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Learning to Live with Library Management Theory

Guest Post by:  Cameron Tuai (MLIS, MBA, PhD. Candidate)  ctuai@indiana dot edu

As the PhD student that DeEtta mentions in her post “Let your Passions Guide You”, I would like to introduce myself as a believer in the value of the oft maligned cousin of practice, theory.  Don’t get me wrong, practice certainly trumps theory, but if an understanding of theory results in one less trial and slightly fewer errors, then shouldn’t theory be involved in your decision making process?

One of the roles of a manager is to make decisions.  Sometimes these decisions involve significant organizational issues.  The popular managerial press will often summarize these organizational issues and prescribe decisions under catch phrases such as Total Quality Management, Strategic Planning, or Learning Organizations.  The challenge for library managers is that these techniques do not always fit the library context.  Application of theory improves the implementation of these techniques by allowing library manager to better understand and account for library contexts within the framework of these techniques.

As a librarian at the University of Notre Dame, I was involved in an effort to improve the workflow of three library units.  I diligently approached this organizational issue by following the prescribed advice of a managerial technique called Lean Thinking.  The results of my efforts were mixed (a) one successful implementation; (b) one completed study with no implementation; and (c) one failure to complete the study.  Having pondered over my trials and errors, I eventually deduced the organizational factors that influenced my implementation.  Frustratingly, I later learned, that these deduction were merely confirmation of theory that had been proposed and validated in the 1970s.  I will briefly introduce this theory as both instruction, and as an argument for greater acceptance of the value of theory to library managers.

Contingency theory posits that organizational characteristics influence the amenability of the organization to specific types of changes.  For instance, my successful implementation involved an inter-library loan unit that was characterized by high levels of rules, low levels of discretion, and a narrow range of tasks.  Theory suggests that these “mechanistic” types of structures make workflow and staff more amenable to top-down change.  On the other hand, my failed implementation occurred within an electronic acquisitions unit with structures characterized by low levels of rules, high levels of discretion, and a wide range of tasks.  Theory posits that these organic structures make workflow and staff less amenable to top-down change.  At a broader level, what this example attempts to illustrate, is the potential of theory to introduce previously unconsidered factors into the decision making process.

In a world where the business model of organizations is quickly becoming the norm, library managers are coming under increasing pressure to seek change through the promises offered by managerial technique.  As libraries attempt these changes, we must come to grips with the high levels of risk and reward inherent within these techniques.  It is my belief, that the general absence of theory in the decision making process has exposed us to an unnecessary level of risk.  As such, to fully realize the promises of modern managerial technique we must move beyond the art of library management and towards the science of library management through the acceptance of theory into practices.

Thanks DeEtta for allowing to post to this blog.  I hope this stimulates some thoughts and discussions amongst your readers.


DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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