Is There Such a Thing as a Nimble Academic Library? Thoughts on Governance.
by Allyson Mower (Scholarly Communication & Copyright Librarian, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)
Column Editor: Rick Anderson (Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources & Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah; Phone: 801-721-1687)
Decision-making is really another word for communication. Yes, decision-making includes the additional element of a person or group actually saying “yes,” “no,” or “maybe,” but getting to that point is all about communication. And communication can be challenging, especially when multiple parties are involved.
Despite this, I think it is possible to establish efficient, clear lines of communication in a large organization like an academic library. I also think it is possible to utilize that system to generate excitement, energy, and new ideas. Such systems can even lead to decisions about which new ideas to implement or what existing services to change or stop. I really do think this. And here’s why.
Original ideas come from people. Those ideas get generated when people interact with each other either through conversation or reading. Further refinement comes from thinking, testing, and exploring. The trick in large organizations is having a communication and decision-making system (i.e., governance) that everyone is aware of and knows how to use. This means the governance structure needs to be written down, described, and defined. People need some sense of whom to take ideas to, and at each point in the process they should have some confidence that there will be a logical next step.
Hope for the Future
Like most academic libraries, we made well-intended attempts at connecting people by having lots and lots of committees. At the time of the restructuring, the library had over 25 committees. The old committees had little or no connection to the leadership teams in each division nor did they formally connect to the dean’s executive committee. Committee work felt somewhat like a waste of time to most people since the work never seemed to result in implementation, change, or any kind of meaningful decision-making.
The new governance structure attempts to remedy this sense of frustration. Now, ten standing committees report to the Library Council (it’s within the dean’s purview to create ad hoc committees as needed). The Council has jurisdiction over library services related to educational policy, faculty appointments and tenure reviews, program development, and special projects within these areas. The dean chairs the Library Council and uses its executive committee as an advisory board to guide decisions on matters that fall outside the Library Council’s jurisdiction. Associate deans lead their respective divisions, manage existing library operations, and foster those crucial conversations that generate new and original ideas for further exploration.
We wrote a charter to define the Library Council and used that document to communicate (and make transparent) the new structure. The charter details basic information such as the Council’s jurisdiction, its membership, voting rules, and meeting schedule. It outlines each committee’s mission statement, terms of service, and membership qualifications.
The Way it Should Work
As the new governance structure gets implemented, I anticipate more engagement from faculty and staff if only for the simple reason of having clarified the decision-making process through the new written charter. It will require a different mindset, too, but having a written charter to respond to and converse about helps foster change and, in my opinion, keeps an organization nimble.