November 26, 2015

Add Substance to Style: ULC’s New Leadership Brief Neglects Public Library Values | Blatant Berry

It isn’t a fatal flaw, but the third in the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) series of “knowledge briefs,” Library Leaders Owning Leadership (also see below), would have been stronger with substantive content on the values of librarianship. That would have given meaning to the document’s emphasis on management and leadership style. The purpose of the short document, according to the press release from ULC, is “to provide guidance to library executives, trustees, and local government officials.” While it does a pretty good job of summarizing some of the most popular recent books on business management and leadership, it cites no work on the justification for a tax-supported public library.

For example, there is almost an overdose of Warren Bennis and Nanus Burt; good old James McGregor Burns is there on leadership, as are Jim Collins (Good to Great), Max DePree (Leadership Is an Art), and many other stalwarts of the pop leadership and management collection. Heroes of business like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs are cited and quoted. Jobs tells us, “People don’t know what they want,” even though the brief emphasizes communication and getting ideas from outside the library and from its users. Ford is quoted saying, “If I asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.” To complain that some of the quoted leaders contradict the advice in the brief would be quibbling.

More troubling are the five “critical leadership roles for the 21st Century Librarian.” It isn’t that they are not useful; it is that these platitudes of management and leadership neglect the most fundamental values and purposes of librarianship. Here, quoted from the brief, are the ULC roles of leaders:

  1. “Visionaries who constantly think about what the library can be rather than what it is”
  2. “Community leaders who contribute to their communities in diverse and meaningful ways”
  3. “Successful managers who ensure that the library system is a well-managed, dependable, and respected community resource”
  4. “Models and mentors who lead by example, maintain and enhance the library’s reputation, adhere to the highest ethical standards, and support and nurture professional and personal growth in others”
  5. “Passionate champions who exude energy, meaning, and purpose.”

No one would argue against any of these roles, and the brief elaborates on them substantially.

The problem is the failure of the brief to specify core values of the public library movement in America that provide the most compelling argument for the library and for its claim that it is most efficiently and effectively provided to all through taxation. Those values include service provided by professionals with expertise not only to get people to what they want and need but who can also provide analysis and evaluation of information sources to protect those people from invalid, biased, and inaccurate sources. There is the role of “champion,” but it doesn’t say our leaders must champion free expression, free inquiry, and, especially, inform democratic self-government. While leaders are advised to remain “apolitical,” there is only a little here about the need for leaders who can effectively work within the political process to strengthen support for the public library.

The ULC fascination with the methods and marketing practices of business and its gurus of leadership often overlooks the critical importance of tapping the huge reservoir of public support for libraries and the immense need to strengthen our case for a public agency to serve free, individual inquiry and to bolster it through taxes.

“As public libraries continue to broaden their reach and deepen their role as an essential part of community life, the expectations of library leaders are expanding as well,” wrote ULC president and CEO Susan Benton. She hopes the brief will “offer food for thought about leadership and guidance on specific strategies for enhancing leadership effectiveness.”

The publication does a part of that job, but it neglects to provide the substance—the professional values—to give its managers and leaders the meat of the message they must ­deliver.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III ( is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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  1. If a “visionary” is constantly thinking about what the library COULD BE (i.e. not what it actually IS at that point in time), then that “visionary” will never see what the starting reality (e.g. staffing, resources) is. The gap between “leader” and those who (supposedly) need to be led is growing all of the time.

    If you want people to “buy in”, then you have to do a “sell job”, and you have to know where they are currently at.