Spiritual Teachers? – What It Means for Library Leadership

A friend posted an image recently on Facebook that stated:
*My Spiritual Teachers in Order of Importance:
1. People who annoy the living sh*t out of me
2. All other spiritual teachers

What does this have to do with library leadership?

In about a week I’ll be sharing observations as part of a regional library panel about leadership. I’ll be talking about a task force I led to initiate a new user experience program at our library this past year. The first few months of our work resulted in what some people thought was a waste of time. My viewpoint was (and still is) that since we were learning a new process, we should accept that we might not get it exactly right to start with, and that it would take some time to learn. This did not go over well with some of the task force members; they thought we should be making more headway at a quicker pace. Perhaps we should have and could have, but due to the way we started out (I had asked a colleague from another dept. on campus to help us work through a formalized research process so we could use the data in an article eventually) the progress seemed slow, although we kept to the schedule we initially set up. Still, there was a general sense of dissatisfaction with both my leadership style, as well as that of the outside consultant. As it turned out, the outside consultant quit the project before the end of the spring semester since he needed to put his efforts into projects that would help him gain tenure and our project wasn’t going to do that for him. However, we did learn some important concepts during our time with him and were exposed to some useful resources. Unfortunately not everyone on the task force believed these were of much benefit. In the long run I think they will be, but in the initial stages this was not necessarily apparent.

As the task force progressed with its charge, my role was to keep things moving along and I also participated in the actual work of collecting and analyzing data for the project, in order to get a sense of what it entailed. Toward the end of the project when it was time to write up the progress report, the group began to splinter and some of the members were ready to throw in the towel. We were conflicted between actually doing the work of the pilot study (which taught us the concepts of user experience research) and analyzing just how we needed to staff user experience work for the library in the long run, which the pilot project was supposed to help us determine.
So what did I, as a leader, learn from this experience?

• Bringing together disparate individuals with diverse goals in a project not well defined does not generate cohesiveness
• Balancing big picture thinking with project management benchmarks is tricky
• Stakeholders who have something to gain or lose from a new initiative will naturally focus on their own self-interests
• When staff are already over-committed and juggling many responsibilities, asking them to spend even more time on a new initiative that they have not completely bought into may result in frustration and even a sense of rebellion

Fortunately, at this point, we are ready to get on with doing more user experience projects with specific staff now designated to coordinate it. I am hoping that these designated staff will find future projects challenging and useful. What is still a goal for me is to orient others in the library in understanding the importance of user experience analysis on a wider basis.

So, though my spiritual teachers may have annoyed me with their dissatisfaction and frustration, I do think I learned more about my own ability to lead. It’s often the journey rather than the destination that matters.

* http://www.johnptacek.com/gallery.html

July 2013- Assistant Director for Discovery & Technology Services, Joyner Library, East Carolina University August 2008-June 2013 Assistant Director for Collections & Technical Services, Joyner Library, East Carolina University

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About “Gentle Disturbances”

The title of our new blog, “Gentle Disturbances”, is a tribute and a reference to the husband and wife artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art consists of vast, temporary outdoor installations, such as the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin, the 24-mile Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin counties in California, and The Gates in New York City's Central Park. Christo has asserted that their art creates “gentle disturbances," designed to challenge traditional perceptions of the spaces and landscapes they inhabit. By encouraging viewers to see familiar landscapes in new ways, their art disrupts assumptions about permanence, ownership, and categorization.

While we claim none of the artistic or political impact of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, we hope that this blog and its many contributors will challenge us all to look at the landscape of academic libraries and higher education in new ways. We aspire to “gentle disturbances” of the kind that will lead to productive conversations and creative approaches to our common challenges.