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Category: Library Leadership

The Legible Librarian

The Legible Librarian


One of the challenges I find myself facing is the push and pull between a traditional library hierarchy and the role of the functional expert. Most of my career to date has been in the latter category, which may account for the warmth I feel towards those roles, but I now find myself in the former category, and I can see how decisions at the AUL/AD level can either make the walls close in around a functional expert, or can help them to soar.

It is the role of upper level leadership to ensure that a librarian in a functional expert role (aka “coordinator”) is legible to the rest of the organization.

A functional expert can be utterly amazing in all that they do, with endless potential and skill, but if their peers and the rest of the library don’t see their work slotted into the overall work of the library, if they see them as other or external in some way, there will be an a hard limit on how much they can accomplish.

The usual model for functional expertise, as well as ambiguous, new or rapidly-shifting portfolios (technology librarians of all stripes, assessment librarians, data librarians, digital humanities librarians, entrepreneurship, schol comm too, I presume) is often framed in what I think of as a retainer model: we hire the expertise, and anyone in the organization can call on them when needed. The result more often than not is a supremely qualified and able librarian sitting in their office twiddling their thumbs, or constructing a magnificent portfolio of work driven by their own hands that the rest of the library may admire, but don’t see as related to themselves.

Making a functional expert legible often falls to the functional experts themselves. After being on both sides of this equation, I’ve come to the realization that this is impossible. The functional expert may be as eloquent as they come, but it’s all talk if the organization isn’t shifting to adjust and accept their work. Carving out the paths that allow new expertise to fully join the organization has to be the work of library leadership.

How do you make this happen? We have to accept that it’s not just one conversation, and it’s not just an announcement. We have to address these issues step by step and project by project.

I think the first structural piece is understanding that coordinators/functional experts are peers of department heads, but different from them in important ways. In my experience, it is critical to form a permanent team that includes both. It’s true that department heads have radically different work and issues to face. But to function well, department heads and functional experts need to understand each other as partners and collaborators as well as peers.

We can’t just code a functional expert as an independent department head of a department of one. That’s very isolating and archaic, and I think this is where we tend to get this wrong. If the expectation is that a technology librarian, or data librarian, or schol comm librarian is going to bring expertise that will touch the entire campus, for instance, then they need to team up with the department head(s) for liaison/outreach to bring that expertise into the hands on, on-the-ground work. They can’t recreate a liaison network on their own (well, they can, but that’s just creating internal competition and losing valuable opportunities for the liaison librarians, as well as lessening their own potential impact). If we don’t use the structures we already have, we might as well hand the functional expertise off to another unit altogether, because the effect is about the same.

I know the immediate response to the suggestion that functional experts become leaders in partnership with liaison department heads: liaison librarians are already overwhelmed, too busy, too many projects as it is, etc. We can’t have more bosses, it’s too much, it’s too confusing! Rather than give up in the face of this outcry, we need to reorient how we’re viewing the work of the functional expert, and understand that there are many ways to be a leader.

It’s not separate work, it’s not on top of everything else work; it’s got to be integrated into the work of a department. A department head is focused on the vision, on implementation of work and goals, and on monitoring performance; a functional expert has their eyes on one impactful realm of knowledge. Together, they create the work going forward. As a team, they are dynamite.

But a functional expert will struggle to launch if they aren’t understood by the department heads as a partner rather than a competitor or just as another, disconnected peer. So the AUL/AD needs to be clear about the relationships and dependencies between them so that they can see each other as they are and work together to support the work of the library.

Often, it’s the liaison librarians on whom this kind of campus impact work fundamentally depends. A functional expert might have a key understanding of what faculty need to know/do/think about in order to move forward and meet needs in an area, but it’s the department head who is best placed to shape that idea into real and doable work that supports the mission of the department, and it’s the liaison librarians who make those connections and get it done. That’s how a functional expert can end up leading entire departments and having massive impact fast; with the support of the department heads, who understand how to construct a project that supports the existing mission and work of the department. The department heads continue to monitor performance and shape work even if a functional expert designed the project. They are stronger for working together.

But the task of making a functional expert legible doesn’t end there; it’s also the role of the AUL/AD to ensure that their own peers understand how a new or changing portfolio affects their departments as well, when it does. The amazing thing about a coordinator role is that it’s unhooked from a specific department and can creep into work all over the place; that’s only a good experience if everyone involves sees it coming, understands its purpose, and respects it when it comes. It’s important not to expect a functional expert to be able to carve that path themselves. No matter how good they are, this is beyond their scope.

At the AUL/AD level, we can see where the crossover is about to happen, and that’s when we need to provide the context required for a potential collaborator to be prepared to welcome it.  Project by project, ambiguity by ambiguity, these conversations need to happen not just once, but many times, as they appear, to translate the goals of the functional expert at the earliest stage so that they have the support and collaboration that will make them successful.

I have seen many discussions in the profession about coordinator roles and how hopeless they are; I have been struggling to understand this perspective. In light of that, I have become very aware of day to day work I find myself doing to ensure that the functional experts in my portfolio are able to do their work well and successfully, fully and joyfully integrated into the daily life of the libraries. The skills they are building by designing and implementing projects in their areas of expertise, collaborating closely with department heads and adjusting their ideas to the goals and strengths of the department, pitching ideas and gaining support, leading staff without directly supervising them; these are some of the most valuable and necessary skills for future leadership, and I think it would be a tragedy to have fewer of these opportunities available in the profession because AULs/ADs don’t know how to manage them well.

My goal is to know how. I’m learning.