Leadership: It Ain’t Bragging If You Can Do It

This post has been written by guest blogger Paul Brown.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man” (George Bernard Shaw).

Participation at the 2003 Aurora summit first challenged then changed forever, how I would interpret leadership within the library profession; a profession in which I have experienced my fair share of success in both New Zealand and Australia. The following narrative presents an alternative viewpoint in the discourse on leadership, one representative of many within the library profession who are now impatient for a daring, new and invigorating dynamic to emerge. It is time to re-imagine leadership in our profession.

The following not intended to be disparaging of any individual leaders, past or present, of their motives, or call into question their integrity. It is simply a piece of library histrionics calling for the library profession to temper its proclamations of ‘leadership’ when the results do not justify such honorifics.

It’s the same story in “Old Blighty” (The Bookseller, 7 January, 2011)

It has become an all too familiar exercise, performed with no little rigour in the public library profession: the apparent mandatory positivism driving a wholesale tagging of staff as ‘leaders’. Cached within a contestable linking of organisational performance with manufactured hedonism, this practice seriously devalues a pivotal role which is imbued with a critical range of attributes and demands of the incumbent courageous feats of derring-do.

Perhaps, this splatter gun approach to canonising titular ‘leaders’ is a by-product of the enthusiasm of an industry seeking greater recognition for its members; unfortunately, as a result, our view of outstanding librarians becomes annoyingly blocked by herds of anointed proto-leaders busily shelving books before settling into their next rostered duty.

The spectre of a global failure of library leadership in recent times also hovers over this malaise. Despite the millions of dollars spent globally on a continual diet of national, international and special interest group conferences, and despite the millions of dollars sunk into a plethora of bygone IT hardware systems and software packages, the leaders of the library profession failed to come close to providing the world’s people with a tool providing access to information as intuitive, non-discretionary and immediate as ‘Google’. This is precisely the business libraries are in: so why were we beaten to this? Perhaps we believed the hype and read our own press. We were in the middle of ‘The Information Age’ after all, so naturally the riches would follow. But while our library barons massaged each others egos with awards and adoration (for what amounted to lesser achievements) they insidiously began to display behaviours more characteristic of the degenerative moguls of the U.S. car manufacturing industry.

Yet public libraries show no apparent sign of yielding to either man-made or natural disasters; to the monetarist policies of hostile local and national authorities; to civil strife, to economic uncertainty, or to the fabulously chaotic progress of the internet. How can this be, if not for the quality of its leadership? To the rescue comes the embedded stature of public libraries in western democratic societies; it’s actually a bit harder to eradicate these institutions than our autobiographical tomes proclaiming victimisation would suggest. (Lose the persecution complex please). It also has less to do with outstanding leadership and more with an industry boasting personnel with transferrable business skills capable of offering effective management and administration of a public organisation.

While the dynamic of information creation and transfer has undergone massive change on a global scale, and continues to do so with unprecedented rapidity, the leaders of the public library profession appear incapable of mobilising the kind of beautiful disruption that this shift affords the risk-taker, the innovator, and the futurist. So we bear witness to ‘leaders’ persisting with conventional business models, orthodox distribution channels, mainstream collection practices, archaic codification systems, and a misdirected obsession with technologies when in fact, our energies should be focused upon making public libraries relevant to the emerging, unscripted and revolutionary human behaviours which are dramatically reshaping our world.

And so, am I being unreasonable? By George, I hope so!


Paul Brown (Aurora alumnus, MLIS, BA) has been pushing boundaries in libraries for 20 years, bringing innovation into roles which have included those of Reference Librarian and Circulation Manager (National Library of New Zealand 1990 – 2003), plus Outreach Coordinator and Readers’ Advisory trainer (Manukau Libraries 2004 – 2010). Author of the Best Sellers Readers’ Advisory Education programme, he has delivered workshops and conference presentations for the industry in both New Zealand and Australia, all of which are underwritten by Paul’s irrevocable belief in the need for public libraries to recognise the political importance of the Readers’ Advisory work they do, requiring nothing less of them than to aspire to become the undisputed champions of their community’s reading habit through the application of ‘social entrepreneurship’ in an environment of ubiquitous content consumption, creation and dissemination. Paul is continuing to develop Best Sellers, much of it at the behest of public library managers, and is presently researching Children’s, Maori and Social Media as areas where specialist Readers’ Advisory modules could be delivered in 2012.


  1. Leigh says:

    3 Things came in to mind after reading this.

    Firstly – I have to completely agree with you on everything you have stated in your post on ‘leaderships’ within libraries. I thought it was just me that thought this.

    Secondly (and I feel most importantly) “It also has less to do with outstanding leadership and more with an industry boasting personnel with transferrable business skills capable of offering effective management and administration of a public organisation.” – the organisation I work for has been missing this understanding for decades and I feel sadly it is unlikely to change – what to do???

    And Thirdly – Paul, thank god for my little pocket dictionary sitting by my desk – without it I wouldn’t have understook most of your describing words.

    Kia Kaha e Korua

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