Library Issues
Editors: Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Ann P. Dougherty
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
Vol. 21, No. 3 January 2001


Wanted: Library Leaders for a Discontinuous Future

by Terry Metz


"The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys."

—Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer
of the British Post Office, in 1876.


Discontinuous \’dis-ken-’tin-ye-wes\ adj 1 b: lacking sequence or cohesion

A library metamorphosis is underway. Academic libraries are no longer primarily print repositories with services built around these paper collections to which users must physically come. Rather, libraries are appearing increasingly as portals to electronic and network-accessible collections and services—from library as place to library as people and services available via the network.

Academic libraries are caught between the "rock" of a changing information economy peppered with new technologies and the "hard place" of user expectations. On one hand, technology visionaries have prematurely oversimplified the promise of electronic transformation of learning, teaching, scholarship, and research. On the other hand, the siren call of the digital world has generated rising expectations among library users for locating, retrieving, and manipulating information.

Veteran observers argue, however, that events have overtaken the efficacy of mere incremental improvements, and that only revolutionary change will provide the solutions we need. These proponents of revolution insist we cannot rely exclusively on past successes as patterns for tomorrow’s solutions. They assert that change is no longer merely an extrapolation of yesterday in digital format; rather the flavor of change facing academic libraries today is unfamiliar, non-linear, disruptive, and above all, discontinuous.1

Despite these monumental shifts, the most important resource necessary for operating academic libraries remains constant—library staff. Each day, library employees use their capacity to apply reasoning and imagination to new demands; however, the sheer pace and magnitude of change requires library employees to reequip themselves with new skills and attitudes. Not surprisingly, persons possessing technology-related skills are eagerly sought.2 Individuals capable of guiding academic libraries in an era of transformational change are also in demand; these persons, too, require an expanded repertoire of skills to excel at their work.

A key ingredient for the continued success of academic libraries as we appreciate them today—collections of high quality information resources organized and maintained for the benefit of the campus community as a whole—is the nurturing and development of library leaders who possess skills and expertise drawn from previously compartmentalized professions—librarians, technologists, faculty members, and administrators.


Library Leadership in a Transformational Age

Leading a transformational process and managing a fluid and chaotic transition period requires skills different from those useful for ensuring continuity in a stable, predictable environment. Today, effective library leadership requires an extraordinary ability to maintain a delicate and continually shifting balance in the management of technical, financial, and human resources to serve the academic mission of our colleges and universities.3

Print-on-paper technology enabled us to build the treasures we call academic libraries. The characteristics of print on paper shaped our concepts of scholarly services and librarians became very adept at managing operations to supply these services. A major characteristic of networked digital resources is their capacity to generate excitement among users, even though they may lack many of the traditional safeguards of reliability, authenticity, and "archivability." Effective leadership in today’s academic library must manage the tension that threatens to jettison one medium for another. Leaders must make judicious decisions that blend the strengths of the past, the demands of the present, and the uncertainty of the future, and they must do so continually—often within an organizational environment designed to support the past.

Books and paper will not disappear any time soon, although their primacy will decline. Digital resources are not simply substitutes for print-on-paper documents, but they are becoming more widely available and highly desired by library users. What must change, however, are our systems for organizing, managing, and financing access to knowledge. We must learn to manage hybrid systems in which both paper and electronic information co-exist effectively. And we must learn how to distinguish and manage the strengths and weaknesses of a broad spectrum of technologies and utilize this power to enhance the mission of our parent institutions rather than allowing the mission to be defined by technological tools.

The most successful library leaders will respond to this new reality with a blend of bold leadership, informed risk-taking, widespread consultation, and consensus building. They, as well as their colleagues in IT departments and other instructional support units, will need keen analytical powers, abundant common sense, vibrant creativity, reasoned judgment, and a passionate commitment to the mission and goals of higher education. [The ability to walk on water or part the seas wouldn’t hurt either!!] To develop this new leader is an enormous challenge.


Developing and Expanding the Library Leadership Pool

A current problem, however, is the inadequate supply of information resource professionals equipped for leadership positions in our academic libraries and IT organizations.4 Libraries desperately need persons who can help integrate the formerly compartmentalized responsibilities of libraries and information technology divisions and assume an expanded role in the management and allocation of these important resources in support of the institutional mission.

U.S. library schools have begun modifying curriculums to address new needs. Eventually persons from these ranks will rise to positions of library leadership. It will take a decade or more, however, before graduates of more innovative library school programs5 have the experience to assume major leadership roles in our college and university libraries. In the meantime, librarians already in the pipeline must make a major commitment to their own professional development to prepare themselves for the challenges we face today. The Frye Leadership Institute is a good example of an opportunity available for this development.6 In addition, institutions must be willing to reorganize traditionally compartmentalized functions to enable the new leaders to manage effectively the demands of a volatile mixture of knowledge resources in a variety of formats and media.

What else must we do today to develop library leaders and expand the talent-pool for the future?

"A key ingredient for the continued success of academic libraries the nurturing and development of library leaders who possess skills and expertise drawn from previously compartmentalized professions—librarians, technologists, faculty members, and administrators."


Develop a New Mindset. Library leaders must be capable of defining and demonstrating how information resources can be integrated into the institutional mission. Just being able to administer or manage the library (or the IT organization) and its associated resources is no longer sufficient. Instead of accepting institutional goals without comment and listening to the loudest faculty committee, the library leader must be an active participant in campus discussions. He or she must help other institution leaders understand the complexities of information resources, service delivery, digital technology, and the information demand of the campus community. The leader must also learn the issues and concerns of multiple constituencies and be prepared to modify the library’s internal goals and strategies to support new clientele needs as they arise. She or he needs to be a generalist, an eclectic member of the campus community, and a builder of coalitions among various campus units. The role of this new leader must transcend traditional campus fiefdoms.

Being a library leader will not always be a comfortable or pleasant role. The mission may require cessation of traditional services that are no longer relevant. It may require adoption of value structures driven from outside the leader’s unit, rather than from within. It may mean giving up exclusive control of information resources and actively sharing control with other segments of the community. The key is that the information resource needs of the campus must be fully integrated into the institution's strategic directions and mission—after broad discussion.

Appreciate Differences. The two professions of librarianship and information technology have grown up with different backgrounds and cultures. Instead of being a source of mutual growth and learning, these differences can create barriers and challenges to effective cooperation.

Leaders must liberate themselves from any restricted cultural view, sometimes characterized by mutual contempt. The cultures of both librarians and IT professionals have valid points of view. Professionals in one group need to learn the business of the other. A leader must value the differences, the strengths, and the perspectives that the other professional group brings to the table. She or he must understand what the other group contributes, value that contribution, and not fall prey to stereotypes.7

Redefine and Eliminate Historical Boundaries. To overcome the barrier of turf, the leader must take care not to define all projects as the library’s territory. Rather the leader should ask: What do faculty and students need? What does the institution need? Librarians must work with faculty in ways that were neither previously invited nor sought. They must understand how scholars frame questions, seek information, and organize their research methods.

Manage Expectations. One of the most difficult tasks facing information resource professionals today is establishing a baseline of services in support of the institutional mission. In both IT divisions and libraries, staff are often called upon to provide everything that is requested by anybody who wants it—the specter of insatiable demands. We cannot sustain this demand-driven model forever. Limits are needed. Resources cannot be managed effectively unless limits are identified, articulated, understood and accepted. Why? Because while information may be growing exponentially, institutional resources to support this information are not. Strategic thinking is required to manage this tension. If we cannot provide all desired information services, we must target resources to support the strategic initiatives of the institution. Failure to have this campus discussion will impede planned and orderly provision of services, and reactive and inconsistent responses will inevitably result.

Think Discontinuously. The primary attention of an information resource professional in a position of leadership, such as a library or IT administrator, will be on the process of discontinuous change. The leader must think regularly about questions such as: What are the major issues lurking over the horizon? What are the changes undermining our ability to cope using our traditional practices? What are the new opportunities that we are failing to exploit? What are the activities that cross over traditional boundaries and, hence, are not getting appropriate attention? The effective leader must take a longer-term, more anticipatory approach to library operations. Instead of merely reacting to events, she or he must anticipate and then present them to the campus community in order to frame a discussion and shape new information service environments for students and faculty.

Naturally, as with most important healthy habits in our lives, it is easy to urge that people should "think discontinuously," but it is much harder to put this idea into practice. When one is an active part of a complex organization and caught up in the pressure of daily activities, it is difficult to see the currents of change. In a turbulent environment, the leader must budget time to contemplate what he or she is doing and why. The leader does not extrapolate from the past as a sole means of guidance, but also tries to visualize different scenarios for the future. The leader who can think discontinuously anticipates future possibilities. She or he challenges historical or conventional assumptions that inhibit possible realization of desired outcomes. The quality of these outcomes will be a function of how well these persons are grounded in a thorough understanding of scholarly information needs; how broadly they scan the external environment; how committed they are to constant self-improvement, life-long learning and personal growth; and how willing they are to explore abandoning historically cherished values and skills.


Be a Generalist

It is also the responsibility of the leader to ensure that each person in the organization analyzes what skills are needed, not what skills are currently held. Not surprisingly, it is threatening to librarians and IT professionals to realize that one’s current skill set may be of little use and, indeed, a liability if it no longer furthers the mission of the parent institution facing a much more competitive marketplace. Specialized skills have been the source of security for many information resource professionals, who say to themselves: I know how to perform a given function, or I know a given area better than anyone else does. Yet the demand for that function may be eliminated, or, at the very least, changing at a rapid rate. This can happen to leaders as well. There is a curious paradox associated with information professions: the path to success has always been characterized by the development of specialized skills, but the path to leadership requires the skills of a generalist.

The information resource professional who is qualified to lead our campuses through these difficult times, both today and in the future, must have an appreciation of the historical, cultural, and technical roles of all information resource functions. Perhaps the most daunting hurdle facing libraries in an era of discontinuous change is the recognition that our past service achievements may become our liabilities if we do not adapt in time.



Today we live in an environment of constant and constantly accelerating changes. Whether we embrace them or not, significant changes in how information services are offered, along with changes in the technology necessary to deliver them, is a certainty. To achieve and maintain excellence in this type of environment, all stakeholders must accept moving beyond merely coping with change to accepting change as routine.

The impact of discontinuous change on academic libraries is significant, disruptive, and likely to be affecting libraries and their parent institutions for years to come. Merely scaling up conventional processes is not likely to ensure future success. Creative and, perhaps, revolutionary solutions are necessary. The most effective solutions will be implemented by savvy staffs led by leaders who appreciate the needs of students, librarians, technologists, faculty and administrators.

Faculty and administrators will be key contributors to the future success of information resource management on our campuses. Faculty will contribute by conferring with librarians and technologists about how best to capitalize on evolving information technologies without compromising their values of teaching, research, and service. Administrators will contribute by providing seed money to fund initiatives that show particular promise, and by supporting attempts to reorganize information service units in new, more effective ways.

If we collectively fail to provide dynamic, effective information environments on our campuses, the commercial world will be happy to oblige—perhaps with unpleasant economic results for higher education.

—Terry Metz is Head of Information Technology at the Laurence McKinley Gould Library, Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota. He is also a fellow of the first Frye Leadership Institute. Send reactions and comments to:



1Brian L. Hawkins and Patricia Battin, "Setting the Stage: Evolution, Revolution, or Collapse?," in Brian L. Hawkins and Patricia Battin, eds. The Mirage of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the 21st Century. (Council on Library and Information Resources and Association of American Universities: Washington, DC, 1998), pp. 3-12.

2Penny M. Belle and Megan M. Adams, "Other Duties as Assigned: Emerging Trends in the Academic Library Market," College & Research Libraries, 61, no. 4, July, 2000, pp. 336-347.

3Patricia Battin, "Leadership in a Transformational Age," in Brian L. Hawkins and Patricia Battin, eds. The Mirage
of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the 21
st Century, pp. 271-277.

4 Kit Lively, "Colleges Are Urged to Put Good Leaders, Not Technical Experts, in Charge of Technology." The Chronicle of Higher Education Online Daily Update. (Tuesday, July 25, 2000) 

5Katherine S. Mangan, "In Revamped Library Schools, Information Trumps Books." The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. XLVI, no. 31, April 7, 2000, pp. A43-44. Chronicle subscribers can read this article on the Web at this address: 

6 Sponsored by the Council on Library and Information Resources, EDUCAUSE, the Woodruff Foundation, and Emory University, the Frye Leadership Institute has been established to expose tomorrow’s information resource leaders to an intensive dose of those topics that affect their future success: student learning, technology, information economics, academic politics, public policy, student and constituent-relations, etc.—and thereby accelerate the preparation of a cadre of promising individuals already in the library/IT pipelines for leadership roles on our campuses. For more information, see the Frye Leadership Institute Web page: 

7Terry Metz, "Academic Libraries and Computing Centers: The Case for Collaboration," Moveable Type, 6, no. 2, Spring, 1999, pp. 7. Also available online at 


Shifts in Academic Library Focus
During the Late 20th Century

  • Librarians as Technical Do-ers: 
    "Here’s what I have"

Until the widespread availability of digital technology, libraries offered printed materials. Characteristics of the printed book and scholarly journal defined the nature of instruction, scholarly research, and concepts of library service. The library leader’s priorities centered on managing operations and supervising a central budget.

  • Librarians as Service Providers: 
    "What do you want?"

As user demands became more sophisticated, librarians adopted a customer service orientation geared toward expanding services and developing broader access to information beyond local collections. Technological expansion spawned a "systems" orientation. Growing complexity made it impossible to be expert on all library issues and operations. The library leader required awareness of key issues and depended more heavily upon a staff of bibliographic, disciplinary, and technical experts for advice.

  • Librarians as Resource Managers: 
    "What are we doing

Significant change occurred in the early 1990s as more choices and options among information resources became available. Librarians became much more aware of needing to manage people, technology, services, and information itself, all encompassed under the broad umbrella of information resource provision. As financial demands grew and budgets became even tighter, stronger fiscal and budgetary skills became necessary. With knowledge widely available in a variety of formats and media, formerly clear demarcations of responsibility blurred and the need for collaboration across campus—especially with computing and telecommunications units—increased. Expensive and complex technology demanded the ability to deal with strategic planning and staff development, as well as the identification and forecasting of academic needs and priorities. Library leaders recognized more clearly that the role of the library is not solely about managing information resources, but rather about using these resources to support learning, instruction, and research.

  • Librarians as Overseers of Integration: "What should we be doing?"

Today’s focus is on eliminating barriers to the optimal use of both information and technology in support of instruction and scholarship. Thus, library leaders require all of the skills and roles from the previous phases, but they also must be partners in the broad institutional mission. The successful leader must be familiar with the issues confronting their peer leaders across campus: curriculum development, networking infrastructure, fund-raising, legal contracts, government policies, and other academic and business topics. The library leader must have the ability to participate actively in setting institutional goals and to appreciate and manage diverse cultures and constantly changing needs.


Examples of Discontinuous Change in Academic Libraries*

  • Explosion of published scholarly materials combined with vast amounts of easily-disseminated information in digital format that are site and time-independent.

  • Proliferation of Web resources and growing reliance of library users on them to the exclusion of print resources.

  • Burgeoning electronic forms of information, requiring new modes of acquisition, presentation, and access; difficulty of reconciling physical and digital media in a coherent set of services.

  • Proliferation of different storage and interface technologies, making integration, storage, and access a Herculean challenge.

  • Struggle to find totally new ways to define our "libraries," "collections," titles, volumes/items, and their "use"; groping for breakthroughs or paradigm shifts to accomplish this redefinition.

  • Shift from resources ownership to access/licensing.

  • Continued escalation of journal prices accompanied by (and to some degree caused by) publisher consolidation and aggregation.

  • Trend among scholarly societies to market e-resources directly to students and not to libraries—a direct threat to equal access to resources regardless of financial means.

  • Electronic formats not leading to lower costs.

  • Disturbing trends in the intellectual property rights governing digital content (which undermine scholarly fair use).

  • Efforts to limit access to Internet resources (legal ones) based on their objectionable content (takes the form of filtering, etc.)

  • Requirements to provide effective library services for off-site users; 24x7 service expectations.

  • Cannibalizing funding to acquire new digital technologies at the expense of traditional collections and services.

  • Rapid, unpredictable, and continuing change of hardware/software.

  • Realization that digital technology brings as many problems as it solves.

  • Dwindling numbers of qualified applicants for technical-oriented positions.

  • Anxiety-producing feeling that librarians as professionals don’ t "know our business" like we once did (or felt we did); extremely difficult to be "an expert" in the areas we once were.

  • A new conception of "information professional" who is now required to have knowledge of bibliographic resources, disciplines, and technology; a shortage of qualified librarians to fill these positions because other information profession opportunities are more lucrative.

  • Time compression, in which change is perceived (ney, expected?) to occur much more rapidly (e.g., one year of digital time is equated to seven years of analog time).

*The author acknowledges the contributions of his library colleagues at Carleton College and the Frye Leadership Institute in producing this list of examples.

A Library Leadership Mindset
for Early 21
st Century

  • Accepting (and embracing) the fact that success depends upon cross-functional efforts.
  • Recognizing the critical importance of communication: knowing your constituencies, speaking their language, understanding their priorities.
  • Reconciling different points of view in the interests of the institutional mission.
  • Understanding that strengths that made one a successful librarian in the past can become liabilities in situations when other strengths are more important.
  • Herding, aligning, and balancing a complex set of "vectors," most of which are not directly under the library leader’s control.
  • Accepting that there is often no right answer; being comfortable with ambiguity.
  • Surrounding oneself with intelligent and talented colleagues who possess complementary strengths, despite the potential threat to one’s own sense of professional security.
  • Encouraging subordinates to develop their full potential, even when that potential surpasses one’s own.
  • Delegating–but not abdicating–and being available to work through problems together, to advise, to support, and to accept ultimate responsibility; being a coach rather than a commander.
  • Deliberately tailoring individuals to opportunities that require them to stretch, and helping them through these opportunities and past any fear of failure.



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last modified: Dec 2000

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