Healer of the Soul


Raymond D. Maxwell

Department of Library and Information Science

The Catholic University of America

July 20, 2014


Transformative leadership is a lofty but achievable objective in librarianship.  Through demonstrating examples of processes used to reach such an objective, transformational leadership becomes a strategy, and even more significantly, a cultural norm.  In this paper I will describe some of the characteristics of transformational leadership, as spelled out by Burns, by Bass, and most recently, by Riggio.  Then, I will discuss some current trends and challenges in librarianship and how librarians as transformational leaders might address them, focusing on fundamental concepts of organizing information, on trends in grassroots librarianship leadership, on the evolution in technology and library systems, on new challenges in distance learning and embedded librarianship, and finally, on trends in library management thinking.  Where appropriate, I will address CUA LIS professional competencies.

Characteristics of transformational leadership

James McGregor Burns, who passed away last week at age 95, highlighted “empowerment” as the most salient feature of transformational leadership (Burns, 2004).  A transforming leader champions and inspires followers and encourages them to rise to a new level of self-confidence and self-awareness.  Further, transforming leaders call on followers to embrace public values and ideals.  Finally, transforming leaders act as both theorists and planners, seek out followers’ motive and higher needs, and work to achieve their followers’ full engagement (Burns, 2004).

Riggio distills transformational leadership to the following four components: idealized influence (the leader is an ideal role model); inspirational motivation (the leader inspires and motivates followers); individualized consideration (the leader sympathizes with the needs and feelings of his followers); and intellectual stimulation (the leader challenges followers to be creative and innovations (Riggio, 2009).

As librarians (and as LIS students), one of our primary competencies is professional identity, of which leadership is a key component.  As we become transformational leaders as librarians, Marcia Bates points out, we ourselves are transformed into becoming information specialists who can distinguish between representing information and knowing the information itself (Bates, 1999).  We start the transition by “…thinking about a resource in terms of the features that matter to the organization and retrieval of it, rather than in terms of mastering its concepts.” (Bates, 1999, p.5).  In time, and across many disciplines, librarians become integrative thinkers, able to provide leadership and clarity of vision to information seekers in complex and complicated information environments.

Part of the internal transformation that occurs as we “become” librarians contributes to our professional identity and also makes us more transformational and authentic leaders.  That internal transformations also informs our educational preparation and our willingness to serve a diverse population of patrons, clients, stakeholders and shareholders, all information seekers.  Diversity may fall along traditional lines of race, sex, native language, religion, national origin, et cetera, but may also cross generational lines, and lines of political persuasion, of sexual orientation, of disability, of homelessness/refugee status.  And, as Gollop points out, a highly educated and more diverse population will expect library personnel to also reflect that diversity (Gollop, 1999).  The diversity of library staff is an integral part of our capacity and responsibility to remain relevant to our communities and our society.

Organization of information and transformative leadership

One of the significant tasks librarians perform is organizing information so that it can be properly preserved and stored and easily accessed.  It is one of our important professional competencies, and one where we can apply transformational leadership tools to keep information available and relevant and to make it useful to the communities of information seekers we serve.

An almost daily task librarians face is the classification of subjects of books, documents, and artifacts via keywords and subject headings.  Placing these keywords or subject headings, also known as surrogates, in an order that makes information more accessible and hence, more findable, is a traditional librarianship practice. Creative librarians have come up with interesting ways to “democratize” the classification process by enlisting input from users.  One such practice is the use of folksonomies, a collaborative tagging process that allows users to freely attach keywords to information content (Spiteri, 2007).  Folksonomies have been used primarily at social bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, at the photo-sharing site, Flikr.com, and at commercial sites like Amazon.com and Zappos.com.

A similar extension of traditional librarian duties to the public with tremendous potential for increasing the access and findability of digital material is the use of social metadata in libraries, archives and museums:

“Metadata helps users locate resources that meet their specific needs.  But metadata also helps us both to understand the data we find and to evaluate what we should spend our time on.  Traditionally, staff at libraries, archives and museums (LAMs) create metadata for the content they manage. However, social metadata – content contributed by users – is evolving as a way to both augment and re-contextualize the content and metadata created by LAMs.  Enriching LAM metadata improves the quality and relevancy of users’ search results and helps people to understand and to evaluate the content better” (Smith-Yoshimura, 2012.  p. 4).

Together, these efforts to enlist the user to contribute to the organization of data, of information, empowers the user and gives her a greater sense of confidence and ownership in the information and in her ability to process it.  By giving up a small bit of the organizing capacity, librarians become greater transformational leaders in the information transfer cycle.

Grassroots leadership characteristics also transform – library associations

The former ACRL president, Steven Bell, outlined in his farewell article “grassroots” leadership qualities that also qualify as transformational and contribute to keeping our libraries relevant.  Among the qualities he cited were the following:  counterbalancing top-down rigid leadership that may not approve innovation or that may not be able to achieve tasks because of bureaucratic barriers and inertia; focusing attention on service or ethical issues that may be currently overlooked; and advancing social justice through programs that serve to fulfill equal opportunities for all students (Bell, 2013).  Though crafted specifically for college and research libraries, these “grassroots” qualities can be broadened to apply to the general community of library users.  The idea is to engage the user population in transformative ways, in ways that empower them, that speak to their values and ideals, and thereby increase their awareness of library resources and their level of engagement with the library.

The ALA executive director, Keith Fiels devoted a monthly column (May 2013) to “Defining Transformation.”  The article has an interesting focus on customer experience that may be relevant to our discussion (his references are largely to transformed and transforming libraries, but a library is just a building, four walls and a roof.  What clearly is at issue is the transformation of librarians and the transformative leadership librarians provide) (Fiels, 2013).  Fiels cites user expectations of service (24/7), user requirements for personalized and interactive engagement with information, new relations between librarians and the small groups in the community such as seniors and small business, creation of media labs and maker spaces for users to create their own content, and the transformative effects of e-government on library usage.  Much of this speaks to our professional competencies of resources, service and technology, but it also reflects transformative leadership that develops a culture of collaboration inside and outside the library between librarians, library resources, and users and focuses on that interdependency for the benefit of all.  ALA has a website devoted to transformation (ala.org/transforminglibraries).

IFLA cites five trends shaping the global information environment that will require transformative leadership skills to manage: new technologies (mobile access, questions about ownership and intellectual property of content, business models of online service providers, questions of net neutrality across borders) will both limit and expand access to information; online education (MOOCS, distant learning, lifelong learning and informal learning pathways, information authentication, classroom transformation) will both disrupt and democratize global learning; boundaries between privacy and data protection (mass monitoring and surveillance of communications data, commercial monitoring and tracking, privacy and the permanent digital footprint) will be redefined; hyper-connected societies will listen to and empower new voices and groups (empowering individuals and raising the levels of civic engagement and commercial accountability but also empowering cyber criminals, terrorists and extremist networks); and the transformation of the global information economy by new technologies (mobile devices, artificial intelligence that provide real-time multilingual translations, 3D printing technologies, ubiquitous participation in the global economy that reduces prior geographic advantages and privilege, and the rise of the “wearable” internet, i.e., embedded networked sensors in devises, appliances and infrastructure) (IFLA Trend Report, 2013).  These trends will both require and give rise to a diversity of information professional leadership types and styles, all focused (one may hope) on decreasing the digital divide and making sense of advances in information delivery.  (Many of these global trends were mentioned or alluded to in Hirshon’s Environmental Scan (Hirshon, 2008)).

At the recent SLA conference, the opening general session ceremony included an invocation by Musqueam Elder Shane Pointe.  He referred to the gathered librarians and information professionals as the “medicine men” who seek the “right way” from the Great Spirit, then gather that information and share it with others to help them find the right way (www.hurstassociates.blogspot.com), a simplified but concise representation of transformational librarian leadership.

Technology’s evolution and transformational leadership

To be relevant, transformation leaders in librarianship must not only be “fluent” in tech-speak and familiar with emerging technological advances, they should also have a keen awareness of how library systems and information technology and communications systems have developed and co-evolved over the past several years.  Clifford Lynch’s article, From Automation to Transformation: Forty Years of Libraries and Information Technology in Higher Education, divides into the following four ages the changes in academic libraries and the accompanying information technology developments: First Automation Age computerized library operations in the 50’s and 60’s and included shared copy-cataloging systems and early development of large library databases; Second Automation Age saw the development of the OPAC and further development of databases with a new licensing structure in the 80’s and 90’s, along with large investments in resource sharing across institutions, i.e., union catalogs and ILL systems; Third Automation Age (which, in 2000, Lynch saw as the final epoch of automation) saw the plummeting of data storage/memory costs accompanied by the increase in network speed, the emergence of the Web and HTML, publishing and aggregation options not before available, proliferation of licensing and related copyright and IP issues, and the general migration of content from print to electronic formats, either through digitization of by being born digital (Lynch, 2000). Lynch’s recent writings have covered the influence of emerging technologies on overall scholarship, such as high performance computing and “big data,” visualization technologies, creation, curation and sharing of large databases and information repositories, and the use of high performance networking for better resource sharing and for better access/collaboration options for geographically dispersed individuals (Lynch, 2014). These are all innovative tools for the library leader to use to achieve transformational goals, and to make their organizations relevant, even as the technology itself is transforming at a rapid pace.

Distant learning, MOOC technology, and the transformative librarian leader

Distance learning has existed for several decades.  And distance learning presents its own special challenges for librarians.  In today’s era, with so many e-resources (e-books, electronic journals, digital artifacts) available just a few keyboard cliques away, the librarian is in a much better position than in times past to help the distance learner with his/her information seeking requirements.  It is important, however, that librarians take into considerations the special needs of distant learners, and include them in overall strategic and marketing and collections development planning (Cannady, et.al., 2013). A solid distance learning program makes education available to students in remote geographic locations, students who may have ADA requirements, and students who for whatever reason cannot take advantage of regular face-to-face courses.  Distance learning increases access to the educational process and enables and empowers students who might otherwise not have that access.

MOOCs, massive, open online courses, are a special variant of distance learning.  First developed by Stephen Downes and George Siemens in Canada in 2008 as a single class, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, MOOC offerings now number in the thousands, offered by hundreds of colleges and universities worldwide (Scardilli, 2013). MOOCs take advantage of learning management systems, wikis, blogs, videography and social media to deliver online, interactive course material directly to students (Nanfito, 2013). The immediate role of librarians in MOOC courses focused on mastering a defined body of content may be constricted to managing intellectual property issues, getting permissions, solving reuse of course content problems, and keeping track of the courses (Barnes, 2013, and Ojala, 2014).  But indirectly, and in a course that requires participants to construct their own understanding of complex issues, librarians may serve as curator, supplier and evaluator of supplementary course material and maintenance of continuing education models (Barnes, 2013, and Ojala, 2014). And in both cases librarians can provide useful information literacy instruction.

Critics and proponents report that MOOC’s reached their highest level of “hype” in 2012 (see below, Peak of Inflated Expectations on the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies), referred in the New York Times as “The Year of the MOOC” (Scardilli, 2103).  But with the present proliferation of courses, especially with Stanford/Penn-based Coursera, Stanford-based Udacity, and MIT/Harvard-based edX funding a significant proportion of the courses, I would place MOOC’s somewhere along the lower end of the Slope of Enlightenment in Figure 1 below) (Gartner, 2013).

Doubts remain about whether MOOC courses will ever be seen as competitive with standard face-to-face courses, or even with traditional distance-based courses.  Present funding models do not appear to be sustainable (venture capital for Udacity and Coursera and endowment funding for edX will eventually run out, at which point courses will have to charge fees to cover operating costs (Scardilli, 2013, and Pate, 2013)), but there is consensus that MOOC courses represent something transformative in higher education, making education available and deliverable to all who seek it, wherever they are located, and whatever their individual situation.  There are degrees of differentiation between great MOOC courses and courses that are just so-so. But good MOOC courses serve transformational ends, i.e., they extend the reach and access of higher education, they build and maintain the brand of the host institution, thus bolstering the self-confidence of the student, they improve educational outcomes in so far as they supplement other, more traditional coursework, and they represent a definite innovation in both teaching and learning (Holland & Tirthali, 2014).

Embedded librarianship and transformational leadership

The embedded librarian concept is itself an innovation, removing the librarian from the library and relocating him/her to the place where he/she is assigned, to the group of people /customers/patrons who require the librarian’s special information expertise (Shumaker, 2012). There are in the literature examples of corporate embedded librarians, academic or classroom embedded librarians, scientific research team embedded librarians, and medical team embedded librarians.  In each special case, the embedded librarian functions in a way analogous to the embedded journalist during war-time – integrated within the military unit, the journalist gains a greater insight into the unit’s operations, learns its lingo, and becomes familiar with the daily battle rhythm.  The journalist never forgets he is a journalist, but for all practical purposes, he is a part of the military team (Helms and Whitsell, 2013).  What makes the embedded librarian transformational is the idea that the skills of librarianship are brought directly to the location where they are most needed, most valued, and most appreciated, in a way that empowers the information professional and the profession and strengthens the collaboration between the librarian and the team he/she serves. It is mutually beneficial, mutually enhancing, and mutually reinforcing at the knowledge level.

The illustration of embedded librarianship in medical research teams seems to best represent the concept of embeddedness: the degree to which the librarians anticipate engaging with their teams; what competencies and skills of librarianship they bring; what barriers they encounter in providing those skills and how they addressed them; and how they assess the results of their embeddedness (Martin, 2013). In one medical research team case, embedded librarians, also known as informationists, worked with research teams covering such areas as smoking cessation, GIS information used by primary care physicians, corneal hydration, and breast cancer screening and provided such services as evidence-based decisions, indexing and classification, data curation and archiving, information retrieval, knowledge organization and concept mapping, and user needs assessment (Florance, 2013). There was also significant thought given to the idea of professional identity, one of our core competencies. Shumaker cited that in some cases, the customer group funds the librarian position and the librarian actually might report to the manager of the customer group and not to a librarian manager (Shumaker, 2010).  In a subtle way, this raises the question, is the librarian still a librarian, or has her identification with the embedded group become so complete that her identity as a librarian is somewhat diminished if not altogether dissolved, her librarian identity totally assimilated? Martin responds with a proposal for a “blended professional,” allowing librarians to blend the core identity aspects of librarianship with the core aspects of the research enterprise (Martin, 2013).  The blended professional would retain her original professional identity, but would be a part of an inter-professional, multi-disciplinary team, promoting collaboration and learning across both professions, embracing service commitments, entrepreneurism and creative risk-taking, and taking pride in the unique contributions of librarianship and information science to the group effort (Martin, 2013). An embedded collaboration speaks to several of our professional competencies: service, professional identity, management.  A successful embedded collaboration is transformative for both the librarian and the other members of the research team, as well as for end users of a corroboration-enhanced research product.

Transformative library management

In order for transformational leadership to be complete, its results must be quantifiable, measurable.  And if the results are measurable, they can be promoted and the success story can be told.  Examples from three separate readings will elucidate the point.

Christine Olson, a marketing consultant who specializes in marketing strategies for information professionals, highlights the difference in value criteria between information professionals and senior management.  As an example, librarians place a high value on circulation systems and on resource sharing, while management may think it less costly to buy a second copy of a book than to put in a request and wait for it to come in from a partner library (Olson, 2002). She makes the case that it may be instructive to discover and use the value criteria of upper management in crafting messages about service valuation (Olson, 2002).

Steve O’Connor makes a similar case that business-model thinking is foreign to librarians whose instinct is to provide free services rather that rationalize what should and what should not be provided, and that librarians rarely withdraw established services or let go of old models of thinking. (O’Connor, 2007).  Transformational leadership and transformational thinking may require that services that are no longer cost effective should be withdrawn, for example, or at least considered, and that we should be circumspect about old models of thinking as we face a changing future.  As we work with cross-generational and otherwise diverse groups, O’Connor exhorts us to seek to understand their motivations, to apply more intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence, to be better listeners.

Finally, Bill Fisher and Dav Robertson, in their article, “Is Evidence-Based Management Right for You?,” cite six evidence-based management standards (Pfeffer and Sutton) to consider: treat old ideas like old ideas; be suspicious of breakthrough studies; celebrate communities of smart people and collective brilliance, not lone geniuses or gurus; emphasize the virtues and the drawbacks and uncertainties of research and proposals; use success and failure stories to illustrate evidence-supported practices; and be neutral about ideologies and theories and base management practices on the best evidence, not on what is new or faddish or in style at the moment (Fisher & Robertson, 2007).  Pursuing strategies based on evidence of success or failure is not like investment based on past performance.  It requires more substantive and more transformational thought and is not a mechanical, thoughtless action.

In short, transformational leadership without solid transformational and informed management is not a recipe for success.

Peter Drucker spoke affectionately about libraries and exhaustively about knowledge workers.  He made two critical points for information professionals.  His first point was that organizations needed to have information about the world outside their organizations and that institutions needed to know more about the world outside their institutional boundaries and his second point was the need to pay more attention to managing employees and to managing people to develop individuals and their strengths (Drucker, 2002).  Paying attention to these two critical points will make us more effective managers and more transformational leaders.


Through the application of transformative leadership characteristics, information professionals can make contributions toward helping to transform their organizations. Applying our core competencies across a broad range of bureaucratic and technological challenges will present us with many opportunities to propose innovative solutions to existing problems.  And in the process of effecting these transformations we ourselves will be transformed into more effective leaders.


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