Home 9 Uncategorized 9 Libraries as Organizations:  A Conversation with Dr. K. Matthew Dames

Libraries as Organizations:  A Conversation with Dr. K. Matthew Dames

by | Jun 30, 2023 | 0 comments


By Tony Zanders  (Founder and CEO of Skilltype) and Dr. K. Matthew Dames  (Chief Executive of the Hesburgh Libraries, Notre Dame) 

Against the Grain V35#3

In this article, Tony Zanders, Founder and CEO of Skilltype interviews Dr. K. Matthew Dames, Chief Executive of the Hesburgh Libraries, Notre Dame on the future of the academic research library.

TZ:  Looking back, there’s been a five-year dialog between us on the future of the academic research library.  How did it begin?

Dr. K. Matthew Dames

KMD:  The conversation between us really began in fall 2018.  I’d just begun as the university librarian at Boston University, and I was attending my first Boston Library Consortium (BLC) meeting in the DuBois Library on the campus of U. Mass Amherst.  BLC had invited Tony to discuss Skilltype, and I was impressed with Tony’s thoughtfulness about the importance of talent and how to raise skill levels within library organizations.  We ended up driving back to Boston together after the board meeting, having dinner, and talking about the future of libraries.  We’ve been engaged in that conversation on an almost daily basis ever since.

TZ:  A key concept we always come back to is conceptualizing the library as more than the collection.  While working together at Boston University Libraries, this became much more than an idea when the pandemic required us to provide all of our services digitally.  Describe why this orientation has been central to your leadership style over the course of your career.

KMD:  Some of my views about libraries being so much more than just collections relates to my personal background.  I am not what one would call a “native” librarian.  Librarianship is probably my fourth career.  I bring to librarianship my experiences as a scholar, my experiences as a lawyer, even my experiences as a DJ.  I think the music reference is a good analogy: I own thousands of pieces of music, but no one really cares about that unless I can use some of that music to rock a party.  You want to go to a party to feel something positive, and typically to do so in community with others who are perhaps feeling the same thing, in the same way, at the same time.

So, when I think about libraries, I think about more than collections.  Sure, the collections are one part of the equation.  But, I’m thinking about libraries as communities, as ecosystems, as centres of intellectual and social energy where one can give and get as much as one wants at any given time.  So much of what a really elite DJ does is about crowd control.  I get it: the terminology of “crowd control” has, to some, negative connotations.  However, what if you said “harnessing energy” instead of “crowd control”?  To me, a really great library alchemizes all that intellectual, social, imaginative, scholarly, and physical energy and helps harness it in really productive and beneficial ways — some which can be measured, some of which cannot be measured, but which still can be acknowledged as interstitial value.

I think that it is critical for us to measure all this value, now more than ever, for several reasons.  Firstly, so much of today’s paradigm — in higher education, government, the for-profit sector, the non-profit sector — is about return on investment.  “What have you done for me lately?”  Like it or not, we need to show and prove, justify our existence, perhaps now in ways that we’ve never had to before.  Secondly, measuring this value can help us tell better stories, not just about value, but about impact and utility.  Then we can use this information to improve upon our communities and service to community stakeholders.

TZ:  The idea that the library organization is more strategic than the library collection became apparent to me during a lunch conversation with Dr. Sylverna Ford, now retired dean of libraries at the University of Memphis.  But, I still come across leaders who view managing its talent as the job of campus HR.  What are the risks with this perspective, and how would one justify becoming a people manager instead of a knowledge manager despite having an MLIS rather than an MBA?

KMD:  Let me just make it plain: if in 2023, you are at the head of the organization chart of any kind of library, archive, museum, or gallery organization, and you think that you can outsource your entire talent continuum — whether recruiting, hiring, onboarding, or retention — to someone outside your organization, then … I mean, to me, this is just the epitome of hustling backwards.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of chief librarians who continue to hustle backwards.  Some of this is fear of the human element:  you deal with collections;  you avoid the human element.  You deal with renovations;  you avoid the human element.  Working with talent is messy, or at least messier than dealing with inanimate objects like books and buildings, which don’t have opinions, motivations, ambitions, myriad skills, and ideas.

To answer your direct question, here are some of the risks.  For one, despite how technology streamlines and simplifies a lot of tasks, the elite library communities and ecosystems always have really skilled, talented people who are managing the technology that is streamlining and simplifying some of the tasks.  For example, we have formulas and algorithms that can help choose and catalogue the books in our collection.  However, it’s the skilled librarians who are connected with stakeholders that are able to preview changes in curriculum or community needs.  They then put that data into the formula or algorithm, at the appropriate time, to ensure that access to knowledge is calibrated in the best interests of the community.

Nevertheless, that means you actually have to select that talented librarian and do so in a way where you’re hiring for the work that is occurring three years from now as much as right now. 

As for our human resources partners, I respect what they do.  I value what they do, but there’s a difference between finding and managing talent and managing a human resources function.  By virtue of my experience and legal training, I know something about human resources and its essential and necessary focus on compliance.  I can’t say that I really know human resources.  In contrast, I know talent in my current industry of higher education, and more specifically, research librarianship.  If you look at the nodes on the talent continuum framework that we developed at Boston University, which I have advanced and polished since then, I literally manage hundreds of talent transactions per year.  That expertise and skill set is integral to how I collaborate with others to position our stakeholders for success.

TZ:  At Skilltype we have a unique lens into the supply and demand of expertise across the global library community.  When libraries complete needs assessments on Skilltype, they are no longer identifying competencies we would associate with traditional librarianship, but skills more akin to a software company, albeit a non-profit one.  Something I’ve been curious about is as the skills landscape evolves towards a digital-first library, should our recruitment and training efforts evolve as well.  And if so, how? 

KMD:  Let me begin by responding with what I believe is obvious: the age of “post and pray” is over.  The notion that any library organization nowadays is just going to write a position description, post that position description on a couple of listservs, holler at a couple of your friends, and expect elite talent to apply to your job is ridiculous.  The ironic thing is that librarianship has very well-developed skills and competencies frameworks that we can reference to guide a baseline assessment of how our organizations, departments, roles, and librarians fare relative to what we need to do.  Even if those frameworks are outdated, they provide us a strong starting point for analysis. 

Next, we can take that baseline data and compare it to where and how mission and vision require us to evolve.  Usually, folks will see a gap between where we are and where we need to be.  Then, we can take that gap analysis data and hire not only to fill current gaps but hire to exceed current mission and vision.  The beauty of this approach is that this is all configurable and customizable to local conditions and audiences.  What we do now at Notre Dame is going to be different from what, say, my colleague Torsten Reimer faces at University of Chicago or what the New York Public Library needs to do at a branch in the Bronx.

This process helps provide actionable quantitative and qualitative data that we not only can use to improve our communities, but also to hire, equitably compensate, professionally develop, and retain librarians who advance our respective organizational missions.

TZ:  While many choose to wear the hat of Chief Information Officer during their tenure as Library Director, you’re one of the first library executives I’ve met who have focused more on your role as a Chief Talent Officer.  Was this an intentional decision, or accidental?  And what advice would you give to current or aspiring library leaders who are still trying to find their voice and style?

KMD:  It was a necessary decision, but it also was something I really wanted to do.  First, let me explain the necessity.  When I got to Boston University Libraries in summer 2018, that system had not kept up with even the most rudimentary hiring.  Therefore, I started at a deficit.  Furthermore, let’s face facts: not only was Boston University behind in the most rudimentary hiring, BU is in a market competing for talent against Boston College, Harvard University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  I couldn’t go head-to-head with anyone in that line-up, whether it be solely on compensation, or on opportunity, or simply on prestige.  I had to find other ways to compete and succeed.  I had to sell candidates on a total value proposition.  I had to sell candidates on opportunities.  I had to sell candidates on how I could advance their careers.  I had to put my reputation on the line, even before I arguably had the type of reputation that could be put on the line in ways that would matter to folks.

So, that was the necessity portion of the equation.  Beyond that, it was just something that I wanted to do.  I like to see people succeed.  I feel comfortable enough with my talents that I know I’m going to get my buckets when I need to get my buckets.  For me, the true joy is setting up someone else for success, getting the assist so they can get their buckets. 

TZ:  You’ve recently completed your appointment as president of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), where you focused your platform on Talent Management in Academic Libraries.  You also received grant funding from the Mellon Foundation to develop 21st century talent initiatives in the library.  Have your perspectives changed after these two initiatives?  I’m also curious what advice would you have for the community on the importance of engaging other partners in the ecosystem to assist this work rather than relying solely on our campus resources?

KMD:  I think these experiences have just reinforced that this is an essential part of my leadership approach and part of the value I bring to the organizations with which I work.  Even beyond that, I am convinced that talent, along with the financial resources, are the two most important things a library leader needs to excel in to be an effective leader.  The time where you could sit up and pretend to be interested in talent and people’s success, yet not actually do anything substantive, is over.  I think this is especially true after, and maybe because of, the COVID-19 pandemic.

As for engaging other partners, I think it’s critical.  It’s critical to engage your professionals and partners in human resources.  It’s critical to engage with your provost’s office.  I think it’s critical to engage with your fellow leaders throughout the academy.  I think it’s critical to engage with leaders at other, similarly situated universities.  We don’t really have this right now, but I really want to develop a forum where people who are really serious about talent and how to move the profession forward through talent can convene and talk shop.  I’m hoping to develop something soon and bring it forward by the end of the year.  


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