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Library Leadership in a Digital Age

What will the future of libraries look like? There couldn’t be a bigger unanswered question for the 96 participants who attended the Library Leadership in a Digital Age Institute at the Harvard Graduate School of Education last week.

“Many recognize the need for change but do not know how to do that with constrained resources,” said Maureen Sullivan, an institute faculty member and also president of the American Library Association.

With digital technology transforming libraries around the world, it has changed how librarians function within the job. The institute, offered by the Ed School’s Programs in Professional Education (PPE), gave participants, through interactive presentations, question-and-answer sessions, and small-group discussions, an opportunity to share conceptual insight and practical ideas for how to function as effective leaders within newly emerging societal and institutional contexts.

Institute co-chair Lawrence Bacow, former president of Tufts University and currently a visiting professor at HGSE, emphasized that the participants should be less focused on finding answers. “Our goal is to see if you can ask some really good questions,” Bacow said. “The answers will reveal themselves over time.”

Over three days, library leaders in colleges, universities, professional schools, research organizations, historic preservation/archives, and public libraries from around the globe came together to do just that — ask questions.

“We’ve been going through transitions to a digital library,” said participant John Teskey of the University of New Brunswick in Canada, who admitted it’s difficult to know exactly what these transitions will entail down the road.

The plan for an institute focused on the leadership challenges associated with digital changes in libraries grew out of PPE’s long-running Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians (LIAL). Sullivan approached Lecturer Joseph Zolner, who is senior director of PPE’s higher education programs, about offering this new institute for librarians.

“Building on the success of LIAL, which is now in its 15th year and has produced almost 1,500 alumni, it seemed logical and appropriate for PPE to offer another professional development experience for this important higher education constituency,” Zolner said. “Technology and new learning modalities are fundamentally redefining the role of the research library. It’s my hope that the ideas and insights about the future of librarianship generated during this institute serve the profession well during what will clearly be dynamic years ahead.”

The timing was really right. “Many more people are challenged by the changes of the digital age but it can be difficult to make such changes,” Sullivan said. “I hope people leave this with greater confidence and deeper commitments to the challenges, as well as identify paths as they move toward the digital age.”

Among the challenges is the question of whether libraries will be deemed obsolete in the future. Despite shrinking financial resources on campus and a need to revamp higher education, Bacow said that he sees a continued need for physical libraries, as they can be viewed as a social space to bring people together.

Sullivan agreed and also noted the important role of librarians. “I really believe in librarians being in the role of educator to help continue self-directed education,” she said. “It’s time to address the question of what 21st-century libraries are going to be.”

Teskey and his University of New Brunswick colleague Lesley Balcom have both attended LIAL in the past. Having previously attended sessions on digital libraries, both agreed that PPE really has a unique ability to combine compelling speakers and diverse colleagues in ways that foster meaningful dialogue on important and timely issues.

Additionally, Balcom said that the program offered plenty of time for participants to engage and discuss the issues repeatedly with each other. That, said Teskey, was the ultimate point of attending.

“It’s about asking the right questions,” he said. “It’s not about providing answers but how to ask good questions.”