and IT desks are located next to each other in the same space. Opposite these desks there are a number of small consultation rooms. These can be used by students consulting with staff on the Springfield campus but are also equipped with videoconferencing facilities for times when staff are only available at other USQ campuses. 
  6. Quiet study area. The library space has two main zones, one more suited for lab and groupwork and the other concentrated on the collection and spaces for quiet study. Note the use of the same colour (green) but in a more muted tone. Lighting is also more subdued in this area. The student carrels are extra wide and padded in a soft felt-like fabric that not only added visual appeal but I imagine would also help with soundproofing. As with the other spaces there were plenty of power and USB points. 



I was not able to get photos of the main student space as this was full of people. This was a mixed-use space with a computer lab at one end, and study space for those with laptops at the other end. The library also has an Assistive Technology Room that is part of USQ's services in support of students with a disability.

Behind the scenes, Clare showed us processing areas for postage to off-campus students. One thing that emerged in the discussion that I was not familiar with was USQ's engagement with a specific disadvantaged cohort of library users: students who are in incarcerated. As students in correctional facilities do not have access to the internet, they are excluded from most higher education. Through its Making the Connection program, USQ has developed secure offline learning platforms. The library also contributes to this program by ensuring students have access to the resources that they need. If you are interested in finding out more about digital equity issues as they relate to prisoners' access to education, you may like to read this 2017 ASCILITE conference paper by academics from USQ and RMIT.



22 February 2019

Conference report: International Digital Curation Conference 2019

On 5-7 February I attended the International Digital Curation Conference in Melbourne. ​​

The conference consisted of two days of presentations, panels, lightning talks, and posters. This was followed by an unconference day designed to promote informal discussion and networking on topics suggested by the participants on the day. 


More details if you'd like to follow up:
This was the first time this conference had been held in the Global South and it attracted an audience of over 250 participants from a wide range of countries. I have reviewed abstracts for this conference for quite a few years so I was really chuffed to finally get to experience it! The conference was very friendly and it was a chance to reconnect with many former colleagues as well as to meet some people face-to-face that I only know from Twitter. 

One of the things that I enjoyed the most about the conference was the large number of archivists attending and the many archives-related presentations. I started my career as an information professional in archives and have written previously about the value for librarians of developing a deeper understanding of archival theories and practices, particularly when working in areas such as research data management. The conference brought home to me my own need to refresh and update my professional knowledge of what is happening in the broader world of digital preservation and cultural collections in organisations other than universities and libraries (i.e. I need to get out more!)

My top three papers (though it is really hard to choose just three – I encourage you to explore the full program) were:

Developing Culturally Competent Data Publication Resources
Ryan Stoker and Jen McLean, University of Sydney

This paper received the top paper award from the program committee based on reviewer feedback.

Ryan and Jen talked about the process they are going through to revise their library guide on data publication in light of frameworks emerging from the National Centre for Cultural Competence at USyd. This has involved so far self-assessment by library staff of their own perspectives and biases, addition of indigenous cultural & intellectual property rights (including links to AIATSIS ethics guidelines), and inclusion of indigenous community considerations in sections on sensitive data.

The lessons learned are feeding into other projects including the institutional repository redevelopment and a university digital asset management system (DAMS). They are reviewing digital collections priorities, exploring new kinds of metadata (such as traditional knowledge labels) and ensuring licensing / access information is captured appropriately.

Progress in Research Data Service development: An international survey of university libraries  Slides 
Mary Anne Kennan, Charles Sturt University

Mary Anne presented on the results of the latest round of international surveys conducted from 2014 onwards across a range of countries including the UK, Ireland, Australia, NZ, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. The results will be published in a journal article soon.

This presentation helped me to see where my place of work is currently sitting compared to peers in terms of our service provision, organisational structures, drivers, skills gaps and other challenges. Mary Anne and her co-investigators have also come up with a really interesting maturity model for research data management services.

Human Security Informatics, Global Grand Challenges and Digital Curation
Anne Gilliland, University of North Carolina

This was a very thought-provoking paper on emerging work in Human Security Informatics (HSI). HSI is focused on how current digital infrastructures fail to meet the needs of many vulnerable communities due to systemic inequities and inaccessibilities, and lack of institutional will, coordination and capacity.

There are many cases when records and archives are used as mechanisms of oppression and appropriation, and where vulnerable communities (e.g. refugees, abuse survivors, those affected by natural disasters) must interact with records but may have no “bureaucratic literacy” or the relevant language skills to do this.

The case study presented related to the needs of displaced populations that are being explored through the Refugee Rights in Records Project. Given the current tone of political discussions in Australia right now this was very timely (but also really depressing). ​

​Three practical things I plan to do as a result of attending this conference are:
  1. Develop a digital preservation strategy for my institution's repository by end of 2020
  2. Explore connections between our repository and the Analysis and Policy Observatory to enable our research to be more accessible to public policy audiences outside of academia
  3. Explore the role that data packaging transfer tools (such as the Cloudstor Collections service from AARNet) might have in new data repository workflows. ​