The technology career ladder

Library leaders should be drawn from across the organization. Any idea that technology leaders are overly specialised or too distant from general library work is outmoded and counter-productive.
Lorcan 7 min read
The technology career ladder
Technology with ladder. A mural at the Wilmeth Active Learning Center, Purdue University.
This post is jointly written with Karen Estlund, Dean of Libraries at Colorado State University. 

Library technology and library directors

In an exchange with Karen Estlund recently, she described how she had been asked by a search firm to compose a justification for a nominated colleague to explain why and how technology leadership was relevant to a library dean position. She noted that this attitude was consistent with her own experiences as a technology leader. And she could also see that colleagues with similar backgrounds were having similar issues as they applied for director or other leadership positions. Recruiters or university administrators did not always seem to see candidates with a technology background as having had the same preparation for leadership that their peers in other parts of the library had.

I checked in with a couple of other colleagues. There was some variation in perception. One colleague with a strong technology background noted quite positive experiences and had actually experienced a demand for candidates with their experience.

Of course, search committees (and recruiters) can be very variable in terms of focus and expectations. And within universities, there may be great variety in what is expected of the library or the library director. This is especially so at the moment as the range of what a research library does may not be fully understood or perceived by faculty and administration.

Further discussion prompted a very quick examination of the ARL membership, based on a first pass by Karen. It is a manageable number and we have some familiarity with personnel. We were curious about the career paths of directors and how many might have technology backgrounds. We are grateful to Mary Lee Kennedy and ARL staff for providing data for validation. We note some numbers in the next section.

At the same time, the exchanges made us think about why technology leaders are potentially good candidates for director roles, having skills and experience in some cases that are increasingly important. Thoughts fell into three areas. First, a good technology leader is a good leader first, and a good technology leader second. So an attitude like the one noted above limits the field. Second, it displays a rather old-fashioned view of technology as something discrete and separate, and not something that is deeply meshed with the use, management and creation of information resources across research and learning. And third, it potentially downplays the importance of the critical judgement that a library director needs in relation to technology. We go on to expand a little on these points below.

Some numbers

First a note on definition. 'Technology' is a pretty elastic term, and doesn't map neatly onto either job titles or experiences. This is especially the case as technology responsibilities have expanded into areas like the digital humanities or data management. It is also pretty relative. What one person views as a technology role may be seen by another as a more general management role. For the purposes of this very impressionistic investigation we take a technology leader as somebody who has had significant technology experience, leading to an AUL-type role with technology management responsibilities.

Interpreting this quite generously, we estimated that about 14% of ARL directors had what would be generally recognised as a technology background. It should be noted that a small number of these were recruited into roles that had technology responsibilities associated with or aligned with the library director role, making a candidate with technology experience a clearer option.

Is this what one might expect? Is it more? Is it less? An important factor to consider here is the large turnover in ARL leadership in recent years. Well over half the ARL dean/directors, 69, have been hired into their current role since 2018, with three additional announced to start by June 2023. Of those, 54 were new as directors to ARL, i.e. had not previously served as director at another ARL institution.

Given the importance of technology for the library and also, critically, for the university of which it is a part, one might expect the number of directors with a technology background to be higher? Especially given the large number of deans/directors who have been hired into their position in the last five years or so?

Some potential attributes of technology leaders

1 A successful technology leader is a successful leader

To be successful, a technology leader has to exercise many general skills. Contrary to stereotype or caricature, they do not operate on standalone systems (are there any standalone systems?) or work in a social vacuum.

They will organize teams and motivate colleagues. They will think about the skills needed in their teams, and plan for succession. They will think about the diversity of their teams, and whether the workload, culture, and development opportunities create inclusive conditions where all feel they can succeed. In all of these cases, technology considerations may include special challenges, given competition for scarce talent, the need for continuous skills development and learning, and the historic demographics of the technology field.

They will understand the strategic priorities of the library and know how to gather the opinions, requirements, and preferences necessary to develop good systems support. They will engage with service partners in other parts of the university – information technology, administration, research office, online learning – to make sure that library systems work well and connect. They will work hard to position the library as a desired partner in campus system discussions. They will keep up to date with trends in learning, research and administration so as to be able to prepare for evolving services, to be open to co-creation with peers in other parts of the university, to become effective advocates for useful library development work. They will learn how to negotiate with vendors and to develop productive relations with key suppliers. The technology leader is a first contact, ambassador and advocate for the library in these and other ways.

They will be effective members of management teams; they will be critical advocates; they will understand how to argue positively for resources within organizational goals. They will certainly have to deal with pushback and have difficult discussions, have to compromise goals and expectations, and have to manage disappointment or low morale. Hidden labor permeates library work, and, given the nature of development and support work, technology leaders need to be mindful of impacts across their teams.

Of course, not all technology leaders will excel in all of these areas, but it is impossible to be a good technology leader without developing strong relational, communication and advocacy skills, the types of skills that a director needs.

2 Technology is not a niche

It seems strange to have to say it, but technology is pretty pervasive. I like the distinction Wanda Orlikowski makes between 'technology as artifact' and 'technology in practice' [see for example here pdf]. In the former perspective we see technology as static, as residing in a particular system, as separately observable. However, this is quite misleading and can have limiting consequences.

If a course reserve system or resource list application is seen as a 'system' to be worked on, the results will be less good than if the starting point is how to mobilise library resources to enrich the learning experience within an online flow. The institutional repository is another example. This may have struggled because it was seen as a separate system: its development was not cognizant enough of researcher workflows, web discoverability and scholarly incentives. As r-infrastructure evolves, the role of the repository in relation to Research Information Management, expertise profiling, and research data management is being looked at as part of a set of related approaches. These are examples of how it makes more sense to think of 'technology in practice.' In a context where many library experiences may be mobile, where increasingly sophisticated workflows tie researchers, apps and resources together, where mixed learning environments are the norm, where we read and write digitally, we need to consciously recognize the mutual entailment of technology, behaviors and organizational development.

Now, one would hope that a technology leader would think about applications in the context of evolving behaviors and needs in this way. And a good one would. However, the central point here is that recruiters and administrators should recognise that technology is not just about systems development or that a technology background is somehow less relevant or less mainstream than one in collections or access services.

3 Library leaders need to make technology judgements

At one stage, the integrated library system was the central technology concern. Then of course things changed and it was one part of a wider range of digital responsibilities. Two things are relevant here. First, this expanded agenda attracted people into the profession who wanted to work to create the digital environments of the future, to engage with those advancing scholarship and learning in digital environments. Those people now want to bring that enthusiasm and energy to library director positions. Second, we went through a period when library technology experience was in short supply and where directors had often little experience with managing technology systems. This created something of an imbalance in decision-making and perspective, where leadership may have deferred to those with technical knowledge.

Good leaders will be drawn from across the full range of the library, from technology, special collections, collections, public services or elsewhere. The technology career ladder in libraries should reach all the way to the top for suitable candidates. To imagine otherwise is counter-productively limiting.

A library director today has to be able to make calls across library operations, and as just discussed, this inevitably means understanding technology ramifications. Advised by colleagues, for sure, but an effective director needs to be informed enough to have good judgement. Do we buy or build? Will this approach allow us to share data or interconnect with other campus systems? What is the impact on support and cost over the long term of a particular open source solution? Will this vendor be in business in five years? Does this grant funding opportunity involve colleagues in useful learning and advance our position, or does it involve too high an opportunity cost and a shiny distraction?

In discussion with colleagues on campus, they have to be informed advocates for the capabilities of the library, or the potential capabilities. Similar issues are in play at the consortial level, especially where there is a desire to strengthen shared infrastructure. When should we advocate for a shared approach? When is local control and management more important?

Somebody who has come up through a library technology path may or may not be more effective here. However, again, the key point is to note that technology judgement is interwoven with library decisions all the time.

Good leaders will be drawn from across the full range of the library, from technology, special collections, collections, public services or elsewhere. The technology career ladder in libraries should reach all the way to the top for suitable candidates. To imagine otherwise is counter-productively limiting.

Feature picture: I took the picture on a visit to Purdue University Libraries a few years ago.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to MacKenzie Smith and Mary Lee Kennedy for input, and to Mary Lee Kennedy and colleagues for kindly providing data about appointments. Opinions expressed are ours.

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